Muslim ‘terror threat’ belied by numbers

In recent years, the threat of terrorism by Muslim Americans has been exaggerated by US officials, a new study shows.

Peter King hearings
Peter King has held four hearings on “the extent of Muslim-American radicalisation by al-Qaeda” [GALLO/GETTY]

Washington, DC – The threat of terrorism carried out by Muslim Americans appears to have been exaggerated by US officials in recent years, according to a new study on domestic terrorism released Wednesday.

The study, the third in an annual series by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security in North Carolina, found that both the number of plots by and indictments against radicalised Muslim Americans fell sharply last year from a high in 2009, defying predictions by law enforcement and other officials.

Only one of the 20 Muslim Americans who were indicted in 2011 for plotting terrorist activities succeeded in carrying out an actual attack; in that case, the assailant fired shots at military buildings outside Washington without injuring anyone.

“Threats remain: violent plots have not dwindled to zero, and revolutionary Islamist organisations overseas continue to call for Muslim-Americans to engage in violence,” according to the report’s principal author, Charles Kurzman, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina.

“However, the number of Muslim-Americans who have responded to these calls continues to be tiny, when compared with the population of more than 2 million Muslims in the United States and when compared with the total level of violence in the United States, which was on track to register 14,000 murders in 2011,” wrote Kurzman, who last year published a book titled The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists.

Exaggeration of al-Qaeda

Coincidentally, the new report was released as a senior Pentagon official suggested that Washington may also have exaggerated the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11.

“Al-Qaeda wasn’t as good as we thought they were on 9/11,” Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defence for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told a conference here Tuesday.

FBI halts anti-Muslim training

“Quite frankly, we … were asleep at the switch, the US government, prior to 9/11. So an organisation that wasn’t that good looked really great on 9/11. Everyone looked to the skies every day after 9/11 and said, ‘When is the next attack?’ And it didn’t come, partly because al-Qaeda wasn’t that capable,” he was reported as saying by the Army Times.

“They didn’t have other units here in the US …Really, they didn’t have the capability to conduct a second attack,” he added.

Critics of the administration of former President George W Bush and his “global war on terror” have long charged that it exaggerated the threat posed by both al-Qaeda and by its sympathisers in the United States.

The latest report Triangle Center report, however, focuses primarily on the period since Barack Obama became president in January 2009.

Indeed, 2009 saw a major spike in the number of indictments – 47 – of Muslim Americans for their alleged involvement in terrorist plots or actual attacks. That was substantially more than the annual average of 20 indictments since 9/11.

Moreover, the actual attacks themselves killed more people on US soil than in any other single year since 9/11, heightening concern. On November 5, 2009, an army psychiatrist, Nidal Hasan, opened fire at Ford Hood, Texas, killing 13 people. Three months before, Abdulhakim Muhammad shot two soldiers outside a military recruitment centre in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing one of them.

Adding to concern by the end of that year was the attempted bombing by a Nigerian Muslim, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, of a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam as it was preparing to land in Detroit.

Fall in indictments

The number of indictments of Muslim Americans for alleged terrorism-related activities subsequently fell in 2010 to 26, but the attempted car bombing in New York City’s Times Square on May 1 that year by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-born naturalised US citizen who had been trained in explosives by an extremist group in Waziristan, bolstered fears that Muslim Americans were becoming radicalised.

By the first part of 2011, US officials, such as Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Robert Mueller and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, were warning that the terrorist threat faced by the authorities had reached its greatest height since 9/11.

At the same time, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Representative Peter King, held a series of four controversial hearings on “the extent of Muslim-American radicalisation by al-Qaeda in their communities”.

US Muslims speak of unjust suspicion 

“These and similar warnings have braced Americans for a possible upsurge in Muslim-American terrorism, which has not occurred,” according to the Triangle Center study which concluded that “…a byproduct of these alerts is a sense of heightened tension that is out of proportion to the actual number of terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11.”

Indeed, public opinion surveys of Muslim Americans have consistently shown a very low degree of radicalisation and a higher level of satisfaction with their lives, their local communities, and the direction of the country than the general public as a whole.

While 55 per cent of some 1,000 Muslim American respondents told a Pew Research Center poll released last summer their lives had become more difficult since 9/11, eight in 10 said they were satisfied with their personal lives, and 56 per cent said they felt satisfied with the way things were going in the country, compared to only a 23 per cent satisfaction rate among the general public.

A Gallup poll also released last summer found that US Muslims express greater tolerance for members of other faiths and are more likely to oppose violent attacks against civilians than any other major US religious group.

The Triangle Center study found that almost 200 Muslim Americans have been involved in violent terrorist plots over the past decade, and more than 400 Muslim Americans have been indicted or convicted for supporting terrorism, which includes providing funding for terrorist groups overseas.

In 2011, however, the numbers dropped in both categories, and the severity of the cases also appeared to decline: Not only were there no fatalities resulting from terrorist plots during the year, but the four indictments issued for terrorist financing involved relatively small amounts of money, the report found.

The nearly 200 Muslims who have been involved in violent terrorist plots since 9/11 were roughly equally divided between those who were born in the US and those who immigrated here.

According to the Pew poll, 37 per cent of Muslim Americans were born in the US, and 63 per cent were born elsewhere.

A version of this article was first published on Inter Press Service.

Source: IPS


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