A witch-hunt on one side, denial on the other, as the threat of home-grown terrorism rises
Mar 10th 2011 | from the print edition
IS A new Joe McCarthy strutting his stuff up on Capitol Hill? You might think so, to judge by the abuse that has thundered down on the head of Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, following his decision to start hearings on “The Extent of Radicalisation in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response”. Even before the first one took place this week, the very idea of the hearings came under withering fire from liberal America. They were “fuel for the bigots”, said Richard Cohen, a columnist at the Washington Post. “To focus an investigative spotlight on an entire religious or ethnic community is a violation of everything America is supposed to stand for,” echoed Bob Herbert in the New York Times. “Security hearings that focus exclusively on Muslim Americans serve only to amplify the rumblings of Islamophobia that seem to become louder and crazier by the day,” concurred Eugene Robinson, another of the Post’s columnists.
It is indeed hard to find much to like in Mr King. The representative for Long Island has approached this most sensitive of subjects with the delicacy of a steamroller, plus an overactive imagination and a generous dollop of prejudice. To be clear: he may not be prejudiced against America’s Muslims (the “overwhelming majority” are “outstanding Americans”, he says) but he long ago prejudged the question his own hearings are supposed to answer, being already firmly of the view that the country’s Muslims are doing too little to counter radicalisation within their ranks. He is the author of a novel, “Vale of Tears”, in which a heroic version of his thinly disguised self busts a home-grown al-Qaeda cell at a Long Island Islamic centre. His own attitude to terrorism, though, is conveniently elastic. In the 1980s this Irish-American Catholic sympathised strongly with the Irish Republican Army, going so far as to compare Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the terrorist group’s political wing, to George Washington.
Beyond these objections to his person, prejudices and past, most of the available evidence suggests that Mr King’s central thesis is overblown, if not flat wrong. Muslim co-operation with the authorities is not perfect, but by most accounts—including those of Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI, and Eric Holder, the attorney-general—the community has in general worked hard to expose terrorist plots in its midst. In one prominent case last year, for instance, five men from northern Virginia who had travelled to Pakistan in search of jihad were convicted after their families tipped off the FBI. The Triangle Centre on Terrorism and Homeland Security, a research group affiliated with Duke University and the University of North Carolina, reported recently that 48 of the 120 Muslims suspected of plotting terror attacks in America since the felling of the twin towers in 2001 were turned in by fellow Muslims.
With the inflammatory Mr King planted on one side of the quarrel and pretty much all liberal opinion arrayed indignantly on the other, the hearings are expected to produce heat, not light. But it is worth noting that the liberal side has a defect of its own. Many say that Mr King’s exclusive focus on Islam is misplaced, since terrorism can arise from any group or grievance (Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 are suddenly much cited). But this is to let political correctness obscure a troubling development that America’s terrorism experts had started to worry about well before Mr King announced his hearings. It is true that not all terrorism takes an Islamist form, but Islamist terrorism is the clear and present danger—and al-Qaeda has lately shown an unexpected ability both to recruit American Muslims and to move its battle back to American soil.
Two experts on al-Qaeda, Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, pointed out in a study last year that Americans have occupied some senior positions in al-Qaeda. Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, grew up in New Mexico. Adnan Shukrijumah, probably al-Qaeda’s director of external operations, is a Saudi-American who grew up in Brooklyn and Florida. David Headley, from Chicago and now in custody, scouted targets for the attack on Mumbai in 2008 that killed more than 160 people.
America is producing followers as well as leaders. When a bunch of Somali-Americans from the Minneapolis-St Paul area started turning up in Somalia to wage jihad, the authorities hoped that this was a one-off. But the phenomenon turned out not to be confined either to Minnesota or to Somalis. In November 2009 Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a Palestinian-American, killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas, and a few months later Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American, tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in New York. “The American melting pot”, Mr Bergen and Mr Hoffman concluded, “has not provided a firewall against the radicalisation and recruitment of American citizens and residents, though it has arguably lulled us into a sense of complacency that home-grown terrorism couldn’t happen in the United States.” The White House is worried too: Barack Obama’s National Security Strategy, published last May, promised to invest in efforts to counter radicalisation at home.
The subject, in short, is a real one. It merits frank discussion, not least in Congress. But Mr King’s clumsy approach to it risks feeding the sense of beleaguerment and outrage many American Muslims have come to feel in the face of the recent scaremongering over the so-called “ground zero” mosque in New York and the Republican Party’s paranoid fantasy about Islamic sharia law taking over America by stealth. As it happens, Mr King was in the forefront of the trumped-up objections to the Manhattan mosque. What folly to let such a man chair the Homeland Security Committee of the House of Representatives.