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The Threat of “Homegrown” Terrorism: What Can Be Done?

When Rep. Peter King (R-NY) called for hearings regarding the threat of Islamic radicalization within American Muslim communities, accusations started flying across both sides of the aisle before a word was put onto the Congressional record. Despite considerable bluster, Congress missed an opportunity to address the complexity of the ever-growing problem of “homegrown” terrorism within the United States.

Because our world is more interconnected than ever, no terrorist is truly “homegrown," nor is terrorism limited to the Islamic community. Therefore, the United States must improve community outreach and provide ample opportunities to at-risk individuals and communities, while still relying on intelligence gathering and international efforts to keep our country safe.

First, let me point to an explosive backpack found at the Spokane Martin Luther King Day Parade. The FBI recently made an arrest and suggested that the suspect, Kevin William Harpham, was motivated by race. This example shows that in the still-tense racial atmosphere in the United States, violent radicalization is not only an issue in Muslim circles.

This does not change the fact that Muslim individuals in the United States may be vulnerable to radicalization. It is important to note that not all of these “homegrown” terrorists are originally from the United States, nor do they live out their entire lives within the country. The idea that radicalization comes from the home environment alone is unfounded; global ideas manage to make their way into the heartland of America everyday.

Take the two most publicized cases of “homegrown” terrorism in recent years. Major Nidal Hassan killed several members of our Armed Forces in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. While Major Hassan lived here his entire life, he was radicalized through e-mail by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who now operates in Yemen. Faisal Shazad, a naturalized Pakistani–American citizen, studied and lived in the United States as an adult. He returned to Pakistan for training in 2008 and shortly after becoming a naturalized citizen, he tried to blow up a large car bomb in Times Square.

Conversely, many of the hijackers on 9/11 seem to have been radicalized during their time abroad, not in their home countries. The complex backgrounds of these few individuals make it clear that no terrorist is entirely "homegrown." By singling out terrorists by origin, we are in turn hindering our ability to take multi-pronged approaches to solve this problem. In fact, many would argue that as government targets specific populations, terrorists are given even more tools with which to recruit volunteers.

In order to address this threat, we need to develop community systems that address concerns about our citizens in a timely manner. Colleagues had concerns about Nidal Hassan that were ignored. This speaks to a wider education campaign about radical behavior, not just in Muslim communities, but in all walks of life. If those around Jared Lee Loughner had a better system through which to address his mental health issues, the shooting in Tucson may not have occurred.

Community involvement with law enforcement is necessary to combat radicalization. In Britain, the PREVENT Program looks to challenge radicalization and provide alternatives at the local, national, and international level. This includes aiding community structures in addressing qualms within communities in order to prevent people from turning to terrorism to solve their problems. The NYPD has significantly built up its apparatus to include Clergy Liaisons, alongside other programs, which provide a bridge between law enforcement and religious leaders. Law enforcement must play an active, trusted role in the community to facilitate honesty and awareness about radicalization in communities.

To aid those most vulnerable to radicalization, communities and government must make sure that individuals have access to opportunities. According to Scott Atran, many of those who become radicalized in the name of Islam are seeking retribution for family and community members who have been slighted. He suggests that scholarships for education are useful when distributed throughout communities; a person is more likely to accept an opportunity if they feel their friends or family have opportunities as well. One could also assume that the burgeoning unemployment for men is an issue that should be addressed to counteract possible radicalization.

It is important to remember the role intelligence plays in combating terrorism. This “hard-sided” approach is a necessary compliment to community outreach. As one can see through the Najibullah Zazi subway plot, federal and local law enforcement agencies have done a brilliant job thus far. These agencies must continue to work together and strengthen their ties in order to avoid any miscommunication. Likewise, our intelligence and military operations abroad are integral to protecting our security.

Engaging American communities is of the utmost importance in protecting us from “homegrown” terrorism. Few people know that it was a Muslim street vendor from Senegal who tipped off the NYPD about the threat of a car bomb in Times Square. This little known fact is a testament to the importance of building community to counter radicalization and terrorism. Although I’m not sure what constitutes a “homegrown” hero either, I’m proud to call him one.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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