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Witnesses debate role of Muslim-American community before a key House panel

Erroll Southers

As policy makers, scholars and law enforcement officials begin to sort out the facts behind the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks, a common theme has begun to emerge: the greatest current threat to the U.S. appears to be homegrown terrorism, rather than extremist enemies based overseas.

However, even as a consensus seems to be emerging about the nature of the threat, a debate is coming into focus about whether the best way to address this threat is to monitor the Muslim-American community more closely, or to “bond” more closely with that same Muslim-American community, so it will help identify potential, future homegrown terrorists from within its midst.

The outlines of this emerging debate came into view on May 9 when a group of expert witnesses testified in front of the House Homeland Security Committee in what was the first full-blown congressional hearing to examine the Boston Marathon explosions and their aftermath.

Two of the witnesses, former Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut who served for many years as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, and Erroll Southers, a think tank scholar, academic and one-time nominee to head the TSA, recommended approaches to homegrown terrorism that were similar on the surface, but differed at their more fundamental level.

In his prepared testimony, Lieberman outlined the long and troubling history of homegrown terrorism in the United States.

“Since 9-11, at least 65 homegrown terrorist plots planned and launched right here in the United States have been stopped,” recalled the retired senator. “But three have succeeded in that at least one American was killed -- Carlos Bledsoe killed an Army recruiter in Little Rock in 2009; Nidal Hasan killed 13 at Fort Hood later that same year, and now the Tzarnaev brothers killed four and severely wounded many more in Boston during the week of April 15, 2013.” 

Lieberman explained that for many years, U.S. lawmakers and law enforcement officials believed that the U.S. was less vulnerable to homegrown terrorism than some European nations because American Muslin youth apparently did not feel as disenfranchised from the mainstream of their country's life, as did many of their European counterparts. 

Even so, in Lieberman’s view, an attack like the one allegedly mounted by the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston should not have come as a surprise to anyone. “Rather an attack like this had been predicted for years, which leads me to conclude that the success of these attacks was the result of errors made within our existing homeland security system -- both public and private -- and by a failure to do enough at the federal, state, and local levels to counter homegrown terrorism inspired by VIE [Violent Islamic Extremism] in the first place,” Lieberman told the House panel.

Lieberman wondered aloud whether the FBI interviewers, who spoke with the older Tsarnaev brother years before the Marathon attacks, knew what to look for in terms of the radicalization process? “Did they consider whether Tamerlan might fit the profile of an emerging homegrown terrorist who warranted greater monitoring and surveillance?,” asked the former Connecticut senator. 

Lieberman did not make an outright call for stepped-up surveillance of the Muslim-American community, but he seemed to tip-toe up to the edge of that recommendation. 

“We must find ways to stop the spread of VIE and stop the radicalization process even if no crime has been committed,” said Lieberman. “That is one of the primary policy challenges before us as we try to identify ways to prevent an attack like the one in Boston from ever happening again.” 

In his separate testimony before the same committee, Southers recommended a different approach. “Inasmuch as we strive to intercept individuals in their transition from ideological extremist to violent adversary, we should also work with communities where such threats may arise to disrupt the radicalization process altogether, both by addressing grievances, and by recognizing and encouraging stakeholder engagement,” said Southers. 

Where Lieberman had rattled off a theoretical step-by-step progression that many American Muslims have historically taken toward Islamic radicalization, Southers urged the lawmakers to think more subtly.

“Caution should be exercised against viewing radicalization as a conveyor belt that starts with grievances and ends with violence, with easily discernible signposts along the way,” advised Southers. “Rather, a more effective approach is to identify the circumstances under which an individual can progress to violence through the radicalization process yet beneath the homeland security radar.” 

Lieberman noted the importance of winning the cooperation of the Muslim-American community -- including mosque attendees and religious leaders -- in the effort to spot potential terrorist before they reach the stage of violence. “Would the Tzarnaev brothers have been able to carry out the attacks if leaders and members of the Boston mosque that threw Tamerlan out because of his extremism had said something to the police and done something to counter his radicalization?,” asked the former senator. 

Southers seemed to agree with Lieberman that policy makers in the U.S. need to take actions that would dismantle the ‘enabling environment’ that is sometimes found within Muslim-American communities, but he recommended that the road to this goal be paved with closer collaboration. 

“Terrorism requires a combination of three things -- an alienated individual, a legitimizing ideology (engaged through radicalization), and an enabling environment,” observed Southers. “Of the three, it is the environment that is most susceptible to positive influences that, supported by appropriate policies and behaviors, can reduce the risk of HVE [homegrown violent extremism].” 

This delicate debate -- whether the Muslim-American community needs closer surveillance or closer collaboration -- is just getting underway on Capitol Hill.


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