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David Headley case: What's behind spate of US-based terrorist plots?

Federal prosecutors filed charges this week against Chicago resident David Headley in connection with the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. On Wednesday, Pakistan police said they have arrested five Americans suspected of seeking ties with terrorists there.

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Like Najibullah Zazi, a Queens resident charged in September with plotting to set off bombs in the US, Headley attended training camps in Pakistan, the FBI says. This is an indication of how serious the problem has become, says Dan Byman, a counterterrorism expert at Brookings, a think tank in Washington

The radicalization of Americans to the extent that they would travel overseas to be skilled in terrorist acts is "quite significant" in showing "the involvement of the Al Qaeda core in Pakistan" in US Muslim communities, Mr. Byman adds.

He suggests that there is not a single path to recruiting US Muslims, and that contrary to what many think, the Internet plays less of a role than do face-to-face encounters in local Muslim communities. Federal authorities and local police have discovered that the best way to counter local recruiting efforts is to "recognize that the local Muslim community is their best ally," he adds.

"When local citizens spot youths who are troubled or acting out, they should feel the police or FBI are not hostile and that they should be working with them," he says.

But Mr. Safir disagrees. "Is [working with local mosques] the approach that is going to, in the long run, make us safe? I don't think so. I think when somebody becomes disaffected, a community program is not necessarily going to make them change their minds," he says.

He suggests dedicating more resources to tracking better intelligence.

Still 'amateurish'

Many of the plots uncovered so far indicate that, for the most part, the homegrown American threat remains immature. "The numbers are still quite small, and some of the instances are quite amateurish," says Thomas Mockaitis, a terrorism expert at DePaul University in Chicago.

He points to Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people in a November attack at Fort Hood, Texas, as a potential exception. But it is still not clear if Mr. Hasan's actions constituted "a random act" or were part of a larger terrorist plot, Mr. Mockaitis says.

"What encourages me is the vast majority of American Muslims who are born and raised here seem to have a certain resistance in being radicalized" due to more education and job opportunities than are available in Europe or elsewhere," he says.

"There's always the potential in a free and open society as diverse and as heterogeneous as ours [for radicals] to use it for cover," he adds. "But I don't think there is any huge increase."

See also:

Split life defined alleged Mumbai attack conspirator

Fort Hood: How Nidal Malik Hasan's path turned more radical

Fort Hood suspect: Portrait of a terrorist?

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