In 2002, at Brooklyn College, New Yorker Syed Hashmi adopted the views of al-Muhajiroun, an extremist Islamic organization. In 2006, he was charged with assisting al Qaeda conspirators in attacking targets in London and delivering funds and weaponry to jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Cowed by political correctness, Western officialdom has been dangerously slow to warn of such militancy in our midst. “Radicalization in the West and the Homegrown Threat,” a 90-page report published in August by the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, makes up for lost ground, venturing even to show how U.S. college campuses — typically immune from such attention — can be fertile ground for generating terror.
Although al Qaeda jihadists remain a danger to the U.S., its authors conclude, a more insidious threat is multiplying “at a logarithmic rate.” This consists of an ideology-driven radicalization process that transforms “unremarkable” young Muslim men and women without criminal or police records into potential terrorists. Militants especially target “middle class university students because they are ‘clean skins.’” The study looks at cases involving more than 100 such homegrown actors from six countries who were connected to eleven past terrorist plots, including 9/11.
The NYPD report has been hailed as a major complement to the National Intelligence Estimate released in July, which made virtually no mention of homegrown terrorism. The New York Post praised NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly for having the “guts” to put forward an “honest” portrayal of Islamic radicalization. The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, praised it as a “breakthrough in our efforts to defend our homeland.”
Numerous experts on terrorism have also commended its novel construction of a matrix for charting the course of individuals as they proceed (as though through a “funnel”) from “pre-radicalization” to “self-identification” to “indoctrination” to “jihadization.” Using this matrix, high-ranking law enforcement officials in several North American jurisdictions have identified at least two-dozen “nodes” of individuals in the region who are at different stages along the path toward full-fledged militancy.
The report is also unique in its stark focus less on domestic mosques as “radicalization incubators” than on sites and groups such as cafes, prisons, bookstores, nongovernmental associations — and more unique still — student organizations. “Cognitive openings” experienced by students or others within such entities are then connected to deadly, real-life terrorist acts. (Not surprisingly, there is no mention of how the college classroom itself might contribute to such “incubation.” Potential radical tendencies may certainly be reinforced by an anti-U.S., anti-Western, anti-Israel bias, notably, in Middle East Studies, which has been documented by scholars such as Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes.) Among student groups, the report zeroes in on the Muslim Student Association (MSA), which now has 240 chapters on campuses across North America, and which up until now law enforcement authorities have refrained from prominently singling out.
Yet the linking of campuses to homegrown terrorism is not entirely unprecedented. In June, New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness issued an intelligence assessment stating that “the Intelligence Bureau has identified numerous pockets of radical youth existing in New Jersey communities and especially [emphasis added] on N.J. campuses.” And, in a groundbreaking 2005 study (on which I commented on NRO), Anthony Glees identified 31 campuses in the UK where mostly Islamist terrorist and extremist groups were detected over a 15-year period; he also noted that MI5, the nation’s security service, has produced an extensive report on why young British Muslims become radicalized.
Shamsi Ali, deputy imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, deems the NYPD report’s “generalizations” about MSA’s “not helpful.” But, on the contrary, the document specifically and constructively sounds the alarm about the increasing number of students being infected by jihadi-Salafi (i.e., militant, extremist/Sunni fundamentalist) ideology in university groups, and, above all the critical role of the ideology-suffused MSA’s in recruiting like-minded individuals.
Surely an understanding of this process is the sine qua non for identifying young militants indoctrinated in the belief that the use of violence to impose a global Muslim empire is a personal moral obligation. And what indeed could be more “helpful” than identifying such students before their hateful transformation turns lethal?
The report pulls no punches in pointing to a jihadi-Salafi subculture within New York City, including within its university population. It traces for the first time how Salafi non-governmental-organizations, enormously facilitated by the Internet, are sponsoring joint Salafi-based events with local, university-based MSA’s; funding Salafi-slanted adult learning classes; providing forums for young, charismatic, American-born imams who advocate a more politicized version of Islam; and distributing literature by Salafi ideologues, such as Hassan al-Banna. One work said to be increasingly slated for discussion by the MSA’s is Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s Kitab At-Tawheed, the foundational book for Wahhabi (Salafi, Saudi Arabia–based) Islam.
In addition, the report is unsparing in its condemnation of the Saudis’ provision of such “radical literature” — no doubt the reason why various Saudi-funded U.S. groups, notably the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, vociferously denounced it.
The study does not, however, elaborate on the Saudi connection to the MSA’s. According to Stephen Schwartz, executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, this “octopus-like” web of groups is a key lobbying organization for Saudi Wahhabism, with strong ties to the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, one of the vehicles via which the Saudi government funds Islamic radicalism and international terrorism.
A sampling of the MSA’s activities by Jonathan Dowd-Gailey included the sponsoring of one campus speaker who declared, “The only relationship you should have with America is to topple it . . . Eventually there will be a Muslim in the White House dictating the [Islamic] laws of Shariah.” Dowd-Gailey also cites the organization’s fundraising assistance of three Islamic “charities” accused by the FBI of having serious links to terrorism.
Unlike guidelines issued by the British government (which went so far as to ask university staff to monitor student Islamic societies and to report suspicious behavior), the NYPD study is not prescriptive. Only in one instance, in noting praise of the report by Rand Corporation terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, does it suggest what must be done to combat homegrown terror. Specifically, Jenkins says the report can aid authorities in formulating “effective and appropriate strategies aimed at peeling potential recruits away from a dangerous and destructive course.”
But what might these strategies be? And, in particular, what can be done to halt the radicalization of Muslim youth on college campuses, especially within MSA’s?
Stephen Schwartz tells me: “A strategy for dealing with MSA’s must be dual. First, an alternative must be supported among Muslim students themselves. But secondly, and more importantly, there must be a serious federal-level investigation of the financing and coordination of MSA’s from abroad, mainly from Saudi Arabia. Muslim students in the U.S. do not grow up in ghettoes where they undergo social alienation. Radicalization is not new — it has been dominant in the American Muslim community since the 1980s. Nor is the basis for its growth new — it still involves foreign money, foreign indoctrination, and a foreign ideology. A radical counteroffensive is clearly underway: As the enemy loses in Iraq, it seeks to export jihad to other countries considered to have weak spots. Unfortunately, American college campuses are just such vulnerable places.”
Both Schwartz and Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project, whom I also interviewed, agree that countering the pernicious work of the MSA’s will be an uphill battle. Emerson approached the matter from the standpoint of the need to disrupt militant clusters within such groups through intelligence-gathering, such as the use of informants and covert surveillance — another issue not directly raised in the report: “It’s very difficult, if not impossible, for police intelligence agencies to gather intel on MSA’s unless they have a priori evidence of a criminal predicate. Of course, agencies rely on informants, and it would be valuable if they can recruit reliable informants who are in a position to know. But MSA’s are not the highest priorities of the FBI or metropolitan police departments. And, unfortunately, protests of ‘government spying on campus’ have been enough to deter these agencies from mounting the same intel operations they would do outside the campus.”
Yet as Judith Miller concludes in a commentary on the report, such operations, aimed at identifying suspects in the process of being radicalized, are exactly what agencies like the NYPD are “already doing, and must continue to do, to disrupt terrorist plots.” She observes that “the militant plot to blow up Herald Square subway station, after all, was foiled by an NYPD confidential informant and an undercover officer,” as were other plots which the report describes.
Despite its shortcomings, the report is an innovative and intriguing addition to understanding the causes of Islamic terrorism. It is also intriguing in the politically explosive issues it does not address but implicitly forces us all — not least campus denizens — to confront. Chief among these is the recognition that in order to protect our lives in face of homegrown and foreign terror we may have to limit our constitutional protections.
– Candace de Russy is an expert on higher education who blogs at NRO’s “Phi Beta Cons.”