Defining Terrorism

A number of recently exposed terror plots and successful attacks are revealing an overlooked dimension in national security.  A small but dedicated number of American religious zealots have been beating the drums of holy war in our midst.  As this reality slowly begins to sink in, uncomfortable questions about the country’s security strategy begin to arise.  How we respond to the various aspects of our increasingly homegrown problem stands to have a lasting impact on American society.

First, let’s confront the problem of perception.  Who’s a “terrorist”?  The definition often depends on who you ask.  Is a terrorist necessarily affiliated with an organization such as Al-Qaeda?  Does an unorganized loner with the motivations and goals of a foreign terrorist qualify?  What are the relevant distinctions and similarities between attacks by foreigners and attacks by U.S. citizens?  Moving forward, will society view them as separate issues altogether, or different types of the same problem?

Consider the Virginia-born Army Major accused of the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting, Nidal Malik Hassan.  He allegedly murdered 13 people and wounded dozens of others.  A few months before that incident, Tennessee-born Abdul Hakim Mujahid Mohammad opened fire outside of an Army recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing one soldier and injuring another.  Unlike Major Hassan, Mujahid Mohammad has claimed affiliation with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and had lived in Yemen before being imprisoned and deported for overstaying his visa.

Both men were very public in their disdain for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:  Lots of nonviolent people are.  Both perceived the U.S. Military operations as unjustified attacks on Muslims and Islam.  Again, this idea isn’t unheard of and is far more likely to incite debate rather than violence.  So, what pushed them over the edge?   Hassan’s lawyers have pointed to psychological issues, unrelated to any jihadist intentions.  Though he claims no terrorist group affiliations, he frequented sermons in Virginia by radical American-born Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki (who also preached to three of the 9/11 hijackers) and they communicated via email shortly before the shooting.  He allegedly yelled “Allahu Akbar” before he began firing.  If we take Mujahid Mohammad at his word, he was motivated by his faith and ideology as espoused by AQAP.  “He told the detective he wasn’t guilty of murder, that the shooting was an act of jihad.”  Both are facing murder charges.

Further than simple religious zealotry and having strong opinions about American foreign policy, both men allegedly escalated their ideology to violence.  Still, many of us feel uneasy about categorizing them as Islamic terrorists.  The uneasiness may come from the implication of American Muslims and the perceived backlash that this could incite against them.  Those fears aren’t without some warrant.  But explaining the attacks away as isolated psych cases or random acts of violence becomes difficult as a theme begins to materialize.  The recently attempted attacks in Oregon and Maryland have eerie similarities to the first two.  In Portland, Mohamed Mohamud (born in Somalia, raised the US) is charged with attempting to detonate a bomb near the city’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.  In Baltimore, Muhammad Hussein is charged with trying to blow up a military recruiting office.  Both were unambiguous about their jihadist intentions leading up to and during their would-be attacks.   If they believe what they say they believe—the evidence suggests that they do—then we should take these warnings seriously and not obscure the threat.

Al-Qaeda and other groups are openly seeking American and western converts to their cause.  To a small but unavoidable extent their strategy seems to be working.  The people most susceptible to this appear to be young, devout Muslim males.  Because anti-Muslim sentiment already stands to make them feel isolated from their neighbors, simple kindness and engagement from non-Muslims can go a long way to breaking barriers. Within the American Islamic community, reaching out to at-risk youth is especially important as they have the opportunity to shape their understanding of Islamic texts.

As with Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, Islamic zealots will have lots of violent and disturbing passages to bolster their cause.  It’s not enough to simply call them “bad Muslims” or “un-Islamic” while pointing to a majority of peaceful Muslims.  To stop the problem of radicalization, we have to address a big part of what makes it so convincing in the first place:  Devout religious faith.  If children (or new converts) are taught to endorse a book as inherently good and entirely true, then the violent and problematic verses may not seem very violent or problematic.  These should be discussed and explained in the most candid way without omission or euphemism.  Where needed, teaching should be infused with a healthy dosage of doubt.  Otherwise, terrorists groups, extremist websites and radical Imams are left to fill in the gap.

Homegrown terrorists need not be members of an organization so much as they consider themselves members of a movement.  To combat this movement, we cannot be evasive about its implications, composition or motivations.  “What I am trying to do in this interview is to make people aware of the fact that the threat is real, the threat is different, the threat is constant.” In disseminating that message, Attorney General Eric Holder may have his work cut out for him.

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