Muslims in America

Jessica Stern
Content Type
Journal Article
The National Interest
Issue Number
Publication Date
May 2011
Center for the National Interest
The threat of domestic Islamic terrorism grows. But the origin of the problem is neither mosques nor the Muslim community writ large—it is jihad cool.
Security, Terrorism
Political Geography
ON MARCH 10, Representative Peter King (R-NY), who has alleged that the vast majority of U.S. mosques are run by extremists, held a hearing on radicalization of Muslims in America. The event generated an astonishing reaction—from just about everyone. Demonstrators, both in favor of his position and against, gathered outside Mr. King's offices on Long Island. The congressman requested additional security, and Capitol police were deployed to protect the hearing room as well as his workplace in Washington. Some pundits praised Mr. King for speaking the unspeakable on a topic usually beleaguered by political correctness. The Tea Party Patriots' Facebook page urged supporters to call and stand behind Congressman King for his courage. But there were others who lambasted him for his lack of political sensitivity, pointing out that non-Muslim domestic terrorists are greater in number than Muslim ones. And Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) held up a copy of the Constitution while arguing that the hearing could well violate laws against religious discrimination: “this hearing today is playing right now into al-Qaeda, around the world.” Meanwhile, Keith Ellison (D-MN), one of two Muslims in the House, was unable to hold back tears as he recalled a Muslim paramedic who died while responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Certainly Mr. King has had quite a lot to say about Muslims in America—much of it seemingly inflammatory. “There is a real threat to the country from the Muslim community, and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to investigate what is happening.” “Over 80 percent of the mosques in this country are controlled by radical imams. Certainly from what I've seen and dealings I've had, that number seems accurate.” “85 percent of American Muslim community leaders are an enemy living amongst us”; “no (American) Muslims” cooperate in the war on terror. “The average Muslim, no, they are loyal, but they don't work, they don't come forward, they don't tell the police.” “When a war begins, we're all Americans. But in this case, this is not the situation. And whether it's pressure, whether it's cultural tradition, whatever, the fact is the Muslim community does not cooperate anywhere near to the extent that it should.” How do we disentangle truth from provocation in this list of “observations”? The congressman is right about the growing threat of violent Muslim extremism. The problem is he mischaracterizes the source. American mosques are not at the heart of the threat any more than is the Muslim community. Just as there is a difference between those who oppose abortion on religious grounds and those who target and kill abortion providers, there is a difference between the Muslim community and Muslim terrorists. But it is also wrong to claim, as some have suggested, that because they are greater in number and commit more crimes, white-supremacist and antigovernment groups pose more of a threat to national security than do Muslim extremists. Indeed, it is precisely because the threat of violent Muslim extremism is so serious that Mr. King's rhetoric is so dangerous. The al-Qaeda movement has deliberately attempted to tailor its message to attract American youth, even encouraging them to act on their own, at home. Most of the American Muslims who are joining this jihad were not brought up to believe in the Salafi teachings that undergird the al-Qaeda ideology. Instead, the idea of jihad has become an extremely dangerous global trend. For a very small segment of young people across the world, it is a cool way of expressing dissatisfaction with a power elite—whether that elite is real or imagined; whether power is held by totalitarian monarchs or by liberal parliamentarians. And like all fads, this one too shall pass. But the threat is likely, in my view, to get worse before it gets better, both on our shores and further abroad. For though there is much to celebrate about citizens' demands for greater freedoms in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East, history suggests that the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy is a particularly dangerous period in terms of terrorism. In fact, in an essay in the March 2011 issue of Inspire—al-Qaeda's magazine aimed at extremist youth—the radical American Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who has emerged as an eloquent recruiter for jihad against the United States, taunts Western governments. He claims that the mujahideen are elated about the revolutionary fervor now spreading throughout the Arab world; the fighters—he claims—are ready to exploit the opening, especially in Yemen and Libya. But Western Muslims who would like to join the “jihad” are still urged to remain at home, to fight the “tyrants” in the West. So as to avoid the fate of the many homegrown terrorists who were arrested before implementing their attacks, lone-wolf operations are encouraged (the fewer the number of perpetrators the smaller the chance of getting caught). Inspire sees itself as offering a venue for “open source jihad,” which it defines as a “reference manual for those who loathe the tyrants,” providing instructions, in its less-than-perfect English, to allow “Muslims to train at home instead of risking a dangerous travel abroad.” This is radicalization by Internet—not by mosque—making Mr. King's warnings seem quaint and obsolete. It is important to correctly characterize the threat, and to develop responses based on facts, not fear. We are fighting the spread of the idea that a “good” Muslim will respond to the West's purported war on Islam by joining the “jihad” against “tyrants” wherever they are found—in Somalia, in Libya or in Portland, Oregon. Inspire aims to shame Muslim youth into action. You feel safe in the United States, it argues, but you are governed by those who want to destroy Islam: Today, America has invaded two Muslim lands and goes around sending missiles on Muslims in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. Do you not feel any shame for saying that Obama is not at war with Islam when he's slaughtering your Pakistani brothers and sisters with his drone attacks? It has been proven in numerous media reports that the majority of those killed in the attacks are not Taliban or al Qaeda fighters, but ordinary Pakistani citizens.1 It is the nature of teenagers to seek an identity. Al-Qaeda is exploiting that typical adolescent confusion, trying to shift their allegiances. Only a few will succumb, but as we have seen, even small numbers of determined terrorists are a threat to us all. UNTIL A few years ago, America seemed relatively resistant to the kind of homegrown Islamist terrorism that has plagued Europe for the last decade. Terrorism experts attribute the resilience of American Muslims to their greater integration into society. In Europe, immigrant populations tend to cluster—with Algerians settling in France, Turks in Germany, Moroccans in the Netherlands and so on, making it easier for ethno-religious groups to remain isolated, spending time only with others like themselves. Many Muslim immigrants in Europe arrived as unskilled guest workers, and changes in the labor market have made it harder for them to find jobs. European Muslim youth describe themselves, often accurately, as victims of prejudice in the workplace and in society more generally. In the European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey for 2009, one in three Muslim respondents reported experiencing discrimination, with the effect greatest among Muslims aged sixteen to twenty-four (overall discrimination rates decline with age). Muslims in Europe are far more likely to be unemployed and to receive lower pay for the same work than “native” Europeans. Thus, Muslim immigrants in Europe are often impoverished. For example, 10 percent of native Belgians live below the poverty line, but for Turks that number is 59 percent and for Moroccans, 56 percent. In America, in contrast, Muslim immigrants are not poor. They are the wealthiest group of Muslim immigrants in the world. They tend to be better educated and have higher-paying jobs than the average American, and they are more likely to vote. Thus, it would appear, they feel American—or no less American than any other group. The vast majority of Muslim immigrants have thrived in the United States. This is something to celebrate. But by 2009, it was clear America was not immune to domestic radicalization. Al-Qaeda's “psyops” effort, which involved spreading the argument that the war on terrorism was actually a war on Islam, was beginning to bear fruit. AND WHAT we now see is a nearly relentless ratcheting up of incidents. The list almost overwhelms. June 2009: Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (born Carlos Bledsoe), a Muslim convert, killed one soldier and wounded another at an army recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas. He subsequently told a judge that he was a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. July 2009: Daniel Boyd, a resident of North Carolina, was arrested, together with his two sons and four others, for plotting terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad. Boyd converted to Islam after serving in Afghanistan, fighting the Soviets in the late 1980s. September 2009: Najibullah Zazi, an airport-shuttle driver and permanent legal U.S. resident living in Colorado, was arrested for conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. Zazi subsequently admitted he had traveled to Pakistan for training. His father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, and Ahmad Wais Afzali, an imam in New York, were also arrested on similar allegations. In Springfield, Illinois, Michael Finton, a part-time cook and an Islamic convert, tried to bomb the Paul Findley Federal Building and the offices of Congressman Aaron Schock. Finton was a follower of Anwar al-Awlaki (who is also accused of involvement in the Christmas Day terror plot, as well as having links to two of the 9/11 hijackers. He is now believed to be hiding in Yemen). Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, a then-19-year-old Jordanian man living in Texas, was arrested and charged with intending to bomb an office building in Dallas. October 2009: Tarek Mehanna, a U.S. citizen living outside Boston, was arrested at his parents' house on charges that he was planning a “violent jihad”—killing U.S. politicians, attacking American troops in Iraq and singling out customers at U.S. shopping malls. He is alleged to have conspired with two other men. David Coleman Headley (aka Daood Gilani), a Chicago-based Pakistani American who conspired with Lashkar-e-Taiba and others in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was taken into custody. He also planned a strike against a Danish newspaper that published derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. November 2009: U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan was arrested for an attack at Fort Hood, which killed thirteen and wounded thirty. Hasan was also in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki. Five American citizens were arrested in Pakistan while allegedly seeking training and planning to carry out terrorist attacks. They were subsequently indicted on terrorism-related charges. By the end of the year, seventeen Somali Americans were indicted for joining the Somali militant Islamist group al-Shabab. In fact, the lion's share of the uptick in domestic Muslim-extremist-terrorism cases in 2009 is attributable to that group. Perhaps surprisingly, an extraordinarily high number of the suspects and perpetrators involved in these plots appear to be converts—in some cases they may not even be Muslims at all. According to a study by the New York University Center on Law and Security, of 127 homegrown defendants alleged to be implicated in the most significant fifty plots since 9/11, 35 percent converted to Islam.2 The appeal of jihad exists not just among Muslim extremists but among domestic terrorists in general. For in 2010, the trend continued. Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin were arrested for planning to bomb New York City's subway, and Pennsylvania resident Colleen R. LaRose, aka JihadJane, was indicted along with her coconspirator, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, when they plotted to kill another irreverent Muhammad cartoonist. And Pakistani-born U.S. citizen Raja Lahrasib Khan of Chicago was taken into custody for sending money to al-Qaeda operatives overseas and plotting to bomb a U.S. sports stadium. In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan and living in Connecticut, attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. Two months later, Paul Rockwood from Alaska and his British-citizen wife, Nadia, both converts to Islam, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about Paul's role in developing an assassination list of Islam detractors and Nadia's part in delivering the list to an unidentified sympathizer in Anchorage. Another naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, Farooque Ahmed of Virginia, was arrested for attempting to blow up Metro stations in Virginia in October. The next month, Somali-born Mohamed Osman Mohamud was arrested in a sting operation for trying to blow up a Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. And in December, Muslim convert Antonio Martinez was arrested for attempting to detonate a car bomb outside a U.S. military recruitment center. The al-Qaeda movement has been able to exploit the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the loss of civilian lives, as “proof” that America aims to destroy Islam, and this has led many to try to leave the United States to wage jihad in Muslim lands. Abdel Hameed Shehadeh is one such example. A U.S. citizen and former New York City resident, he was arrested in Hawaii for lying to federal agents about his unsuccessful attempts to join terrorist organizations—the Taliban on a trip to Pakistan and al-Qaeda on a trip to Jordan. And the call of al-Shabab has continued to lure recruits. New Jersey resident Sharif Mobley was arrested in Yemen as part of a counterterrorist sweep of suspected al-Qaeda/al-Shabab militants. Mohamed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, also from the Garden State, were arrested at Kennedy International Airport on their way to Somalia to join al-Shabab. U.S. citizen Shaker Masri of Chicago was taken into custody hours before departing for Somalia where he also planned to join the group. Alessa, Almonte and Masri all had the stated intention of killing U.S. troops. Also drawn to al-Shabab, Muslim convert Zachary Chesser of Virginia was arrested while trying to flee the United States, and Farah Mohamed Beledi, a former resident of Minnesota, was indicted—though he was not caught. Beledi is believed to currently be in Somalia. THERE IS no profile of the typical domestic terrorist recruit. Certainly, there is a set of Muslims in this country who are unemployed or underemployed, with families that have been unable to fully integrate into American society, that turned to violence. And this was most true of the first wave of young Somali immigrants who, upon hearing that their homeland had been invaded by U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops, left Minnesota to join al-Shabab. But perhaps this should not surprise us. Somali immigrants do not have much in common with other American Muslims, more resembling Pakistanis in the United Kingdom and Moroccans in the Netherlands. Unlike previous waves of Muslim immigrants, these Somalis arrived with little knowledge of English or the United States. Partly as a result, they have had difficulty assimilating into American society: according to the most recent census, Somali Americans have the highest unemployment rate among East African diasporas in the United States and the lowest rate of college graduation. In contrast, according to a 2003 study, the average Muslim immigrant to America has fourteen years of education (more than whites, Latinos, blacks and Asians). “Overall,” sociologists John Logan and Glenn Deane explain, “the Muslim-origin population is characterized by high education and income with low unemployment.”3 Somali Americans are also different from most Muslim immigrants in that they have survived a civil war, followed by life in a refugee camp. Even American-born children suffer from the effects of the difficulties and experiences borne by their parents; severely traumatized parents often have trouble adjusting to a new life. The young Somali immigrants I have talked to have heart-breaking stories about what they lived through before arriving here. One young man told me he witnessed two older sisters being raped and killed in front of his eyes. Somalis face a lot of prejudice, especially, they say, from African Americans. The parents of the boys who left for Somalia seem puzzled as to why their children would ever want to go back to the horrors they left behind, but they are not certain about what they can do to keep their children here. And of course, the biggest worry is that trained mujahideen from al-Shabab will eventually come back to America to wage a jihad at home. But even if we do focus on Somali Americans, beyond a few generalizations, there is little these recruits share. The first batch of immigrants who joined al-Shabab was struggling to find low-paying jobs; the second and subsequent waves of Somali youths suspected of terrorist crimes came from families that were far better integrated into American society. Some of the recruits were in college, or were even college graduates. The poor-uneducated-terrorist mold is useless here. * * * Somali-born Mohamed Mohamud was focused on fighting a jihad in America. Mohamud, the suspect in the foiled November 2010 plot at a Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, wanted to kill twenty-five thousand revelers. Mohamud is not a Muslim extremist of the kind Representative King describes: He was not particularly pious, nor was he living on the margins of American society. He was described by friends of the family as a “golden son.” His father, known to be good with languages, was working at Intel at the time of the thwarted attack. Mohamed Mohamud (also known by the moniker “M squared”) graduated from high school and was planning, like his father before him, to study engineering. He started at Oregon State University as a nondegree student, where he was known as a party boy who sometimes drank to excess and smoked marijuana—hardly the image of a “fundamentalist.” He was accused of date rape by a fellow student, but the charges were subsequently dropped. Among his wide circle of friends, some said that he went through phases, sometimes a party boy, sometimes appearing more devout. He was an irregular worshipper at the local mosque. According to the FBI, he began communicating by email with a person in northwest Pakistan, whom he wanted to join in order “to prepare for jihad.” In the fall of 2010, he dropped out of school and reportedly sent a text message to a high school friend asking where he might be able to go to shoot a gun. He was eventually caught in a sting operation. Shortly before the attempted bombing, in which MM was “assisted” by undercover agents, his behavior became highly erratic. An unnamed person from the community reported MM's interest in joining a jihad to federal authorities. He was put on a no-fly list, and at least some of his emails were monitored. In fact, MM blamed his parents for arranging for him to be put on the list. According to the head of the Northwest Somali Community Organization in Portland, MM's father was the person who reported his suspicions about his son, though the father's role has not been confirmed. When Mohamud's case comes to trial, we are likely to discover that, like many “lone wolves,” his political grievances were a kind of gloss on a more personal pain. Indeed, he may turn out to be a lot more like the shooters at Columbine High School than like 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef or September-11-attack planner Mohamed Atta. From what we know so far, his radicalization cannot be blamed on a mosque or on the extremist leaders in the community intoned by Congressman King. Nor can we tar the Muslim community with accusations that they did not cooperate with the police. Had someone in his circle not reported his interest in jihad to the local authorities, it is hard to imagine what about Mohamud's activities would have attracted the attention of the government. * * * The Muslim community has the most to lose from this spread of jihad among Muslim youth and the most to gain from helping law-enforcement agencies reduce it. The Muslim community's cooperation with federal and local authorities has been critically important to efforts to thwart specific attacks and will continue to be so. To gratuitously insult law-abiding Muslims by conflating them with terrorists is not only wrong, it is dangerous to U.S. national security. And the portrayal of Muslim terrorism as growing from incitement by extremist clerics who radicalize out-of-work teenagers creates a dangerously inaccurate portrait of the homegrown threat. YET OPPONENTS of Congressman King's hearings who underplay the Muslim extremist trend by pointing fingers at Far Right terrorists are misguided. The tally of arrests is significant, but Muslim extremists have advantages that make them much more threatening in the long run. True, the number of radical-Right terrorist groups in America expanded dramatically in 2009 and 2010, even more so than did the number of Muslim extremists. There are now over one thousand hate groups active in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights organization. The growth in these hate groups has been fueled by changing racial demographics, the election of President Barack Obama and the government's perceived mishandling of the economy. Since President Obama's election on November 4, 2008, there were forty-seven plots carried out or attempted by non-Muslim extremists in the United States. That is more than twice the number of attacks attempted or carried out by Muslim extremist groups during that same period.4 Federal authorities worry about the possibility of another Ruby Ridge scenario. They are especially concerned that a lone wolf, on the fringes of an antigovernment group, might carry out an attack on his own, as Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City in 1995. Moreover, since 9/11, at least five plots by non-Muslim terrorist groups have involved chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. Back in 2002, anarchist Joseph Konopka, also known by his chosen moniker “Dr. Chaos,” recruited a group of teenage followers over the Internet, whom he dubbed the “Realm of Chaos.” The group was responsible for a number of power outages in Wisconsin. Konopka was found to be stockpiling sodium cyanide and potassium cyanide in an unused Chicago Transit Authority storeroom. A year later, antigovernment terrorist William Krar was found in possession of a sodium-cyanide bomb capable of killing thousands of people, along with a large stockpile of explosives and ammunition, and a cache of white-supremacist and antigovernment literature. And then there was neo-Nazi Demetrius “Van” Crocker who was arrested for plotting to attack federal officials and for attempting to acquire components for making sarin, plastic explosives and a radiological-dispersal device. In the search of the home of another neo-Nazi, James Cummings, federal authorities found a store of radioactive materials also suitable for making a bomb. In March of 2010, two brothers, Daniel and Timothy Robinson, were allegedly found to have the precursors to chemical and biological agents in their possession. A frightening list. Yet, a closer look at these cases makes clear how hapless most of these WMD terrorists actually were (as is the case for most domestic terrorists in America, of every ideological stripe). For example, Crocker was hoping to obtain the plutonium he felt he needed to construct a dirty bomb by communicating with mail-order brides in Russia, who he hoped would connect him with the KGB. Just like so many Muslim extremists, Crocker was caught in a sting operation. His lawyers claimed he had an IQ of eighty-five. Nonetheless, he was convicted. And though terrorists on the radical right have a long-standing interest in “weapons of mass destruction,” like most WMD hopefuls, the Robinson brothers' “arsenal” does not appear to have been particularly threatening. In the end, the charges against one brother were dropped entirely, and the other brother was only charged with growing marijuana. MR. KING is correct that the threat of violent Muslim extremism is far more serious to U.S. national security than any other group—at this stage in history. The movement includes operatives who have tested their mettle against American soldiers in war. A number of the most serious plots carried out by domestic Muslim extremists have involved assistance from al-Qaeda and its affiliates. One more level of degree in violence and thousands could be killed. There is no analog to these organizations. And propaganda aimed at recruiting Americans to the violent Salafi movement is becoming increasingly sophisticated and increasingly attractive to American youth. Certainly the kind of open-source-jihad attacks Inspire promotes are not of the September 11 variety. Lone wolves and small groups cannot carry out large-scale sophisticated operations, but they are particularly difficult to monitor. All of this is why Congress should investigate the threat of homegrown terrorism. But a more useful approach would not blame the Muslim community—it would solicit its help. To fight this kind of terrorism, the Muslim community's involvement is critical. According to a study by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, of the plots that were thwarted since 9/11, Muslim citizens provided the critical information to the law-enforcement community 40 percent of the time.5 Tools will have to include, not just the sting operations we've seen thus far, but also more community policing; more efforts to develop trust between community leaders and law-enforcement personnel; the cooperation of former terrorists so they will speak openly about why they left the movement; and development programs in schools aimed at providing new-immigrant Muslim youth a solid identity, before they are vulnerable to the call of jihad cool. 1 Your Brothers at al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, “Inspire Responses,” Inspire no. 5 (Spring 1431/2011). 2 Terrorist Trial Report Card: September 11, 2001–September 11, 2010 (New York: Center on Law and Security, New York University School of Law, 2010). 3 John R. Logan and Glenn Deane, The Muslim World in Metropolitan America (Albany, NY: Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, University at Albany, August 15, 2003). 4 Alejandro J. Beutel, Data on Post-9/11 Terrorism in the United States (Washington, DC: Muslim Public Affairs Council, 2009). 5 Charles Kurzman, Muslim-American Terrorism Since 9/11: An Accounting (Chapel Hill, NC: Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, February 2, 2011).