The Future of Terrorism

The Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC), a group created by President Bush in March 2002, recently issued its "Report of the Future of Terrorism Task Force" [.pdf]. One of its findings was that "the alienation of Muslim populations in the Western world is a major component of the spread of jihadist ideology" and that "Muslims living in the United States are on balance more integrated, more prosperous and therefore, less alienated than Muslims living in Western Europe." The latter is one of the more overlooked and underappreciated aspects of homeland security and an important reason why the United States has not suffered another terrorist attack since 9/11.

Muslims in the United States [.pdf] seem to be more integrated into mainstream American society – more than 60 percent have graduated from college, more than 60 percent have an annual income over $50,000, many are professionals such as engineers, doctors, dentists, and corporate managers, and 70 percent believe Muslims should participate in American institutions and the political process. In contrast, European Muslim communities are generally enclaves (and largely employed as service workers) – more apart than a part of their adopted countries. It is worth noting that none of the 9/11 hijackers were recruited from the American Muslim community but we know that the Hamburg Cell became the field marshals of the 9/11 attacks, many of those thought to be involved in the March 2005 Madrid attacks were European Muslim immigrants, and the London July 2005 subway bombings were British-born Muslims.

The lesson for American Muslims – particularly those who are newly immigrated to the United States – is to not fall into the same trap as Muslims in Europe. The more Muslims separate themselves from their community, the greater the likelihood that they will be susceptible to radicalization. And the more likely it is that they will be viewed with suspicion, however unwarranted. For example, the Lackawanna Six – six young men who attended an al-Qaeda training camp and pled guilty to terrorism charges (although were not found guilty of plotting any attacks) – were from a tightly-knit Yemeni community and lived within blocks of each other.

And the lesson for America is to not engage in policies and actions that radicalize Muslims. For example, the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" is an important foundation of the American legal system, so it is important not to jump to conclusions when American Muslims are accused of being terrorists. At least in one instance, even a conviction was a rush to judgment. In June 2003, three Detroit-area Muslims (all Moroccan immigrants) were convicted of being a terrorist sleeper cell. At the time, it was hailed by the administration as a "notable achievement" in the war on terrorism. However, a year later a U.S. federal judge threw out the convictions due to widespread prosecutorial misconduct. According to Judge Gerald Rosen, the Justice Department’s overzealousness to obtain a conviction "overcame not only its professional judgment, but its broader obligations to the justice system and the rule of law."

Another example of U.S. actions that could potentially contribute to radicalization is the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen born in Syria, who was detained by U.S. officials during a stopover at New York’s JFK International Airport while traveling back to Montreal from Tunis. He was subsequently deported to Syria via Jordan under the extraordinary rendition program, an extrajudicial procedure where suspected terrorists are sent to other countries for interrogation and imprisonment (presumably to avoid U.S. laws prescribing due process and prohibiting torture). Arar was held in Syria for 10 months and 10 days. After his release, a Canadian commission of inquiry cleared him of all terrorism allegations. According to the commissioner of the inquiry, Associate Chief Justice of Ontario Dennis R. O’Connor, "I am able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada." Yet, despite being exonerated, Arar is still considered persona non grata in the United States and remains on the terrorist watch list (U.S. government officials claim that Arar is a threat based on separate, classified information but they have agreed to review his case). In a joint news conference with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended U.S. treatment of Arar: "It needs to be understood that in a post-September 11 circumstance, we are determined to protect our borders; we’re determined to protect the American people on all our borders." To be sure, the American public expects the government to provide some level of protection. But the ultimate responsibility of the government is to protect more than just life and property; it is to uphold and protect the Constitution and the fundamental principles upon which our country was founded. Not being true to those principles at the expense of Muslims – American or otherwise – is a powerful tool for radicalization.

We also cannot afford to engage in a witch hunt that makes the entire Muslim American community suspect. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (a nonpartisan data gathering and research organization), of the nearly 6,500 individuals charged by the federal government in terrorism-related cases in the five years since 9/11, only 20 percent have been convicted on terrorism-related charges (but only 239 for international terrorism and 187 for domestic terrorism). We need to be wary that casting such a wide net to snare very few would-be terrorists could end up doing more to radicalize American Muslims than to catch actual terrorists.

Finally, we need to be cognizant of how U.S. foreign policy can contribute to Muslim radicalization. When I spoke at the Muslim Public Affairs Council convention several years ago, none of the attendees condoned terrorism. Yet they understood and sympathized with bin Laden’s grievance of U.S. support for authoritarian and oppressive regimes in the Muslim world – indeed, many of them had fled those regimes to make a better life for their families in the United States. So the war in Iraq (particularly Abu Ghraib) and the Bush administration’s unequivocal support for Israel during its incursion of Lebanon could strain American Muslims’ sense that they can be both Muslims and patriotic Americans.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.