Two days after a panel took to Capitol Hill to say the terrorist threat to America is overblown, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a House committee Tuesday that "the terrorist threat to the homeland is in many ways at its most heightened state since 9/11."
That threat comes from homegrown terrorists ready to strike with "little or no warning," she said.
Islamist groups including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, al-Shabaab and branches of al-Qaida are driving the threat, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter added. "I actually consider al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, with Awlaki as a leader within that organization, probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland," he said.
Both officials said the problem reflects on only a tiny portion of the Muslim-American community.
A similar theme was emphasized during a forum Monday sponsored by the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). But the rest of "Muslims, Law Enforcement and National Security" offered a tutorial on how not to have a serious discussion about the homegrown terrorist threat. Panelists mired themselves in platitudes and use of misleading statistics to downplay the threat to the United States. They relied on data from faulty studies and featured witnesses who have downplayed the threat of radical Islamist groups.
Instead of grappling with the reality that the organizations like MPAC and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) continually attack law enforcement and actively discourage Muslims from cooperating with it, forum panelists ignored the subject. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca continued his vociferous public defense of CAIR and defended his attendance at CAIR fundraisers.
Speakers made clear that a key goal was to challenge the premise hearings planned next month on Islamic radicalism in America by the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. "Our heads aren't in the sand," said MPAC's Alejandro Beutel. "The threat clearly exists, but I also want to put it in perspective. The threat exists, but it is not a pandemic."
MPAC's past stands on terrorism include criticism of the U.S. decision to label Hamas and Hizballah as terrorist groups.
But Beutel relied on faulty data to support his claims. He cited MPAC's own study, which claimed that Muslim Americans thwarted one-third of terrorist plots since 9/11; that study has already been thoroughly debunked by an IPT analysis in December. That study selectively defined terrorism prosecutions to leave out dozens of cases involving terrorist financing. And it exaggerated the role community policing played in generating tips to law enforcement.
Beutel also touted a new report by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security – a collaboration including Duke University and the University of North Carolina – that found the number of Muslim Americans named as suspects or convicted of committing terrorist acts domestically or abroad fell from 47 in 2009 to 20 in 2010.
While Beutel and others claim that shows Muslim-related terrorism isn't a problem, the report actually says that "with Muslims comprising about 1 percent of the population, it is clear that Muslims are engaging in terrorism at a greater rate than non-Muslims." Although the number of incidents did decrease in 2010, the year still had a higher number of terrorist plots since 9/11 than every year but one.
The study tried to play down the significance of this fact by comparing it to the number of murders that occur in the United States each year (a formulation which ignores the reality that makes terrorism so much more frightening than violent street crime: Murders are often the culmination of disputes involving people who know one another, while jihadist attacks are planned efforts to kill and maim hundreds or thousands of total strangers at one time.)
As an IPT investigation showed, MPAC's data is marred by more serious flaws. It overstated the role of "community assistance" from American Muslims, including plots that were stopped by "intelligence assets overseas and other plots that had little or nothing to do with the U.S. Muslim community."
MPAC inflated the percentage of "community assistance" by ignoring more than 150 cases reported by the Justice Department as involving "material support or resources to a designated terrorist organization." These included prosecutions for providing weapons, money, personnel and other support to designated terrorist organizations.
By ignoring those cases, MPAC omitted the indictment and prosecution of six Americans for funneling money and personnel to the Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab; the case of Sami Al-Arian, who pled guilty to conspiring to provide services to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad; and the now-defunct Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), whose leadership was convicted of providing millions of dollars to Hamas. The exclusion of the last two cases is particularly revealing – MPAC tried to discredit the prosecutions of Al-Arian and HLF.
Experts Play Down Threats
At MPAC's Capitol Hill forum, both Sherriff Baca and CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen minimized the threat posed by jihadist terror. Asked about King's expressed concerns about Muslim non-cooperation with law enforcement, Baca denied there was a problem. "I don't know what King is hearing or who he is hearing from," Baca said. "We're with these people [Muslim Americans] all the time." If King "has evidence of noncooperation, he should bring it forward."
CAIR "is not a terrorist-supporting organization," Baca asserted. "I've got enough experience with CAIR to make that statement." None of the other panelists challenged Baca's comment. At Monday's MPAC event, Baca said that Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., had tried to "slap me around for going to CAIR dinners" at last year's hearing, but boasted that he had stood firm.
It is not the first time that Baca – who has appeared at numerous CAIR fundraisers – has sought to whitewash the organization's radical background. Asked about his close relationship with CAIR during a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing last March, Baca angrily denied that CAIR supported terrorism or had connections with Hamas. One week after that congressional hearing, Baca met with officials from Muslim organizations and defended CAIR again. He ridiculed FBI official statements about CAIR officials' participation in a Hamas support network called the Palestine Committee, dismissing those who consider CAIR untrustworthy as "amateur intelligence officer[s.]"
Early last year, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote that trial testimony and exhibits in the HLF case "demonstrated a relationship among CAIR, individual CAIR founders and the Palestine Committee. Evidence was also introduced that demonstrated a relationship between the Palestine Committee and Hamas." Weich also responded to questions from U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. A simple "no" was the response to whether there was any "new evidence that exonerates CAIR from the allegations that it provides financial support to designated terrorist organizations."
Yet Baca reacted contemptuously to these concerns, stating, "When you attack CAIR, you attack virtually every Muslim in America."
At Monday's MPAC forum, Bergen wavered between downplaying the terrorist threat and conditioning Americans not to "overreact" when terrorists launch a successful attack on the United States. "Al-Qaida is not 10 feet tall," Bergen said. The organization was not in a position to launch an "existential" attack on the United States, suggesting that the group would be limited to carrying out smaller-scale strikes like the Dec. 25, 2009 attempt to carry out a suicide attack on a passenger jet, he added.
Bergen repeatedly emphasized the importance of preventing an "overreaction" to a successful attack.
Bergen said it is critical to "lay the groundwork" so that the U.S. Constitution would not be damaged as a result of public overreaction to a future attack. He fretted that "our own overreaction could do al-Qaida's work for it." Bergen has a history of statements defending the Muslim Brotherhood and strident attacks on U.S. conduct of the war against radical Islamists:
Despite its long record of radicalism and support for jihad, Bergen dismissed the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood poses a danger. Asked about the Brotherhood during a recent appearance on CNN, Bergen replied: "I don't think they're very dangerous at all." Bergen said that the Brotherhood "had a terrorist ring in the 1950s, but over time, this is a group that is increasingly just engaged in normal politics."
Bergen co-authored an article crediting Muslim Brotherhood leader Kamal Helbawy with helping "bring in moderates at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London." Helbawy is an advocate of violent jihad against Israel with a long history of extremism.
Even after Newsweek retracted a false allegation in 2005 that a copy of the Koran had been flushed down the toilet at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, Bergen said the allegation could be true. "I don't think it's beyond the realm of possibility, to be honest," he told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "I think it is still an open question."
If the panel hoped to undermine King's hearing, Wednesday's testimony and the guilty plea of homegrown terrorist Daniel Patrick Boyd offer compelling counter-arguments. And King is making it clear he isn't swayed. In a letter to U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Homeland Security Committee's ranking Democrat, King wrote that "the homeland has become a major front in the war with Islamic terrorism and it is our responsibility to fully examine this significant change in al Qaeda tactics and strategy."