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Response to Commentary on Triangle Center Report

Submitted by David Schanzer, Feb 24, 2012 15:21

We appreciate the attention that Steven Emerson has paid to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security's recent report "Muslim-American Terrorism in the Decade Since 9/11" but are unconvinced by his critique.

His main claim is that the report is somehow "ignoring" or undervaluing law enforcement success in thwarting planned attacks in the United States but he points to no text or data from the report that does anything of the sort. In fact, this and the other two reports in the series document and quantify these law enforcement successes and use the data on arrests and prosecutions to better understand the magnitude and nature of the threat of homegrown terrorism. Strangely, Emerson seems agitated by our effort to bring facts to bear when looking at this issue, arguing that it is somehow "misleading to use raw numbers on an issue like terrorism." Really? Is terrorism so emotionally laden and sensitive that it is the only public policy matter on the national agenda that should be immune from rigorous, data-based analysis? We don't think so.

Perhaps Emerson opposes this type of analysis because it threatens his one-sided approach to terrorism, which avoids asking questions like: How big is the threat? Is it increasing or decreasing? What are the capability levels and characteristics of perpetrators? Rather, Emerson and other pundits of his ilk presume the presence of a constant, large-scale, highly dangerous threat emanating from the Muslim-American community, and then highlight the most inflammatory statements and incidents by Muslim-Americans to drive public opinion to their own preconceived notion of the truth. We have no qualm with neutral reporting on homegrown terrorism, and our public statements have always underscored that the serious, ongoing threat that must addressed by law enforcement and other governmental authorities. But the notion that our report is pushing an agenda by gathering and analyzing data – compared to Mr. Emerson's propaganda activities – is nonsense.

It is also worth noting that Emerson does not attempt to challenge the core findings of the report:

** The number of violent homegrown incidents by Muslim-Americans has declined two years in a row. Does this mean that the threat is gone or will continue to fade? Of course not. But it does mean that predictions of an inexorable increase in the magnitude of this phenomenon, made by many terrorism experts and government officials, have been incorrect so far.

** The number of terrorism financing cases has dropped dramatically over the past decade, as has the amount of money at stake in these cases.

** A smaller portion of Muslim-Americans who engaged in violent criminal acts in 2011 had connections with outside terrorist organizations than in prior years.

A few of Emerson's other points merit a response.

First, he criticizes our comparison between the number of murders in the United States in 2011 (over 14,000) with the number of deaths caused by Muslim-American terrorists (zero). Emerson claims this is a false comparison because murderers generally act for personal or monetary reasons and terrorists "seek mass causalities and seek to instill mass fear to deep economic harm and political surrender." Scholarship shows, however, that terrorists have many complex motivations – sometimes acting out of revenge, the desire to connect with a group of likeminded individuals or other grievances. Emerson's claim that all terrorists have macro-level political ambitions (and therefore present a danger greater than the actual violence they cause) is simply wrong. Many of them are just stupid, violent people . Emerson also ignores that the level of the threat depends on both the intentions and the capabilities of the perpetrator. The rag-tag group of individuals arrested in 2011 makes one wonder if any of them (with the possible exception of the alleged Iranian plotter) had the technical capability to cause "mass casualties." Since the terrorist perpetrators in 2011 appear to be incapable of both large scale violence or shaking our national confidence, we believe it helps the public to better understand the magnitude of the threat by pointing out the actual number of deaths they caused in 2011 (none) compared to the approximately 40 killings that take place in the United States every day.

Emerson uses his usual distortive techniques with respect to one of the 2011 cases included in our recent report, chiding us for downplaying the dangers of Emerson Begolly, who was convicted for posting violent materials to his website. Emerson cites Begolly's inflammatory statements on his website as indicative of his dangerousness, claiming that Begolly "sought far greater bloodshed" and "urged jihadists to attack government buildings, Jewish schools, [and] daycare centers." We are pleased that Begolly is behind bars and support the FBI's actions that led to the conviction. But there is nothing in the indictment or guilty plea suggesting that Begolly had taken any concrete actions towards terrorist activity -- his criminal activities amount to no more than compiling and distributing much of the jihadi invective that is prevalent across the internet. A crime – sure – but hardly evidence of an organized homegrown movement to "instill mass fear to deep economic harm and political surrender."

Finally, Emerson criticizes our separate treatment of violent plots and nonviolent support for terrorism. This report contains a decade's worth of data on both categories, and breaks them down to distinguish between individuals who are willing to maim and murder civilians and individuals who simply finance or provide other forms of support to terrorist organizations. This latter group of perpetrators – while criminals and deserving of punishment – do not present the same level of national security threat as the violent plotters. Emerson is certainly entitled to his view that all terrorists are the same and present equivalent levels of threat, but this is representative of his rudimentary and not particularly illuminating approach to the entire subject. Moreover, Emerson is simply wrong in his claim that we are disregarding cases of material support to terrorism – there are dozens of cases involving material support in both databases.

David Schanzer


Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security


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