After more than a dozen home-grown terrorist plots involving American Muslims since President Obama took office, the administration is moving to step up its scattershot efforts to counter domestic radicalism, prompting a debate over the proper role of government in addressing ideological threats.
Unlike Britain and other countries in Europe, the U.S. government does not have a national strategy to combat Islamic extremism, and no single agency in the vast American national security and intelligence bureaucracy is in charge of understanding and addressing the home-grown threat.
But since the Times Square bombing attempt this month, officials have begun to plan ways to ramp up.
On May 13, an advisory commission led by former FBI and CIA Director William Webster presented Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano with recommendations designed to boost her department’s efforts against domestic violent extremism of all sorts. The recommendations are carefully worded and do not specify Muslims or Islam. They focus on community-based policing, under which the Homeland Security Department would step up training and information-sharing programs with local law enforcement.
Administration officials said other responses also were being discussed, including drawing lessons from Britain and other countries in Europe.
The National Security Council six months ago convened a policy committee to examine what some call “counter-radicalization” efforts. The council has met twice with the president on the issue, according to a senior administration official involved in the effort.
Still, the idea of the government playing a role in countering radicalization provokes uneasiness among both U.S. officials and civil liberties activists, who recall a legacy of abuses in the 1950s and ‘60s in the pursuit of communists and leftists.
Much of the government’s counter-terrorism apparatus consists of law enforcement agencies that now see their mission as investigating threats, crimes and conspiracies — not radical ideas that, however loathsome, are protected by the Constitution.
“I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the U.S. government to develop these plans,” said Brett Hovington, chief of the FBI’s Community Relations Unit, which includes a broad program of outreach to Muslim Americans. “The communities have to be accountable for the actions of community members.”
But that view cedes much of the ideological playing field to a jihadist narrative, say those who favor greater government involvement in countering extremist forms of expression. Many of the Americans implicated in plots were self-radicalized, according to a report this month by the Rand Corp., and their interactions on the Internet often played a key role.
The Rand report documents 14 plots by U.S.-based Muslim extremists in 2009 and 46 since Sept. 11, 2001. The list, compiled by Rand terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, includes the case of Najibullah Zazi, a permanent U.S. resident from Afghanistan who pleaded guilty in February to planning a suicide attack in New York, possibly on the subway; and that of Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major charged with opening fire in November on fellow soldiers at Ft. Hood, Texas, killing 13.
The case of Faisal Shahzad, the Connecticut resident suspected in the Times Square attempt, marks the 15th plot with apparent U.S. roots since Obama took office.
“We don’t really think that domestic intelligence has received enough attention, especially [given] the evolving nature of the terrorist threat,” former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who was co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, told the House Homeland Security Committee last week.
In Britain, the government’s Home Office posts the country’s national counter-radicalization plan on its website. The British strategy is designed to “challenge the ideology behind violent extremism and support mainstream voices,” according to British documents. The government spends about $200 million a year to do it.
One project in the town of Luton, called Ambassadors for Islam, trains a group of young Muslims “to counter extremist ideologies, dispel misapprehensions and develop their role as citizens,” according to a British government document.
Another funds the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank staffed by former Islamic radicals that speaks to Muslims in Britain and abroad in an effort to counter the extremism narrative.
Maajid Nawaz, the foundation director, said that battling terrorism while ignoring radicalization is akin to “a surgeon having to amputate a limb, even though for months he could have cured the disease with antibiotics.” Nawaz forsook his radical beliefs while in an Egyptian prison from 2002 to 2006.
The view in the U.S., however, is different.
“The consensus across the government is that you can’t fund nonprofits to do counter-radicalization because you’re picking one idea over another, and they’re both legal,” said Mohamed Elibiary, president of the Freedom and Justice Foundation, a Texas-based Muslim American group.
The U.S. has had a troubled history with domestic surveillance and counter-radicalism programs. Under operations between 1956 and 1971 known as COINTELPRO, short for Counter-Intelligence Program, the FBI sought to infiltrate and disrupt groups it deemed to be subversive.
Investigations found serious abuses, including widespread spying on Americans solely for political purposes.
“On the one hand one would like to see a more coherent effort” at countering domestic radicalism, Jenkins said in an interview. “On the other hand, a federal government ‘Muslim American policy’ could become a Frankenstein’s monster. I’m not sure you want to go there.”
Developing links between Muslim communities and law enforcement is an approach that enjoys wide agreement. Los Angeles, where the police and sheriff’s departments have extensive Muslim outreach programs, is frequently cited as a model.
“You talk about all this technology … the cameras, the bomb detectors — all that’s necessary,” said Michael Downing, L.A.'s deputy chief for counterterrorism. “But the real ‘ring of steel’ is the human one — making sure your communities are attuned to and understand the nature of this threat and how they can be involved in countering the nature of the threat.”
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, who hired a Pakistan-born Muslim chaplain and set up a Muslim advisory group, said that when Muslims trust law enforcement, extremists won’t find fertile ground.
The idea, he said, is to make sure there is always “someone who knows a friendly cop, and that friendly cop is sensitive enough to deal with the information in a confidential way.”