Two ominous trends are converging in a way that could greatly complicate the U.S. struggle against Islamic terrorism.
One is an intensifying effort from terrorists abroad to radicalize and recruit American Muslims. The second is growing suspicion about Islam among the non-Muslim U.S. population. The danger is that these twin trends could reinforce and accelerate each other if leaders in both communities don't act.
The growing effort of Al Qaeda and its allies to radicalize American Muslims was laid out in a powerful report released last week by the National Security Preparedness Group co-chaired by Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, who also co-chaired the federal 9/11 commission. (Full disclosure: The NSPG is part of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank where my wife works.)
The report concludes that partly because drone attacks and other measures have weakened Al Qaeda's senior leadership, the organization and its allies have been compelled to shift from planning large-scale attacks toward unleashing a swarm of smaller-scale threats, such as the attempted Times Square bombing earlier this year.
As part of that shift, the group argues, extremists have greatly escalated their efforts to recruit American Muslims, such as Faisal Shahzad, the suburban Connecticut M.B.A. who placed the Times Square bomb in May. Overall, the report concluded, only an "extremely small" number have responded to this incitement. Yet the pace of such threats has unquestionably increased.
In Senate testimony on Wednesday, terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, a co-author of the report, noted that over the past 18 months, law enforcement officials have uncovered "an average of one plot ... per month" involving American Muslims from all racial and economic backgrounds. These have ranged from amateurish bombing plans to the shooters who attacked military targets in Little Rock, Ark., and Fort Hood, Texas. The participation of so many American Muslims in such attacks is "an unprecedented development," Hoffman, the director of Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, observed in his testimony.
Why are radical recruiters achieving somewhat more success inside the U.S.? Hoffman says that one reason may be that the extended U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq has provided recruiters with "more fodder" to argue that terrorism is justified as payback for civilian Muslim casualties. More important is that terrorists are simply placing a higher priority on recruiting Americans and are getting better at using the Internet to do it. And that's partly because more Americans, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the firebrand Yemeni-American cleric from New Mexico, are moving up the ranks in international terrorist networks. "You see a strategy that is more effective at targeting Americans because there are Americans doing it," Hoffman says.
Although the number of American Muslims acting on such calls remains tiny, these trends demand vigilance. National Security Council discussions now focus more on this risk, senior officials say, and the director of national intelligence has deployed a full-time analyst to coordinate assessments of it. The Obama administration has convened officials from cities with large Muslim populations to explore outreach and law enforcement strategies. In its report, the preparedness group called for much larger and more-systematic efforts, particularly in concentrating additional local law enforcement resources on the threat.
But the challenge for all Americans -- policy makers and private citizens alike -- is to maintain the balance between vigilance and paranoia. One senior U.S. national security official says that the common thread that unites American Muslims who have joined terrorist plots is "that all of them have internalized the idea that the United States is at war with Islam."
If the legitimate worry about unearthing domestic terrorists metastasizes into broader suspicion of all American Muslims, that attitude will enlarge the audience for that message. That would make it easier for radicals to recruit in the U.S. -- which in turn would fuel suspicion from non-Muslims in a dangerously downward spiral of distrust and alienation. Imagine how fast that cycle would spin if a homegrown terrorist succeeds in a major attack.
Breaking this pattern will demand greater effort from all involved. Federal officials need a more comprehensive strategy for combating radicalization. Muslim leaders must contest it with greater urgency. Political leaders must avoid the hyperbolic attacks on Islam that have crackled through the dispute over the Muslim community center near Ground Zero. This is truly a moment where Americans will come together or pay fearsome consequences for pulling apart.
This article appears in the September 18, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.