Lawmakers tried in vain today to get a clear answer to a controversial question with constitutional implications during a hearing on violent extremism: What pushes a person with extremist thoughts and beliefs to decide to engage in terrorism?
Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), the chair of the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment, said getting the answer right was vital to protecting American democracy. "If we fail to find the right way to protect security and liberty, the next attack could lead to the shredding of our constitution," she said.
The hearing follows revelations last week that five Muslim-American men from Northern Virginia were arrested in Pakistan seeking terrorist training to fight jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Also last week, Chicago businessman David C. Headley was charged with helping to plot the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which killed approximately 170 people in November 2008. He was already in custody for plotting to attack a Danish newspaper for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005, which many Muslims worldwide found profane.
These events came after the Fort Hood massacre in early November, when Maj. Nidal Hassan, who espoused jihadist beliefs, allegedly went on a shooting rampage at the Texas military base, killing 13.
According to a list compiled by The Washington Post, authorities have detected or disrupted seven notable U.S.-based jihadist terrorism plots since July. The plots have punctured the conventional wisdom among counterterrorism experts that American Muslims are not as susceptible to jihadist radicalization as European Muslims.
The point of the hearing, according to Harman, was "to gain understanding of how people who seem like anyone else—those who are capable of interacting socially with friends and colleagues and in many cases are athletes and scholars—could be recruited or self-recruited to train to be terrorists."
But the experts on the panel couldn't provide any concrete reason or definitive path that determines when a person with extremist thoughts will become a terrorist to promote those beliefs.
University of Illinois at Chicago psychiatry professor Dr. Stevan Weine said that there is no "particular profile of terrorists that clearly distinguishes them from the general population, other than their involvement in violent radicalization." Weine, who is studying violent radicalization in Minneapolis's diaspora Somali community, said researchers believe its more productive to concentrate on "the person in context" to determine whether an individual is susceptible to violent radicalization.
Since late 2007, an estimated 20 Somali young men from Minneapolis have traveled to Somalia to fight for al Shabaab, an Islamist militia with alleged ties to al Qaeda that is fighting the U.N.- and U.S.-backed transitional government for control of the failed state.
Kim Cragin, a terrorism and insurgency researcher at the RAND Corporation, explained to lawmakers that she is often asked what motivates terrorism: ideology, politics, or poverty?
Her answer: "Yes, all three, at least to varying degrees."
Michael W. Macleod-Ball, acting director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office, referenced a report from the United Kingdom that determined there "was no single identifiable pathway to extremism and 'a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly.'"
He also warned lawmakers that their hearing was entering an area fraught with constitutional landmines.
"Congress must tread carefully when attempting to examine people's thoughts or classify their beliefs as inside or outside the mainstream to avoid infringing on fundamental rights that are essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy," Macleod-Ball said.
He added: "An extremist ideology, in and of itself, must not bring on government censure."
Macleod-Ball referenced the Red Scare of the late 1910s and early 1920s and the FBI's COINTELPRO program of the 1960s and 1970s as evidence that the United States has historically attacked unpopular beliefs under the guise of promoting security, but has succeeded only in violating constitutional rights.
Weine agreed that radical beliefs do not mean an individual will become a terrorist.
"Terrorist researchers argue that our central concern should be on preventing violent radicalization and not radicalization per se," he said. "It's not what people say or think, but whether they commit violent acts that counts."
Harman wasn't satisfied with Macleod-Ball's assertion that protecting the First Amendment promotes security.
"Of course we must protect these freedoms," she said, "but we also must prevent recruiters from cherry-picking kids from our communities and sending them to become jihadists overseas."
Cragin said one way federal, state, and local law enforcement can discover potentially violent radicals is through good relationships with the communities they serve. This occurred last week in the case of the five young men from Northern Virginia.
"I cannot imagine how difficult it was for these community leaders to call U.S. authorities and, regardless of the outcome, we owe them a great deal of respect and gratitude."
♦ Photo of U.S. Constitution by kjd/Flickr
♦ This report was written from publicly availabe written testimony, here.