Who Are the Targets?

In the context of the developing debate between Farah and German, I too remain puzzled about the implications of Muslim Brotherhood groups who espouse extremist ideas, and whether these encourage homegrown terrorism in the United States.

The concern seems to be that extremist ideology and its adherents will contribute to the “radicalization” of Americans. Such casual use of the term radicalization does little to promote a clear sense of the phenomenon and presupposes, as I argued previously, that radical ideas naturally produce terrorist action. Some individuals who identify as members of a Muslim Brotherhood group may preach hate and exhort followers to despicable acts. Still, in order to have a sensible debate about what compromises to civil liberties should be sustained to limit hateful speech and groups that engage in it, there has to be concrete evidence that those words actually generate a security threat in the United States.

One issue that complicates the debate is highlighted by Brian Jenkins when he observes that many of those arrested in 2009 and 2010 were Al Shabab recruits, influenced by then-current events in Somalia. Some definitions of homegrown terrorism treat as a uniform phenomenon Muslim American citizens or residents who engage in any form of terrorist activity. By those definitions, providing material support to Hamas, joining the Afghan Taliban or Al Shabab, and plotting to bomb a subway in the United States are equivalent acts of homegrown terrorism. One could argue, however, that the motivations driving an individual to provide material support to the Palestinian Hamas are distinct from those that might drive American residents or citizens to wage attacks against their fellow citizens in the United States. One could raise similar questions about aiding or joining an overseas militant group such as al Shabab or the Afghan Taliban that is fighting what the movement perceives as a foreign occupation. In other words, we should be wary of assuming that Muslims aiding or joining any and all foreign militant organizations constitutes evidence of a homegrown terrorist threat in the United States.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Risa Brooks argues that the threat of homegrown jihadist terrorism has often been exaggerated. U.S. Muslims have generally shown little inclination toward terrorism. The small minority who feel differently have proven themselves startlingly inept. The Muslim community has proven itself eager to report suspected militants, and many plots would never have progressed beyond fantasy without the “help” of FBI sting operations. Worrying too much about this threat diverts resources from other valuable FBI endeavors, foments suspicion in the Muslim community, and erodes our civil liberties.

Response Essays

  • Douglas Farah draws our attention to the recruiting efforts and propaganda of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is profoundly violent, anti-western, anti-Semitic, and pro-terrorist. The group’s propaganda is widespread in American mosques, he warns, and the Muslim Brotherhood exerts significant influence over Islam in America. Although American Muslims may not generally be inclined to violence, it is clear that some of them are, and we should not underestimate the threat when we can see it so clearly stated in the available recruitment and propaganda literature.

  • Michael German calls attention to the civil liberties violations that have sprung up as a direct result of our antiterrorism policies. Federal agencies have investigated tens of thousands of innocents and collected data on many more; the surveillance industrial complex has grown enormously, and traditional privacy protections have been removed. Meanwhile, we still often stop terrorists through a combination of their own incompetence, courage on the part of ordinary civilians, and plain good luck. This suggests that our surrender of civil liberties has done us little good, if any.

  • Brian Michael Jenkins examines American jihadism and concludes that it’s largely an Internet phenomenon. Sympathies for jihad run wider than they are deep. The 2009-2010 uptick in arrests can partly be explained by Somali reactions to the 2007 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. Jenkins finds that national and clan ties likely have more motivating power than al Qaeda’s ideology. Still, because Americans unrealistically expect 100% security, he voices concern that even a single terrorist success could provoke panicked overreactions.