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Terrorism cases force more Muslim Americans to grapple with homegrown jihad

Recent arrests of Muslim men in terrorism plots lead some adherents to ask if they need to approach risks of homegrown jihadists with more urgency.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / July 7, 2010

New York

The scene is becoming too familiar: A young man is arrested for intending to harm innocent people. He may proclaim he's an Islamic soldier, he may say he wants to be a martyr, or he may have planned a trip overseas with the apparent intent of shooting at American soldiers.

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Such descriptions jibe with a number of recent arrests: of Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber from Connecticut who pleaded guilty June 21; of the five American men from Virginia who have been sentenced in Pakistan to 10 years in prison for conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks; and of Najibullah Zazi, the former airport shuttle-bus driver from Colorado who pleaded guilty to involvement in a bomb plot against the New York subway system – a plot that apparently had the involvement of a high-level Al Qaeda operative.

Are these simply anomalies, bad apples within the greater law-abiding Muslim population in the United States? Or do they indicate that something more sinister needs to be confronted within this population so that the idea of killing innocent people does not become a misguided act of martyrdom?

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Answering these questions is one of the most difficult tasks facing the Obama administration. If it decides that some sort of radical form of Islam is making inroads, it risks provoking millions of peaceful Muslims, who may perceive religious persecution. If the administration decides there isn't a problem, it may miss future terrorists.

Here's part of the mind-set that the government is grappling with: When Mr. Shahzad pleaded guilty to planting a weapon of mass destruction in Times Square, he told a federal judge that he viewed himself as a "mujahid, a Muslim soldier."

"I am part of the answer to the US terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people, and on behalf of that, I'm avenging the attacks," Shahzad said as he explained why he was pleading guilty.

Shahzad may not be the only Muslim-American thinking this way, says Asra Nomani, a Muslim-American and author of "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam."

On a more general level, she says, it's not unusual for young Muslims growing up in the US to have an identity issue: Do they wear hair coverings? Do they marry the Muslim boy or girl next door?

"I know the identity issue because I lived it," Ms. Nomani says. "There is this tug of war inside ourselves of trying to reconcile Islam and being an American."

The hearts and minds of some of these young people could be an easy target for radical Muslims who use YouTube and other websites to post inflammatory rhetoric. Such rhetoric can be appealing to the young, Nomani says.

"My awakening came after 9/11 and my friend [and Wall Street Journal reporter] Daniel Pearl's kidnapping. And I realized we are asleep at the wheel here, and we have to be honest about the fact we have a problem inside our community," she says.