Islamic terrorism: It’s not what many think, new report suggests


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Islamic terrorists didn’t kill anybody in the United States last year.

There were plots here and there, whose stories were contorted by idiosyncrasy rather than stereotype. ... The feds arrested a man they said wanted to bomb the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon with a remote-controlled model airplane. There was the would-be fashion model who worked at a 5th Avenue Saks and was accused of wanting to wipe out a Manhattan synagogue. And who could forget the (as friends described him) pot-smoking, whiskey-slurping, key-losing used-car salesman accused of conspiring with Iran to hire Mexican drug cartels in an assassination attempt on the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States?

Yet there would be no second 9/11 in the United States in 2011, nor any Islamic terrorist killings of any kind, according to a report released Wednesday by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

There were roughly 14,000 murders in the U.S. last year, according to the report, but the 20 American Muslims indicted in suspected terrorist plots — out of the 2 million Muslims in the United States — were not responsible for any of them.

“The scale of home-grown Muslim American terrorism in 2011 does not appear to have corroborated the warnings issued by government officials early in the year,” noted the report’s author, Charles Kurzman, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Last February, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano took to the bully pulpit in Washington to announce, “In some ways, the threat facing us is at its most heightened state since’ the Sept. 11 attacks, as The Times reported.

The federal government’s security apparatus has ballooned since 9/11 — the Department of Homeland Security, which was created after the attacks, now has more than 230,000 employees — largely to combat a specter of Islamic terrorism whose face in the United States has changed over the last decade. ‘The terrorist threat facing our country has evolved significantly,’ Napolitano said in her remarks.

Kurzman’s figures show the Al Qaeda model, in which transnational groups of foreign-trained and foreign-funded extremists cross borders to commit high-profile attacks, has largely been outpaced by a sloppier and less successful run of home-bred freelance terrorists inspired by YouTube and Internet message boards, if inspired by foreign influence at all.

“Very few of the cases of Islamic terrorism in the United States have had any connection with Al Qaeda or its affiliates,” Kurzman said of the last few years of data, speaking in a phone interview with The Times. The data amount to 33 deaths in 12 domestic Islamic terrorism attacks since 9/11, including the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks.

“The fear and concerns that many have had in the days and months after 9/11 about sleeper cells and trained killers waiting to strike has not materialized in the decade since then. … Most of the cases involve fringe individuals or small groups who are not connected with foreign terrorist organizations or with other plots in the United States,’ Kurzman said.

Life has also changed for many international groups traditionally identified by the U.S. government as major proponents of terrorism. Al Qaeda has seen its leadership decimated by the death of Osama bin Laden and its effectiveness crippled as the U.S. continues its aggressive use of clandestine raids and drone strikes. And the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah has flirted with adopting nonviolence tactics, as has the Palestinian group Hamas, inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’s’ example.

As Kurzman’s report notes, Islamic extremism continues to exist in the United States, though he said in an interview that the numbers were too small to make many generalizations about the cases compiled in his report. “Some of the folks on these lists are frankly bizarre in their beliefs even within revolutionary Islamic circles,” he said.

Not included in Kurzman’s report are instances of non-Islamic terrorist plots in America, which, by one interest group’s reckoning, outnumber Islamic plots 2 to 1.

A January report by the Muslim Public Affairs Council counted 119 violent plots against people by non-Muslim Americans versus 52 plots by American and foreign Muslims since 9/11. The council also identified eight non-Muslims who had or tried to get biological, chemical or radiological weapons.

Ideological violence in the United States has never been the exclusive domain of Islamists. In November, the FBI arrested four Georgia men in their 60s and 70s accused of a bioterrorist plot based on “saving the Constitution.’ Further, radical environmentalist and animal rights groups have caused uncounted millions of dollars in damage in ecoterrorism over the years.

And then there’s Jared Lee Loughner, a non-Muslim charged with perpetrating perhaps 2011’s greatest act of domestic horror during the attempted killing of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. His ideology was originally misconstrued as conservative before analysts realized it was too obscure and incoherent to be called much of anything at all and, as The Times reported yesterday, he is still not yet considered fit for trial.

Then there are the political -- and occasionally violent -- protests; a case in point is the small-scale anarchist street violence that some say has arisen in Oakland as part of the Occupy protests there. Few would call this terrorism, but just what definition of domestic “terrorism” is Kurzman using, anyway?

“I don’t get into this,” he admitted on the phone.

Kurzman just takes the reports of Islamic terrorism as he finds them and as they’re submitted to him, he said, which he admitted leads to him making a lot of “judgment calls as to whether they involve terrorism.”


It’s more inclusive than not, Kurzman said. Trying to define non-Islamic terrorism, he said, is opening “a can of worms.”


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-- Matt Pearce in Kansas City, Mo.