Given the raw number of terrorist plots throughout the year, it shouldn't come as a surprise that 2009 is ending with an attempt to blow a commercial airliner out of the sky.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed bombing plot stands out in part because it appears to be designed and launched from abroad.
In 2009, homegrown American Islamist terror became impossible to ignore. Two fatal attacks on the U.S. military – one killing an Army recruiter, the other a mass murder of soldiers; an intercepted plot considered the biggest domestic threat since 9/11 and a series of conspiracies to blow up synagogues, office buildings and other targets made 2009 the year homegrown American Islamist terror became a clear, serious threat.
An American stands accused of playing a key role in scouting targets in the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed more than 170 people. Five college students gave up promising futures to try to join the jihad against American soldiers in Afghanistan. And two young men were convicted for working with Pakistani militants in plots at home and abroad.
The November 5th Fort Hood massacre was the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since 9/ 11. Six months earlier, Muslim convert Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad shot and killed Army recruiter William Long in Little Rock, Ark. Muhammad told police "he was mad at the U.S. Military because of what they had done to Muslims in the past," and that he would have shot more people if he had seen them outside the recruiting office.
This spike in violence and planned attacks got the White House's attention. In his speech at West Point explaining the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan, President Obama noted: "In the past few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano cited the case of Najibullah Zazi (an American resident charged with planning to detonate a weapon of mass destruction who allegedly trained with Al Qaeda): "We are seeing young Americans who are inspired by Al Qaeda and radical ideology," she said on December 3rd. Napolitano added that "We are seeing increasing links" between Al Qaeda and American citizens "for purposes of planning terrorist attacks."
How did homegrown radicalization develop?
According to Zeyno Baran, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Eurasian Policy, these and other recent arrests of Islamist terror suspects on U.S. soil should help bring to an end a popular illusion: that the United States has been so successful at integrating Muslims into American life that it need not worry about homegrown radicalization.
"I think there was always a little bit of denial here," Baran told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. "People have been repeating the mantra that 'America is different'" from Europe.
Baran warned against exaggerating the potential benefits of "better integrating" Muslims into American culture to prevent radicalization. She noted, for example, that the British doctors who attempted to carry out a series of car bombings in London and Glasgow two years ago appeared to be "well integrated" medical professionals. But the outward signs of professional and social success masked the reality that they had become devoted jihadists.
In an interview, former FBI counterterrorism chief Steve Pomerantz expressed skepticism about the idea that better integration of Muslims would reduce the jihadist threat in the United States. "You only become integrated if you want to," he said.
Noting that many of the Muslims who immigrated to Europe in recent decades showed little interest in integrating themselves, Pomerantz said the United States needs to accept the possibility that American Muslims may follow the European model. He believes the jihadist danger in the United States is likely to worsen in the next few years.
"There is this radical Islamic ideology that has spread and metastasized" around the world, he said. U.S. policymakers would be foolish "not to act on the assumption that it could get worse."
In America today, radicalized Muslim youth "are filled with notions that they are persecuted; that there are conspiracies against their community and that they need to do something about it," said Walid Phares, director of the Future of Terrorism Project with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"The radicalized individuals are influenced by the demonization of the U.S. government which triggers decisions in their own head. When you convince individuals that the government is after their community and you apologize for jihadists worldwide, you end up contributing to the psychological incitement for violence inside the U.S. as well."
It's easier, Baran said, to believe the recent spike in homegrown terror results from emotional problems or a lack of jobs - things that can be fixed through counseling or by creating a government program - than it is to come to grips with the harsh reality: that democratic societies must confront the challenge posed by Islamism.
Recent statements by theCouncil on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) acknowledging the existence of homegrown radicalism are a positive development, Baran stated. But they need to do more than just condemn acts of violence. "Muslim leaders have to say that [the United States] is not in a 'war against Islam,'" she added.
They have been doing precisely the opposite for years. Baran noted that in 2007, the New York Police Department issued a detailed report on homegrown radicalization and terrorism in the West. CAIR attacked the report, asserting that it would lead to discrimination against Muslims.
Beyond that, she added, if CAIR and others are truly serious about playing a constructive role in fighting radicalism, they should change their rhetoric and behavior in other ways. "When they constantly talk about discrimination, they agitate the community. Maybe they are naïve about that," Baran said, adding that the case of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Muslim military psychiatrist who carried out the Fort Hood massacre, illustrates the danger that can result from someone exposed to a steady diet of America-bashing.
"For many years, they refused to address the problem of radicalization," Baran said of national Islamist groups. By evading the issue, they behaved like "people who say they are dealing with an alcoholism problem, but…never get around to dealing with it."
Fourteen Killed in Fort Hood, Little Rock Attacks
While U.S. law enforcement scored numerous successes in thwarting terrorist plots, two jihadists carried out lethal attacks on U.S. soil this year. The attack on the Little Rock recruiting center is considered a "lone wolf" attack. But Muhammad is believed to have traveled to Yemen, a hotbed of terrorism, where he may have studied under a radical Islamist cleric before the shooting.
"Lone jihadists may really be alone as persons, but they are part of a production of jihadists with the same ideology, outlook, and engagement logic," Phares said.
The case of Major Hasan, who carried out the Ford Hood attack, illustrates Phares' point. Hasan's Nov. 5 rampage at the Texas base was one of three this year in which jihadists opposed to U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan targeted American military personnel on U.S. soil.
The attack occurred at the Soldier Readiness Center at Fort Hood, where soldiers are prepared for overseas deployment. A soldier who witnessed Hasan's rampage said he shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) before opening fire.
Serious questions were raised about Hasan's professional competence prior to the Fort Hood attack. A letter written by the director of the psychiatric residency program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to a credentials committee said Hasan "demonstrates a pattern of poor judgment and a lack of professionalism" and that he was counseled for proselytizing to his patients.
Hasan remained in the military despite evidence of his radical ties, including efforts to contact al Qaeda. In addition, he delivered a presentation that seemed to justify jihad and gave a lecture that led his colleagues to conclude he thought non-believers should be condemned to hell, beheaded and set on fire.
Daniel Zwerdling of National Public Radio reported that fellow students and faculty at Walter Reed used terms like "disconnected, aloof, paranoid, belligerent, and schizoid" to describe Hasan's behavior. Hasan acted so bizarrely that officials there held a series of meetings in the spring of 2008 to discuss whether he was "psychotic."
"Put it this way," one official familiar with the conversations told Zwerdling. "Everybody felt that if you were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, you would not want Nidal Hasan in your foxhole."
One of these officials reportedly told colleagues Hasan might leak secret military information to Islamic terrorists, while another worried he might be capable of committing a crime like this.
With all these misgivings, why wasn't Hasan removed from his duties or forced to undergo a mental health evaluation? In interviews with NPR, officials cited a number of reasons, including the fact that expulsion is a cumbersome process possibly involving expensive legal battles. Officials also worried that they might be perceived as discriminating against Hasan because of his faith.
The federal bureaucracy contains a "body of expertise" that advises the government not to identify and counter radical Islamism when it finds it, Phares said in response to a question about the role of "political correctness" in preventing a vigorous investigation of Hasan prior to the massacre. Short of catching Hasan physically preparing to commit a terrorist act, military authorities and law enforcement were unable to move against him.
Currently the United States is "without any defense when it comes to radicalization," Phares said. Terrorists go "undetected until they start preparing for the physical act or until they perform it."
Will the flurry of terror cases in 2009 force the issue?
The recent news that five Washington-area Muslim men were arrested in Pakistan - allegedly while on a mission to join the Taliban in fighting against the United States - served as a jarring reminder of the progress that jihadist recruiters have made in targeting Americans since 9/11.
Those arrests came two days after Chicago resident David Coleman Headley (already charged with planning attacks against the facilities of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten), was charged with playing a pivotal role in the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks in which six Americans were among the more than 170 people killed. The government now alleges that Headley, an American citizen, conducted surveillance of sites targeted in the Mumbai attacks.
Two weeks earlier, the Justice Department announced the arrests and indictments of eight suspects in a continuing investigation of domestic support for the Somali organization al-Shabaab, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the State Department.
According to court documents in the case, the defendants provided "material support" in the form of financing and personnel to the group between September 2007 and October 2009. Approximately 20 young men left the Minneapolis area during this period and traveled to Somalia, where they are believed to have trained with al-Shabaab.
One of the men who left Minnesota in December 2007 was Shirwa Ahmed. He is believed to have become the first known American suicide bomber, when he participated in one of five coordinated suicide bombings on October 29, 2008 in northern Somalia. Approximately 20 people were killed in those attacks.
The terrorism charges filed November 23 bring to 14 the total number of Minnesota-area men charged or indicted in the case. Four of the 14 men have pled guilty and await sentencing; five other Somali men and a Muslim convert have been killed.
It is a "myth" to think that there is a correlation between the level of Muslim integration and the terrorist threat to the United States, Phares said. European societies including Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands have had more liberal cultures and generous social benefits for immigrants than the United States. But they have had much more potent jihadist movements as well.
"What happens in Europe is simply a prelude to what is happening here," Phares said. The argument that "America is different" is actually "an argument advanced by jihadi propagandists for strategic reasons."
They want "to cover up for the gradual expansion of the jihadi ideology before it reaches a critical mass comparable to Europe's," he told the IPT.
To read more on the major terror cases of 2009, click here.