A scene in a Chicago courtroom Wednesday served as one of many recent reminders that even as President Obama dispatches 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan to disrupt, dismantle, and destroy Al Qaeda, he faces a growing radicalization of Islamic extremists here on American soil.
Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to help Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist organization, plan the November 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 170 people.
Federal prosecutors say Mr. Headley visited Lashkar-e-Taiba training camps in Pakistan and conducting surveillance in Mumbai for the 2008 attack. In October, he was also charged with conspiring to attack the offices of a Danish newspaper that published what many Muslims saw as offensive pictures of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005.
Antiterrorism officials say the evidence from recent arrests in Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York, and other US cities, paints the picture of American citizens getting radicalized in their local communities, attending training camps in Pakistan or Somalia, and then returning to the US to help assist international terrorist bosses plan attacks in other countries or possibly, on these shores.
Report: five Americans arrested in Pakistan
In what could be the most recent example, Pakistani authorities said Wednesday that they have arrested five American men, and preliminary investigations suggest the men were seeking to link up with terrorist organizations in Pakistan. Reports suggest the five men are from Virginia, and their families alerted the FBI when the men went missing.
Last week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told an audience in New York City that "home-based terrorism is here. And like violent extremism abroad, it is now part of the threat picture that we must confront."
But there is disagreement about how these terrorists are radicalized and what is the most effective way to prevent it.
"It's a huge concern because one of the things that US intelligence does very well is track known members of Al Qaeda overseas," says Howard Safir, New York City Police Commissioner from 1996 to 2000. "But what they don't know and what is really harder to determine ... are who I call the 'independent entrepreneurs' — the folks who are committed to jihad but who are not members of any specific organization."
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.
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."
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