The Elusive Roots of Radicalization

By Sherry L. Harowitz

Speaking to Congress about the level of homegrown Islamic radicalism in the United Kingdom. and the likelihood of a similar threat within the United States, Department of Homeland Security Chief Intelligence Officer Charles E. Allen offered assurances that the government had yet to find “such deep linkages” to terrorist groups among Muslims in this country.

No one really knows how reliable that intelligence assessment is, however, and if it’s true, we don’t really know why. The popular theory, as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at the same hearing, is that “compared to their counterparts, American Muslims are better educated, more prosperous, and less isolated.”

The problem with that theory is that many suicide bombers have been educated, middle-class, and integrated into their societies. Tawfik Hamid, a former self-admitted member of the al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, who now speaks out against terrorism, notes that he was from a middle-class family, as were most of the others in his radical group.

It’s also noteworthy, as reported in The Washington Post, that a Dutch study of 242 Islamic radicals tied to terrorist attacks in Europe from 2001 to 2006 found that they came from a range of social and economic backgrounds typical of their Muslim communities; the radicals did not stand out until they committed a violent act.

That creates a huge challenge for homeland security, but the government is trying to take it on. “We are determined to…develop insight into radicalization,” said Allen. “We are seeking to develop the capability to identify and track emerging radicalization trends before they erupt into violence.”

To that end, the DHS has set up a branch focused on understanding the “how and why” of radicalization, which Allen noted “differs from the traditional counterterrorism emphasis on the who, what, where, and when of potential threats.”

DHS also hopes to develop a “baseline intelligence picture” against which it can apply “radicalization indicators that can be measured over time.”

Some experts already see worrying signs. Several senators noted that their Muslim constituents say they feel like second-class citizens. And Geneive Abdo in her book Mecca and Main Street, finds that younger Muslims in the United States are increasingly placing their Muslim identity before their American one.

Does that mean there’s a growing divide in the country? Not yet, but “There are pressures that seek to pull us apart,” said Daniel W. Sutherland, who is spearheading a DHS effort to reach out to Muslim Americans. One hurdle: Local Muslim leaders know that while the government wants to befriend their communities, it selectively wants to spy on them as well, a duality not likely to engender trust.

Sherry L. Harowitz



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