Peter King hearings: Are American Muslims the problem or the solution?

A hearing chaired by Rep. Peter King to investigate radicalization within the American Muslim community touches on an important topic, terrorism experts say. But they question the tone.

Alex Brandon / AP
Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, listens during a hearing entitled 'The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response,' held on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Thursday, March 10.

Emotions ran high at Thursday’s hearing investigating radicalization within the American Muslim community – the first hearing of a probe that Republicans say will continue at least until the 2012 elections.

“I remain convinced that these hearings must go forward, and they will,” said the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, during his opening statement. “To back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness and an abdication of what I believe to be the main responsibility of this committee: to protect America from a terrorist attack.”

Radicalization is a legitimate target for a congressional panel charged with homeland security, says Bruce Hoffmann, director of the Center for Peace and Security studies at Georgetown University. But the challenge with today’s hearing is that the topic – “The extent of radicalization in the American Muslim community and that community’s response” – appears to put the onus on the American Muslim community as the source of the problem.

In fact, “the Muslim community itself is the solution to this challenge, not the problem,” says Professor Hoffman, who has studied terrorism and insurgency for more than 30 years.

Democrats criticized the narrow focus on the Muslim community and urged the committee to investigate the spike in white supremacist groups – and the communities supporting them – as well.

“I cannot help but wonder how propaganda about this hearing, focused on the American Muslim community, will be used by those who seek to inspire a new generation of suicide bombers,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D) of Mississippi, the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota, one of two Muslims in Congress, shed tears as he described the false charges leveled against Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a first responder who was killed in the 9/11 attacks.

"I am concerned that the focus of today's hearing may increase suspicion of the Muslim American community, ultimately making us all a little less safe," he said.

King challenged critics who claimed that the hearings amounted to a witch-hunt targeting the entire Muslim community.

“There is nothing radical or un-American in holding these hearings,” he said. “Indeed, Congressional investigation of Muslim American radicalization is the logical response to the repeated and urgent warnings which the Obama administration has been making in recent months.”

Despite the sharp partisan clashes in today's hearing, there is broad agreement between Republicans and the Obama administration that Islamic radicalization is a growing concern.

Rising threat of American-born Muslim terrorists

The most recent alarm was sounded by the Obama administration's top intelligence chief at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, on current and future worldwide threats to the United States.

We are seeing "disturbing instances of self-radicalization among our own citizens,” said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

“While homegrown terrorists are numerically a small part of the global threat, they have a disproportionate impact because they understand our homeland, have connections here, and have easier access to US facilities,” said Director Clapper.

"This threat is real, and it is serious,” Denis McDonough, Deputy National Security Adviser to Obama, said at a speech at an Islamic civic center in Sterling, Va.,

Al Qaeda videos, Internet forums, and online magazines exist “for the expressed purpose of trying to convince Muslim Americans to reject their country and attack their fellow Americans,” he said.

Terrorism experts note that America’s home-grown extremists have taken on higher-profile roles in the international terrorist movement. These include New Mexico native Anwar al-Awlaki, who had contacts with several of the 9/11 hijackers, the Christmas shoe bomber, and the Fort Hood shooter; Al Qaeda spokesman and ex-Californian Adam Gadahn; and Alabama-born Omar Hammami, who works with Al Qaeda-backed terrorists in Somalia.

“Over the past two or three years, there has been a significant uptick in the number of Americans who have gone abroad to receive terrorist training, attempted to go abroad for terrorist training, or attempted attacks in the United States,” says Hoffman.

Cooperation with law enforcement

One of King’s stated motives in calling Thursday’s hearing was to demonstrate that the American Muslim community was not cooperating with law enforcement. Georgetown University's Hoffman says he’s seen no evidence that that is the case. Nor did Republicans present witnesses or new evidence to support the claim.

The only witness from law enforcement called to testify at this hearing was Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who committee Democrats invited to refute those allegations.

“The Muslim community in Los Angeles is a very active participant in the securing of our homeland,” he told the committee. “These relationships are critical to mitigate a threat or, more importantly, recognize the threat at a stage that a person, or a group, on a wrong path can be righted,” he added.

Often key tips in averting terrorist attacks come from families or the Muslim community, Hoffman says. Since the 9/11 attacks, the FBI and many large urban police forces have gone out of their way to reach out to the Muslim community, he says.

Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee charged that the testimony of other witnesses, parents whose children became radicalized, was anecdotal and did not demonstrate the widespread pattern of noncooperation that the chairman had reported as fact.

The hearings will continue

Next, King says the panel is likely to take up the radicalization of Muslim Americans in the US prison system, after several months of staff preparation. Other issues include an investigation of Al Qaeda’s and other organizations’ strategy of recruiting Americans. The committee will also investigate how the Department of Homeland Security plans to address the “increasing radicalization of individuals within the United States.”

King says that these issues will be a top concern for the committee “as long as I am chairman,” which will last at least through 2012.

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