Politics & Policy

New York City Caves to Islamist Pressure on Counterterrorism Investigations

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio (Kena Batancur/Getty)

From universal pre-kindergarten to banning Central Park’s horse-carriages, Bill de Blasio has made clear his preference for frivolous liberal priorities over matters of more pressing public concern. Now, with its settlement in Hamid Hassan Raza v. City of New York, the mayor’s office has opted for “social justice” over public safety. After years of litigation, the De Blasio administration mayor’s office has settled a lawsuit with Islamist activists by agreeing to remove from the police department’s training regimen a valuable intelligence tool: a methodically assembled report, based on numerous terrorism investigations, that instructs investigators on the phenomenon of “radicalization” and that has been a crucial element of the counterterrorism strategy that has helped keep New York City safe since September 11, 2001.

Under then-police commissioner Ray Kelly, the New York Police Department spearheaded a new counterterrorism strategy. During the previous decade, terrorism had been treated as a crime to be dealt with by standard law-enforcement tactics. Kelly instead sought to use intelligence to prevent attacks before they occurred. Written in 2007, “Radicalization in the West” was a vital component of these efforts. Even before the Islamic State had splintered from al-Qaeda, the report’s authors recognized that the central danger was not from plots that had been centrally planned in some overseas jihadist safe haven. Rather, it was from attacks designed and executed locally by ostensibly ordinary Muslims, more “inspired” by the ideology than directed by known terrorist organizations. But what were the signs of an aspiring terrorist?

By studying concrete cases, the report’s authors detected a pattern: “Unremarkable” people, not necessarily Muslims at the start, with little if any criminal history, were being influenced by “internal and external factors” (perhaps a local imam, perhaps Internet websites) “to explore Salafi Islam”: a particularly strident, literalist interpretation of Islamic scripture. In some, the “self-identification” stage — often in conjunction with some life upheaval like job loss, death of a loved one, or political activism over international conflicts involving Muslims — led to a gradual abandonment of the person’s former identity and to association with Salafist ideologues. Some became indoctrinated wholesale, and some percentage of those moved on to participation in jihadist violence.

Obviously, establishing and recognizing the pattern is a sensible way to allocate limited investigative resources. Far from smearing all Muslims as potential terrorists, the report tried to identify the small subset of Muslims who might be “radicalizing” so that authorities could interrupt plots before lives were threatened or lost.

Far from smearing all Muslims as potential terrorists, the report tried to identify the small subset of Muslims who might radicalizing.

Nevertheless, a number of Muslim activist groups have long objected to the report’s drawing any connection between Muslims and a propensity toward terrorism. Some of these groups maintain that Muslim terrorists are contorting Islamic doctrine and that dignifying their claims implicitly condemns all of Islam. Others promote accommodation of Sharia (Islamic law) in Western societies and do not want their efforts tied to jihadists’ atrocities. Together, they have strongly opposed post-9/11 counterterrorism measures, claiming they constitute a “war against Islam” and an allegedly unconstitutional profiling of all Muslims.

Since 2009, they have found a sympathetic ear in the White House. After taking office, President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security announced the administration’s new strategy of “countering violent extremism,” an intentional semantic departure from countering terrorism. When Muslim activist groups demanded that the administration “purge all federal government training materials of biased materials” — meaning: evidence or analysis demonstrating a connection between Islamic extremist ideology and violence (which, of course, should never be referred to as “jihad”) — then–White House deputy national security advisor (and now–CIA director) John Brennan buckled, and the FBI, the Defense Department, and other federal agencies began purging training materials and terminating instructors who would not toe the new party line. In December, just after the attacks in San Bernardino, the attorney general of the United States even intimated that enforcement action could be taken against speech casting Islam in an unflattering light.

But now, with De Blasio at the helm and Ray Kelly departed, the City has caved.

Through all of this, and against a torrent of complaints about its counterterrorism approach and surveillance practices, the NYPD continued to follow its strategy, defending it as constitutional, deferential to Islamic sensibilities, and vital to the City’s protection.

But now, with De Blasio at the helm and Ray Kelly departed, the City has caved. Its settlement in Raza adopts the trope that any investigation that regards “religion” as a “substantial or motivating factor” is constitutionally suspect. The City further agrees that “Radicalization in the West” will not be relied upon “to open or extend investigations.”

Political correctness can be based on fantasy, but security must be based on hard truths. The mayor has made an irresponsible choice, and a dangerous one.


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