A hallmark of research is that it is neutral and thus open to unanticipated results and findings. Reading "Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans," a new report by researchers at Duke and the University of North Carolina, it seems like these two NCAA rivals came together to violate this cardinal principle of scholarly research.
The report's headline is that the threat of homegrown extremism is exaggerated. That's an odd conclusion just a week into 2010. While the authors acknowledge 2009 was an unusually active year for homegrown terror plots, the litany of cases is insufficient to alter, or even place an asterisk by their conclusion.
"The recent spike of cases in 2009 is disturbing," the authors write, "but it is far too early to know if this is an aberration or a trend. Even if the levels of radicalization of Muslim-Americans do increase, it is important to emphasize that the numbers of individuals engaged in these activities are extremely small."
This seems to rebut an argument no one has made while miscasting the very nature of terrorism. Terrorism does not require large numbers of people to achieve its purpose, which is the creation of fear through calculated and often symbolic acts of violence or the threat of such acts. Terrorist groups have lasted decades and wreaked havoc without having more than a couple dozen members. Further, it doesn't take an army of thousands to generate death and devastation. Ten Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists were able to kill more than 180 people and hold Mumbai – a city of more than 14 million people - hostage over three days. Pointing out that relatively few people become terrorists is irrelevant.
Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 soldiers and wounded 30 more at Fort Hood on his own.
Even national Islamist organizations, loathe to acknowledge the very existence of Islamic extremism, admitted in December that they need to do more to combat radicalization among young Muslim Americans.
The Duke/North Carolina study, funded by the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, identifies 139 people linked to terrorist violence since 2001, an average of 17 people per year. But in the past 14 months, 20 young Somalis disappeared from the Minneapolis area and are thought to have gone to East Africa to join the jihad there. Five D.C. area college students were arrested in Pakistan last month as they tried to join the jihad against American troops in Afghanistan.
Jihad, group leader Ramy Zamzam explained outside a courtroom last week, is not terrorism.
Like the Zamzam group, most of the cases included in the study involve terrorist plots outside the United States. For example, David Headley is charged with plotting to attack the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and with helping the Mumbai plotters by scouting possible targets. The report devotes a page to the North Carolina jihad plot, emphasizing the group's desire to wage jihad abroad. But it fails to mention that Daniel Patrick Boyd is accused of scouting the Marine base at Quantico for a possible attack and that he and defendant Hysen Sherifi were charged in September with plotting to kill American soldiers.
And the data doesn't count cases involving terrorist financing, listing them as "exclusively non-violent activities … because, in our view, individuals have not fully radicalized unless they are willing and have taken steps toward violent action to further their radical views."
It is simply bad social science to view the phenomenon of terrorism as isolated from all other factors and activities besides violent acts. Terrorist acts are at the tail-end of a process of radicalization through which an individual comes to believe in the necessity of radical action through interactive social processes often fostered and guided by Islamist movements. Violent Islamist movements do not just blow things up. They produce propaganda, raise funds, engage in dawah and educational efforts, and often provide services to their constituency. All of these efforts are an interrelated part of a whole and cannot be separated – not even by two universities with first-rate basketball teams. We should expect better from a research team that prominently features a sociologist.
The emphasis on the number of people prosecuted diminishes significance of the threat of terrorism because plots were interdicted before they had a chance to succeed. If even a fraction of them were successfully executed, the death toll could reach into the thousands. It's a fundamental weakness of the argument to argue this threat is exaggerated.
Their definition ignores the radical dogma that goes along with "non violent activities" and the often-used Koranic solicitation that those who finance jihadists are blessed the same as if they participated.
It also buys in to the "covenant of security" understanding many Britons now regret. In essence, radical groups were tolerated as long as their violence did not target the United Kingdom.
The report also seems plagued by other arbitrary standards. The research team interviewed 120 people in four mid-sized U.S. communities. It found that Muslim communities do a good job of self-policing against radical elements and that "Muslim-American organizations and leaders have consistently condemned terrorist violence here and abroad since 9/11, arguing that such violence is strictly condemned by Islam."
It isn't clear how those subjects were chosen or whether the researchers sought out contrary points of view. They are not difficult to find.
Writer Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, sees American Muslim leadership as a part of the problem more than as part of the solution. In the wake of the Zamzam arrests in Pakistan, Fatah noted the radical ties of those expressing concern and making vows to combat the extremist trend. "[T]he leaders of the American Mosque establishment have still not yet recognized that their rhetoric no longer works and that most Americans can see through their tired old cliches about 'peace' and 'love'."
After the Fort Hood massacre, journalist Asra Nomani described Nidal Malik Hasan's slaughter as "a cautionary tale to all Muslim communities about the consequences when we fail to win the war of ideas in the Muslim world with moderate interpretation of Islam over rigid, literal interpretations."
She interviewed a man who attended the same Maryland mosque as Hasan and debated theology with him. Hasan espoused clearly radical views and a literal interpretation of the Quran. "No one in the mosque responded with concerns about Hasan's extremist views," Nomani wrote. But they did object when his interlocutor handed out a newspaper article about an Afgan suicide bomber who accidentally killed his mother and other family members. An angry mosque member accused him of creating a "fitna," or division, in the community.
Nomani met with the same anger when she tried to change her mosque's policy of segregating women from men during prayer.
The report credits the Islamic Society of North American (ISNA), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim American Society (MAS), but makes no mention of their well-documented radical ties and the counter-productive ideologies they espouse.
ISNA was created by Muslim Brotherhood activists in the United States, some of whom remain active. While it engages in numerous interfaith outreach programs, it has a history of tolerating radical statements in its conferences and by some of its own activists.
For example, Jamal Badawi, a senior member of ISNA's leadership, the Majlis A-Shura, and scholar of the ISNA-directed Fiqh Council of North America, spoke last February at the Chebucto Mosque of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the topic of "Understanding Jihad and Martyrdom." He justified the actions of those who die fighting the enemy, particularly "the noble Mujahideen" of Gaza. Concerning these Gazan jihadists, he said:
"Indeed Allah purchased from the believers, their lives and their property, in return for Paradise. They fight in the Way of Allah, they slay and they get slain themselves… And then it [the Qu'ran] says, "Who is more faithful to his covenant or promise, than Allah (swt), then rejoice with this bargain." You see, it's a bargain. Allah bought it [life], but he gives something in return."
As we've reported, ICNA is related to the Jamaat-i-Islami, which advocates for revolution to create an Islamist state in Pakistan. While officials expressed shock that American college students were arrested in Pakistan as they tried to join a jihad against American troops in Afghanistan, the group canonized an American who died waging jihad in Kashmir 12 years earlier.
Then there's CAIR. The FBI cut off contact with the group, despite its political profile, because it has not determined "whether there continues to be a connection between CAIR or its executives and HAMAS." That connection was demonstrated in documents admitted into evidence at the Hamas-support trial of the Holy Land Foundation, which ended with sweeping convictions in November 2008.
Even if their intentions are good, their efforts are likely to fall short based upon the organization's inherent beliefs, wrote M. Zuhdi Jasser, founder and executive director of the American-Islamic Forum for Democracy.
"CAIR and [the Muslim Public Affairs Council] have typically renounced the use of terror and violence, but they have never taken a position against the ideology of political Islam," Jasser wrote. "They have also been constant antagonists to efforts by law enforcement to understand and mitigate the real stages of radicalization of Muslims in America. Just recently these groups called for government to naively "decouple religion from terror."
These organizations have a history of reacting defensively, of crying entrapment when informants help expose plots before they turn violent and even impeding law enforcement investigations. That fact is not analyzed in the report, which casts the groups as a part of the solution.
"Muslim-American organizations and the vast majority of individuals that we interviewed firmly reject the radical extremist ideology that justifies the use of violence to achieve political ends," David Schanzer, the co-author of the study, said in a statement.
When one reads such a statement about groups that have recommended one of Osama bin Laden's favorite books – Sayyid Qutb's Milestones – it is hard not to laugh. If he modified this statement to explain they only rejected the use of violence to achieve political ends here, but not elsewhere, Dr. Schanzer would have been closer to the truth.