Congressional hearings on homegrown terrorism, focusing on how al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations seek to radicalize Muslims in the U.S., are a welcome development. This initiative by Rep. Peter King (R-L.I.), who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, does not come out of the blue.
Earlier this month, Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said the overall terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland is now “at its most heightened state since 9/11.” The “most striking elements of today’s threat picture is that plots to attack America increasingly involve American residents and citizens,” Napolitano testified on Capitol Hill, adding that 50 of the 88 individuals involved in 32 major terrorism cases linked to al Qaeda and similar ideology over the past decade were U.S. citizens.
A recent study by the New York State Intelligence Center, cited by Secretary Napolitano, indicates that 70 percent of homegrown terrorists were born in the U.S., and that most of them based their actions on extremist Islamic ideology.
King’s hearings are not the first to examine a national security threat born on U.S. soil. Following the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, the Senate held hearings on the threat posed by militias, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) held another separate hearing later that year. At the time, King joined with Schumer in calling for the militia hearings and viewing the situation as a matter of national security.
Some organizations, Muslim as well as others, have objected to the upcoming hearings, raising the specter of McCarthyism and claiming that the hearings target the entire Muslim community rather than an aberrant extremist minority. They, and others, have demanded that the hearings be broadened to include all extremists in all communities.
But, as in the case of the militias, there is no reason to expand a hearing regarding particular extremists currently posing a threat to our national security to such an extent that the proceedings would lack the focus necessary to understand the scope and nature of the problem. The hearings should shine a light only on those who support, legitimize and promote Islamic extremist ideology that leads to terrorism, not the entire Muslim community.
Lost in the debate over the scope of the hearings is the effect of ongoing terrorist recruitment within the Muslim American community. For example, 20 young Somali Americans in Minneapolis have been recruited into Al-Shabaab, the Somali branch of al Qaeda. One became a suicide bomber, another was killed when he reportedly tried to leave Somalia to return to his family, and the others’ whereabouts are unknown. Family and friends of the young men and other community members, already outraged over the loss of their children to Al-Shabaab, say they deeply resent efforts by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) to keep them from cooperating with law enforcement in finding out what happened to the young men and in preventing further recruitment. They have mounted a demonstration against CAIR.
We, as Jews, also need to recognize that the homegrown Islamic extremist terrorism threat specifically targets us and affects the security of our community. Its ideology is intrinsically anti-Semitic and has repeatedly incited terrorists to target Jews and Jewish institutions.
The best-known incident was the 2009 plot to blow up Jewish institutions in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Similarly, in 2005 Muslim extremist converts in Los Angeles calling themselves Jamiat Al-Islam Al-Sahih plotted attacks against synagogues, the Israeli Consulate, and the El Al ticket counter at LAX airport. Less well known was the secondary targeting of Jewish communities in 2009 by Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who intended to assassinate three rabbis in Tennessee and attack a series of Jewish institutions throughout the Northeast.
As both Americans and as Jews, we cannot afford to ignore the increasing threat of homegrown terrorism to our country and community. The recruitment of terrorists on American soil affects innocent Muslims, first and foremost, but ultimately endangers us all. Even as we must be ever vigilant against discrimination, whether against our Muslim fellow citizens or anyone else, we must also remain focused on the very real threats that imperil our nation’s security.
Yehudit Barsky is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Division on Middle East and International Terrorism.