Saturday, December 12, 2009

Homegrown Terrorism Glass: Half-Empty or Half Full

The story of five young guys from Virginia getting arrested in Pakistan as they sought to engage in jihad raises all kinds of questions.  The primary one is whether the US has lost its "immunity" to homegrown terrorism that plagues Europe.  This combined with the Fort Hood attack and other events make the US look quite vulnerable to homegrown terrorism.

My first reaction is that the notion of immunity was always over-drawn.  That is, there has been a drizzle of stories since 9/11 about individuals and small groups of individuals in the US seeking to engage in either terrorism in the US or in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Immunity suggests zero, and that was never the case.  However, it has been striking that some countries have faced far more violence by domestically based terrorists, such as the UK.

My second reaction is to grimace when they cite Robert Pape, who has become one of the go-to guys for the media when they want to talk about terrorism, despite his work being blistered for its methodological problems.  I don't have a current statistic, but I am pretty sure that the increase in violence the past year in Afghanistan was not in the form of suicide terrorism in reaction to increases in the US presence.  Instead, I think we are seeing more and bigger improvised roadside bombs and more battles as more troops interact with more insurgents.

My third reaction was to consider the reactions of the families and other Muslim Americans, and from their actions and, we can take some relief:

Yet amid the concern about the five Virginia men and the impact of the wars on Muslim opinion, Audrey Kurth Cronin of the National War College in Washington said she found something to take comfort in.
“To me, the most interesting thing about the five guys is that it was their parents that went immediately to the F.B.I.,” she said. “It was members of the American Muslim community that put a stop to whatever those men may have been planning.”

 And that, as my various students researching terrorism consider crucial, the question really is not of whether individuals will become alienated, but whether communities will.  Terrorists may need less support from the populace than insurgents, but they cannot last for very long with active opposition from their own community.  And it seems to be the case that the key difference, still, despite the best efforts by some to antagonize the Muslims in the US, is that American Muslim communities are not as alienated as similar communities elsewhere.  We should not take this for granted.

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