DON LEMON: Americans accused of working for the enemy. Fourteen people indicted for allegedly supporting al-Shabaab, an Islamic militant group with suspected ties to al Qaeda. All of the suspects are either U.S. citizens or they've lived in the States. The Justice Department says it's part of a growing and disturbing trend: terrorists organizations recruiting Americans.
So, joining us now are: Nasser Weddady, and the civil rights outreach director for the American Islamic Congress. He is the director.
And Steve Emerson, founder of the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
OK. So, Steve, this question is for you. Why are some Americans falling under the influence of extremists?
STEVE EMERSON, INVESTIGATIVE PROJECT ON TERRORISM: Well, I think there are several reasons. If we look at some of the youth, like Omar Hammami, who was only 26 years old, he was a white convert to Islam from Alabama. And it looks like, if we follow his path to radicalization, it came from the community of the Islamic community in which he grew up, as well as the Muslim Student Association of which he was president at his university.
So, in fact, it looks like the communal leaders didn't stop or actually encourage radicalism. Maybe not believing he would engage in terrorism. But that was the end-result of his belief that, somehow, the west had wronged Islam and he must avenge it.
LEMON: Hey, Steve, I want to actually show you some video. I want you to listen to this because, you know, it's good that you mentioned him. Let's play it and then we'll talk about it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The only reason we're staying here, away from our families, away from the cities, away from, you know, ice, candy bars, all these other things, because we are willing to meet with the enemy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: Again, as you said, Omar, his name is Shakif -- no, I'm sorry Shafik Hammami.
So, listen, Nasr, are young people particularly at risk of being radicalized like this young man?
NASSER WEDDADY, AMERICAN ISLAMIC CONGRESS: I believe so, because young people in the United States, in particular, and in the West, don't have quite a healthy way to explore their Muslim identity. And we have to take into account the fact that there's a term we'll use in my office, we call it the mullah syndrome. The mullah syndrome consists of the fact that government law enforcement agencies and even civil society have come up somehow to this bizarre conclusion that in order to engage Muslims, you need to engage people with religious credentials, clerics, imams. And the problem there is that that even, in my opinion, makes the youth more vulnerable because, when the time comes for them to ask questions about their Muslim identity and how to engage it, I'm not sure that the healthiest message is the most spread around in the West.
So, yes, the youth are a particular risk of radicalization. And what is really important to retain here is that Muslim cultural identities are far more complex than simply to zoom in on focus on religion. You need to --
DON LEMON, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Nasser, you think Western countries or citizens of Western countries doing something to make these young people feel alienated?
NASSER: No. The story is more complicated than simply shifting blame on one party. The fact is, when you're a young Muslim and you want to explore and engage your cultural identity, figure out what your place in society is, there's a big vacuum. and that vacuum oftentimes, unfortunately, is not filled by the healthiest and most positive influences that you and I would want our children to grow up around.
LEMON: Steve, I hear you're wanting to get in on this.
STEVE EMERSON, FOUNDER, INVESTIGATIVE PROJECT ON TERRORISM: Well, I sort of want to agree. Look, America is a nation of immigrants. And if we look at the last 20 years, they're immigrants from Mexico, South America, from Southeast Asia. the only ones who are engaged or actively engaged in carrying out acts of terrorism, not the only ones, I mean, we also have indigenous ones, but most of them have been young Muslims or Muslims who have lived in the United States. And that's because they surround themselves with a narrative that is reinforced by Islamic leaders, by the traditional Islamic community, which says, there is a conspiracy against Islam and you have to avenge it.
Unfortunately, the media and, in particular, I'll say "The New York Times," last week, portrayed eight imams as moderate because they produced a video saying they're against terrorism. In fact, on our web site, we showed that all eight imams had actually encouraged violence behind closed doors.
So, I think there is a deception being perpetrated in the belief that, somehow, these imams, who present themselves publicly to the media will portray themselves as moderate, but, in fact, behind closed doors, there's a lot more going on that's radicalizing them. And it's not the American government's fault or American culture's fault. It's the fault of the communal leaders for not stopping it.
LEMON: Hey, Nasser, I wish we had more time to talk about this but I'll give you the last word. What do you think of what Steve is saying?
WEDDADY: I believe that we need to take into consideration that many factors come to play here. First of all, in my opinion, the most important one is that we need to make a clear distinction between Islamist influences and the fact that, when you a young man now in America and you're not radicalized by any stretch of imagination, there's a lot of incentive and pressure on you to run away from your Muslim identity. One has to take that into factor and realize that, by us emphasizing on the role of religious leaders, on mosques, on imams, and somehow appointing them spokesmen for all of the community, we're actually aggravating things. We're not opening the space for others to come in, like we're doing on campuses throughout our project.
WEDDADY: We're opening a space allowing young Muslims to explore and go back to that heritage that their parents and their forefathers practiced in their home countries. That heritage --
LEMON: Nasser? Nasser, I'm sorry.
WEDDADY: Yes, go ahead.
LEMON: I need you to finish your point because we're really out of time here. WEDDADY: Yes.
WEDDADY: And the simple point that I -- I wanted to conclude with one thing, is that please stop emphasizing and focusing and appointing on us imams and clerics that, for all intents and purposes, appointed themselves by virtue of having the biggest bank account. There are other ways to explore the Muslim community and immunize the youth against radicalization.
LEMON: Nasser, with that --
WEDDADY: That has to be taken into account by the government.
LEMON: We appreciate your time. Thanks to both of you for joining us tonight.