For the uninitiated, the terms extremism and radicalization are simply words associated with terrorists abroad; they have nothing to do with American citizens or immigrants living in the United States because we do not have a problem here at home. That appears to be the stance the Obama administration took early last year when President Obama entered the White House. While President Bush left office with a clear understanding of the threat posed by extremism and radicalization, President Obama entered office focused almost exclusively on healthcare. Now, as clearly evident by attacks and arrests over the past 12-months, there is no denying the fact the United States has a problem with extremism and radicalization in America and it appears it will only get worse in the foreseeable future.
President Bush’s counterterrorism strategies left little doubt as to who the enemy was and what was needed to defeat them. Some may say his counterterror policies, like his political leanings, were too right-wing. If that was the case under Bush, then under Obama the new policies are too left-wing. Regardless of the reasons the United States entered Afghanistan or Iraq, the fact is we are fighting a two-front war in Muslim countries. This alone is a key recruitment pitch for al-Qa`ida and its affiliates.
Let’s face it, regardless of what it is called, Global War on Terror, GWOT, War on Terrorism, War on al-Qa`ida, Manmade disasters, etc…we are at war. I understand President Obama has a lot on his plate, but unfortunately, he put most of it there, all the while knowing it would just be a matter of time before al-Qa`ida attempted another spectacular attack on the Homeland. While we face a severe recession, it makes sense to place the economy at the top of the president’s priorities, alongside terrorism; however, Obama’s fight for healthcare should never have eclipsed our fight with al-Qa`ida. One need only look at the lead news stories since last January and you will see healthcare, along with blaming Bush for everything, has been this administration’s top priority ever since taking office.
A handful of dedicated counterterrorism analysts have been focused on the problem of extremism and radicalization since 2007. Even though prior to 2008 extremism and radicalization was viewed almost exclusively as a European problem, these analysts understood it was only a matter of time before we began to see similar problems here. Unfortunately, as the Obama administration came to power, the extremism and radicalization mission was relegated to the back burner. This was done for two reasons, one, there had been no evidence to that point of an extremism and radicalization problem in the United States, and two, and most importantly, it was ignored because of the political sensitivities surrounding the issue.
Trying to reenergize the extremism and radicalization mission is now an issue which is taking on increased urgency for the Obama administration, as it tries to reverse its effects on the U.S. counterterrorism community in the face of patent evidence of a growing extremism and radicalization problem in the Homeland. For years, the commonly held view has been that the U.S. did not have a serious radicalization issue at home, in contrast to what was occurring on the ground in Europe, because we did not have the same problem assimilating our Muslim population. The slew of cases over the past year of U.S. citizens who were radicalized and apparently eager to take action, against targets here and abroad, has raised new concerns about the threat of homegrown terrorism. Senior Obama administration officials have candidly acknowledged that the view of the situation has changed. As U.S. attorney general Eric Holder observed in a July 2009 speech after a spate of arrests in the U.S., the "whole notion of radicalization is something that did not loom as large a few months ago...as it does now." And in December, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano noted that “[h]ome-based terrorism is here. And like violent extremism abroad, it will be part of the threat picture we must now confront.” Both were wrong, this phenomenon has been here, we have been facing it for some time now, but Team Obama is only now prepared to recognize it as a problem.
I contend that our problem of homegrown violent Islamist extremists is worse than that faced by our European allies. The UK, Germany, Spain, and the Low Countries (Holland, Belgium, etc) have faced the radicalization of their first- and second-generation Muslim populations. The reasons for this are many, but in almost all cases we can at least understand why it occurs, even if we do not agree on the exact cause; we have a couple of issues to which we can at least point and we have a population that can be addressed. The United States, on the other hand, cannot point to even one reason for our homegrown violent Islamist extremists. I am not talking about our issue with radicalized first- and second-generation Muslims. Like our European cousins, the reasons for their radicalization are many and in almost all cases we can at least understand why it occurs, even if we do not agree on the exact cause. Likewise, we can address a specific segment of the population with outreach and engagement efforts. However, we have a much bigger threat; homegrown violent Islamist extremists. These are the American-born, or American-raised, non-Muslims, who later convert and decide, for whatever reason, they need to align themselves with al-Qa`ida and carry out a terrorist attack in their homeland. Their backgrounds, ethnicities, and reasons are as diverse as our population. How do we reach out to them when there is no, single at-risk population? How do we gauge which group of people are the most likely to convert and attack us from within?
No one has the answers. And President Obama’s counterterror team will not find the answers by sticking their head in the sand and pretending the problem does not exist.
(Be sure to keep an eye out for my upcoming book, The rise of Islamic terrorism in the United States: Extremism and Radicalization on the Home Front, that will address this specific problem set.)