The Muslim-American Community’s Response to Global Jihadism
Early in 2010, a team of researchers prepared a report for the National Institute of Justice in which they documented a potentially alarming spike in Muslim-American terrorism during the previous year. According to the report, in 2009 the number of Muslim-American terrorist suspects and perpetrators increased from an average of 14 in 2008 to 47 per year only 12 months later.[i] Was this–as some feared– evidence of a larger portion of the Muslim-American community turning to terrorism in the name of Islam? Did the data from 2009 reveal an erosion of Muslim-American national (US) identity and the birth of an internationalist, Islamist movement within the traditionally patriotic Muslim-American community? Based upon evidence from the subsequent months of 2010, the answer to both questions appears to be “no.”
To support this conclusion, Charles Kurzman, Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has revealed new data in “Muslim-American Terrorism Since 9/11: An Accounting,” Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, February 2, 2011.[ii] In 2010, only 20 Muslim-American suspects and perpetrators were documented. Domestic sites were the target in only 10 of those cases. In fact, non-Muslim terrorist plots to launch attacks inside the United States were far more frequent (at 25) in 2010.
Even more encouraging for members of the American law enforcement community who are engaged in counter-terrorism, critical sources of information that disrupted Muslim-American terrorist plots last year came from the Muslim-American community itself, at a rate of 48% of all cases. In comparison, governmental agency investigations without such direct cooperation disrupted 43% of terrorist plots—in most instances through interrogations, and informant alerts of specific terrorist suspects in the United States, Afghanistan and Iraq. By the end of 2010, only 5 of the 20 Muslim-American terrorist suspects acted on their plots: Faisal Shahzad failed to successfully detonate a car bomb in New York City[iii], Sharif Mobley[iv]and Samir Khan[v] joined al-Qaeda in Yemen, and Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin joined Najibullah Zazi in a plot to plant bombs in the subway system in New York City[vi]. For 2010, early disruption of plots was the rule, however, and that contrasted dramatically with 2009 in which half of the plots culminated in attacks.
Al-Qaeda and the Call for Global Islamic Jihad
While it isn’t possible for us to determine in every case the specific motivations for the assistance of the Muslim-American community in counter-terrorism, Kurzman’s short study does allow us to conclude that the Muslim-American community has not—to any broad and significant degree—become radicalized by global jihadists. Such broad radicalization was the goal of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri within the al Qaeda network. That goal, having failed quite dramatically since 9/11, led the jihadist strategist, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar to publish a 1600-page work, The Call for Global Islamic Resistance. Nasar, arrested in Pakistan in 2005 and then transferred to US custody, presented a new logistical blueprint for organized jihad through his call for the creation of small, independent terrorist cells in countries throughout the world. Without need to contact a centralized High Command (in Pakistan or Afghanistan), and given (through the internet) the tools to “self-educate” on doctrine and tactics, the smaller cells would adapt jihad to local and national conditions.
Enter the world of Web 2.0 where websites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube facilitate a “dark web” of virtual and immediate sources for the want-to-be homegrown terrorist. Many of the most recent arrests by the law enforcement community in the United States have been for such homegrown “lone wolf” terrorists. They include Omar Shafik Mammami (Daphne, Alabama) wanted for fleeing indictment in 2009 for terrorism violations related to contacts with the Somalia-based terrorist organization, al Shabaab and now in custody in Tunisia, Mohamed Mahmood Alessa (Elmwood Park, NJ) who was arrested at JFK airport on June 5, 2010 while on his way to Somalia to join al Shabaab, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte who was arrested on the same day as Alessa for seeking to join al Shabaab.
The specific case of Bryant Neal Vinas is particularly illustrative of global jihadist recruiting methods. A graduate of Longwood High School in Middle Island, Long Island, New York, Vinas readily absorbed the violent, extremist views preached on radical Islamist websites. Muslims at the Selden, Long Island mosque where he worshipped were alarmed. Finding no audience in the United States, Vinas left the “virtual world” and travelled to Pakistan to participate in a failed attack against a US military base on the border of Afghanistan. While abroad, he also passed information on the Long Island Rail Road System to al Qaeda contacts that planned to attack trains at Penn Station. Arrested by Pakistani police and turned over to US authorities, Vinas appeared in Brooklyn Federal Court in January 2009 to read a prepared statement—essentially a confession of his intentions to join the global jihadist movement for the long-term and to fight against US soldiers in Afghanistan. Interviewed after the guilty plea of her son, Maria Luisa Uraga commented, “He’s not my son no more…I don’t know him if he’s able to do this. He has no family anymore…I raised a good boy; he was beautiful, normal.”[vii]
The counter-terrorism community will need the continued assistance of the Muslim-American community in the face of the new strategy to create homegrown terrorist cells within the United States. The outlook is positive, however a more careful analysis must be undertaken in order to understand the factors that influence citizen-based informing of law enforcement generally, and specifically informing in Muslim-American communities. What is reported, who reports and what the motivation is for such reporting warrants greater analysis.
In instances of terrorism perpetrated by Muslims or Muslim-Americans, the routine order of life is threatened both for the terrorist and those being terrorized. Conceivably, those reporting are more closely allied with their American identity and their “Americanized” way of life OR perhaps, they are struggling to reestablish order within their own personal religious lives. Religious beliefs can legitimize, or even encourage violence in a radicalized community. However, the prospects of maintaining order and countering jihadist agitation increase for non-terrorists when they report acts, or plans of terrorism to the law enforcement community. Reporting may allow an individual to protect the sanctity and stability of their religious belief system or of their entire faith-based community. Moreover, allowing acts of terrorism to become “normal” threatens the entire socio-economic foundation of the communities in which Muslim-Americans live. For law enforcement personnel, recognizing radicalization “shock” in the neighborhood—which will often be discussed openly by community leaders in Muslim communities when they believe law enforcement understands that they are victims, not perpetrators—will open new doors of sharing of information between citizens and police. Finally, some acts of terrorism are intended to do catastrophic physical damage while others are more symbolic protests resulting from other, percolating problems or concerns in the community. Receiving “tips” on those attacks is less likely if troubled relationships with law enforcement are intertwined with the symbolic protest itself. The bottom line is always to maintain the best working relationships between local police and the local leaders of the Muslim-American communities.
The preliminary indications are that Ms. Uraga is much like the mothers of most Muslim-American families—alarmed that the global jihadists can reach their sons and daughters on a computer screen in their home, and then convert them in a matter of days. We should expect the Muslim-American community to willingly work closer with the law enforcement community as it becomes even more vigilant against this new tactic of radicalization.
Written by: Dr. Amy D’Olivo, Associate Professor of Sociology, Dr. Shane Fitzpatrick, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies Centenary College (N.J.)
 David Schanzer, Charles Kurzman, and Ebrahim Moosa, “Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans,” report prepared for the National Institute of Justice, January 6, 2010, http://stanford.duke.edu/news/Schanzer_Kurzman_Moosa_Anti-Terror_Lesons.pdf.
 Daily News, July 24, 2009, http://articles.nydailynews.com/2009-07-24/news/17927949-1-al-qaeda-suicide-bombings-penn-station.