Americans were rattled out of their holiday routine last year when they learned that a 23-year-old Nigerian citizen named Umar Abdulmutallab snuck a bomb in his underwear onto an Amsterdam flight bound for Detroit. Thankfully, Abdulmutallab proved to be a hapless terrorist -- instead of blowing up the plane, he set himself on fire, charring his skin with third-degree burns as the other passengers subdued him.
Abdulmutallab has a typical -- if surprising -- background for a terrorist. His father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, is one of the richest men in Africa. Abdulmutallab attended the British School in Lome, Togo, and then traveled to London to study engineering and business finance at University College.
Osama bin Laden himself comes from a wealthy background, and most of the September 11 hijackers were middle-class. Bourgeois bombers are not a new phenomenon. But the failed Christmas attack highlighted a growing concern for national-security officials: Westernized Muslims, even Americans, being drawn to terrorist activity. Authorities claim more than 20 Somali Americans from Minnesota, including the first American suicide bomber, Shirwa Ahmed, were lured to fight in Somalia's ongoing civil war on behalf of the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab. The government has fingered Chicago resident David Coleman Headley for helping plan the terrorist attack on Mumbai with the anti-Indian terrorist group Laskhar-e-Taiba. An Afghan American named Najibullah Zazi was indicted for a bomb plot the Obama administration has quietly described as "the real thing." Five young men from Virginia were captured in Pakistan, allegedly trying to join the Taliban to fight against the United States. Seven young men in Raleigh, North Carolina, were arrested for allegedly planning to fight in Afghanistan against American troops. Perhaps most memorably, an Army psychologist named Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 people.
Many of the individuals involved in recent incidents weren't radicalized in a mosque -- they were radicalized online. Despite the ongoing concern over "safe havens" where terrorist groups can train, recruit, and plan attacks without interference, al-Qaeda has proved adept at radicalizing its targets from afar, through the Internet. Anwar al-Awlaki, an extremist Imam born in New Mexico who has a blog and a Facebook page, has become the most prominent example of an al-Qaeda recruiter who is adept at tailoring the group's message to appeal to Muslims in the West. Prior to his joining al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, the 9-11 hijackers were drawn to his sermons. Since then al-Awlaki has been tied to both Maj. Hasan and Abdulmutallab -- who traveled to Yemen where al-Awlaki personally trained him.
Charles Allen, a former intelligence analyst at the CIA and chief of intelligence analysis for the Department of Homeland Security, describes al-Awlaki as one of a number of recent propagandists who have "an ability to translate jihadist ideology into American colloquial English in ways that seem to resonate." This means that extremists can be inspired to act violently even without training or close contact with a terrorist group.
Karen Greenberg, executive director of NYU's Center on Law and Security, says that there are at least three distinct terrorist narratives used to lure recruits -- the regional narrative, which involves local conflicts like the one in Somalia or Kashmir; the narrative of American military involvement in Muslim countries abroad; and the narrative of the West and its corrupting cultural influences. Part of what's made Osama bin Laden so successful is that he's been able to weave these kinds of appeals together. "We have an increasing burden to bear if we don't counter the narrative here among young and Muslim Americans whose minds can be bent [toward violence]," Allen says. Greenberg, however, cautions against lumping these recruitment narratives together. "They really identify groups; people are motivated by very different things," Greenberg says. "Until you divide them out, you can't mount the right counterterrorism strategy."
Broadly, concern over the deaths of Muslim civilians appears to be the most common motivating factor for Western Muslims who join terrorist groups. In most cases, terrorist recruitment has involved young Muslims being lured in with the harrowing images of civilian casualties in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. They see fellow Muslims suffering, and they want to help.
Those Muslims who are radicalized and choose to turn to violence are a miniscule percentage of the overall population -- but they are significant because they are a symptom of the United States' failure to expose al-Qaeda's members as hypocrites whose methods have mostly resulted in the deaths of Muslims, not Westerners.
Mohamed Elibiary, who has been working with the U.S. government to counter domestic radicalization, explains, "The typical American Muslim youth that's become radicalized, by and large, they're not looking to attack the U.S.; what they want to do is go overseas to defend Muslims in military zones." Like gangs or cults, Elibiary says, terrorist recruiters know how to prey on young, alienated Muslims' desire to belong. Not every young Muslim in the United States is vulnerable to recruitment -- rather, there has to be what Rhodes College Professor Quintan Wiktorowicz calls a "cognitive opening," some sort of traumatic event, like the death of a parent or an acute experience of discrimination, that leaves the individual receptive to radicalization.
"When you have a shock to your system, you start asking all kinds of questions, you start looking for things to explain, to have psychological comfort. If they turn to religion, and they've never been religious," Elibiary says, they might turn to a cleric who "is pushing a political ideology that's masquerading as religion."
In the FBI's criminal complaints, the descriptions of the recruiters' behavior read like the solicitations of pedophiles in Internet chat rooms. One of the recruiters who helped send young Americans to Somalia told his marks that he experienced "true brotherhood" fighting jihad against Ethiopian troops, that it would be "fun" and that he would help them find wives soon afterward.
America's secret weapon against terrorism is its pluralism -- unlike Europe, being American isn't necessarily tied to a particular race or ethnicity, and assimilation and acceptance have always followed America's historical bouts of xenophobia. But at the same time, the distance from the horrors of terrorist violence abroad makes it easier for terrorist recruiters to present a romantic vision of jihad to privileged young people who have never experienced these realities firsthand.
Despite Osama bin Laden's topical videotaped appeals, al-Qaeda has been largely discredited in the Muslim world because its war against the West has mostly harmed Muslims. A report from the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point found that between 2004 and 2008, only 15 percent of the 3,010 people killed in al-Qaeda attacks were Westerners. By the numbers, al-Qaeda's war against the West is really a war against Islam.
This is old news in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. But it's not in the U.S., where the true costs of al-Qaeda's crusade against Muslims abroad are barely acknowledged. Because the U.S. has been so successful in preventing terrorist attacks, al-Qaeda's wholesale butchery of Muslims is an abstract issue. Muslims in the West don't have access to the most effective counter-narrative against al-Qaeda: its own murderous actions. "The more people see the impact of al-Qaeda's attacks up close and first hand, the less supportive of al-Qaeda people tend to be," says Michael Jacobson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.
The backlash hasn't occurred just in the Muslim world as a whole, but among radical Muslims themselves. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, also known as Dr. Fadl, helped provide the theological basis for al-Qaeda's existence. Since then, he's denounced Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda's methods as murderous and destructive because they have led to the death of innocent people. Likewise, Sheikh Salman bin Fahd al-Awdah, an extremist Saudi cleric who was reportedly an inspiration to bin Laden, denounced him on Saudi television in 2007 asking, "How much blood has been spilt? How many innocent people, children, elderly, and women have been killed ... in the name of al-Qaeda?" Defections of insiders often turn on similar themes -- al-Qaeda's bloodthirstiness and hypocrisy sometimes drive away its most devoted members.
In the U.S. however, discussions about Islam and politics occur in hushed tones. Since 9-11, Elibiary says, American Muslim leaders have studiously avoided political discourse, wary of the negative attention it might bring to the community. As a result, young Muslims who are looking for answers go elsewhere. "If it's not being allowed in the brick-and-mortar places, those conversations shift to the online forums, and that makes it easier for recruiters who are really overseas ... to be able to reach the kids over here," Elibiary says.
Therein lies the problem for the U.S. in countering the al-Qaeda narrative domestically. The most powerful and effective vehicle for doing so is the American Muslim community -- -which is busy building ramparts to guard itself from the distrust of its fellow Americans. "This has to be done by the heritage communities themselves," Allen says. "We have a problem that will grow if we don't work harder as a society, but I reject that the federal government as a whole can solve this; it has to be from the local communities."
Elibiary agrees community involvement is important, but he says the government has an important role to play in developing that counter-narrative as well. Individuals like the Virginia Five are drawn to foreign conflicts like Afghanistan in part because the U.S. does a poor job of explaining the reasons for its ongoing military missions. The politics of war in the United States are such that there is substantial social pressure to assume that the cause is just and that U.S. interference will lead to a better outcome. This is how Americans rationalize the human cost of their military adventures. But those answers don't come as easily to American Muslims watching news anchors blithely list the numbers of civilian casualties in America's foreign conflicts, as if they were as apolitical as the weather report.
Nevertheless, the American Muslim community has proved to be a vital national-security asset for countering domestic terrorism -- despite the Obama administration's continuation of many Bush-era national--security policies, such as indefinite detention and the use of military commissions to try suspected terrorists, and the Republican Party's open calls for policies like racial profiling. The FBI found out about the Lackawanna Six, a group of Yemeni Americans living in New York state who had received training from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, when a member of the local Muslim community tipped them off in June 2001. Likewise, a 2003 plot by three Toledo men to execute attacks in Iraq was foiled with the aid of a Muslim informant. Local Imams in Raleigh, North Carolina notified the FBI that seven local men were plotting attacks against Americans. The government learned of the Virginia Five when their panicked families went to the Council on American-Islamic Relations and then Elibiary for help. And the father of the failed underwear bomber, Abdulmutallab, unsuccessfully tried to warn American authorities that his son had become dangerous.
That's not to say there isn't room to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the Muslim community. The Council on American Islamic Relations has been critical of the U.S. government for violating the civil liberties of Muslims, and charged that the FBI guidelines for initiating investigations amount to racial profiling. They also argue that, in several recent terrorism cases, the plots would never have come to fruition without the encouragement of FBI informants acting as "agent provocateurs." Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesperson for CAIR, says, "We're doing everything we can to rebuild the trust between the Muslim community and the FBI, but I think the ball's really in their court."
Since Abdulmutallab was arrested, Republicans have accused the Obama administration of poorly handling the bombing attempt by treating Abdulmutallab as a criminal rather than an enemy combatant. With this criticism, the GOP is ignoring the fact that the Obama administration has done exactly what the Bush administration would have -- and did, in the case of failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid, who was convicted in a civilian court and is currently in prison. Republicans said that Abdulmutallab shouldn't have been "given" Miranda rights and that he should have been put in military detention. Some even proclaimed that he should have been tortured -- and that because the Obama administration didn't do any of these things, valuable intelligence was lost. If Obama had listened to the Republican chorus, he would have destroyed the government's best opportunity for getting information out of Abdul-mutallab and alienated Muslims all over the world in the process.
Weeks after the bombing attempt, the administration revealed that Abdulmutallab had been talking to federal investigators -- in part because they had brought his distraught family over to the U.S. to persuade him to open up. Securing their cooperation would have been impossible if Abdulmutallab had been mistreated. Denying Abdulmutallab his rights -- rights that have been extended to any noncitizen accused of committing a crime and captured on American soil -- would have sent a message to Muslims worldwide and especially in the United States that they have no rights the government is bound to respect. Al-Qaeda's narrative, the story of a hypocritical Western power proclaiming itself a beacon of democracy while it wages open war not against terrorist groups but against all Muslims everywhere would have been strengthened. If the right's wishes had been heeded, it's hard to imagine any more Muslim fathers coming to American authorities for help.
The circumstances of the underwear bombing -- that al-Qaeda could find only one disturbed young man willing to blow himself up on a plane bound for the United States and that he failed to do so -- show how much al-Qaeda's capabilities have been diminished since 19 well-trained terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"Al-Qaeda's under heavy pressure and has been in a very intense way for the last couple of years," Allen says.
But keeping that pressure on means not just dismantling al-Qaeda's operational capacity but countering the extremist messages that might inspire others to act, as Maj. Hasan did, even without the institutional support of an extremist group. It means further discrediting al-Qaeda, something that can only be done by avoiding the impulse to succumb to hysteria and fear toward all Muslims, so that people like the families of the Virginia Five still feel able to come to the government for help.
"That's the only way I think you're going to counter this," Allen says.