Homegrown Islamic radicalization: Worth studying

Thursday, March 10, 2011

FOR THE PAST several years, discussions on Capitol Hill about the growing threat of homegrown terrorism have been relatively commonplace - and uncontroversial. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, for example, held a series of hearings on "The Threat of Islamic Radicalism to the Homeland" from at least 2006 through February 2011. In 2007, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) introduced the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, which passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

Yet a hearing scheduled Thursday before the House Committee on Homeland Security has spawned protests in Times Square and denunciations from a wide swath of civil liberties and civil rights groups. Critics say that this hearing - titled "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community's Response" - unjustly puts all American Muslims under suspicion and questions whether they have been cooperative enough in rooting out extremism in their midst. The fact that the hearing was called by Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) only adds to the furor, given his comment that "some 80 percent of U.S. mosques were controlled by radical leaders."

Mr. King's statement is deeply troubling and disparaging to the vast majority of Muslims who are peaceful, law-abiding and productive members of this country. (Mr. King now acknowledges that the claim about radical mosques has been debunked.) But his statements should not obscure the need for a candid conversation about the real phenomenon of homegrown terrorism. The Justice Department recorded nearly four dozen terrorism cases involving U.S. citizens or residents in 2009, including those who planned attacks on American soil. In 2010, the department noted roughly 20 such cases. These include the would-be Times Square bomber who became a U.S. citizen just one year before the attack and the five young men who left their Northern Virginia homes in 2009 to train with extremists in Pakistan.

Among the witnesses scheduled to testify at Thursday's hearing is Melvin Bledsoe, whose son converted to Islam and, now in custody, told a judge in a letter that he murdered a military recruiter in Arkansas in 2009 as a jihadist attack on infidel forces. Mr. Bledsoe's testimony may be useful if it helps shed light on the process that led to his son's radicalization. But more time should be spent understanding the role of Web sites and chat rooms in the radicalization of impressionable young men. And more effort must be expended in working with the Muslim community to detect and defuse the forces that would lead a few to join the ranks of the violent. Many U.S. Muslims are willing to join in this effort. Congressional hearings and debate should aim at enlisting them - and not insulting or alienating their community.

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