Who becomes an Islamic terrorist and why? How does the transformation occur? Is the terrorist threat to Americans diminishing or growing? And how can law enforcement prevent terrorist strikes within the United States?
To these critical questions, the New York Police Department has proposed some controversial answers whose profound implications for police surveillance in New York have angered some Muslim activists and civil libertarians. A 90-page assessment, released last Wednesday, argues that the primary terrorist threat to New Yorkers—indeed, to all Americans—comes not from al-Qaida in Iraq or from the mountainous tribal region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as the intelligence community in Washington asserted last month in its latest national intelligence estimate. Rather, the NYPD concludes, the main terrorist threat is increasingly homegrown.
While al-Qaida remains a vital source of “inspiration and an ideological reference point,” the study says, the more insidious terrorist threat comes primarily from younger Muslim men between the ages of 15 and 35 who have no direct al-Qaida connection, but who become radicalized by exposure to an “extreme and minority interpretation” of Islam. These ossified “Salafi” interpretations of the Koran and other sacred texts promote violence and intolerance, and they’re spread by local “Muslim student associations,” “extremist literature from Saudi Arabia”—a reference bound to annoy Riyadh—and militant websites, the report states.
The threat emanates largely from “unremarkable” men, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly observes in the report’s preface—those who prior to becoming holy warriors held “ ‘unremarkable’ jobs, lived ‘unremarkable’ lives, and had little, if any criminal history.” What worries the NYPD is that since 9/11, the “radicalization” of Muslim minorities in the United States and other democracies has been “accelerating,” the study warns, “and the individuals swept up in it are continuing to get younger.”
Further, while Muslims in America have seemed “more resistant” than those in Europe to the radical messages on the Internet—a key “incubator” and “echo chamber” for radical interpretation, training, inspiration, and support—they are “not immune” to the militant ideology spreading in the West at “an exponential rate.” In fact, many members of New York’s diverse Muslim population of between 600,000 and 750,000 people—about 40 percent of them foreign-born—may be vulnerable to radicalization, the study asserts. “Unfortunately,” it concludes, “the City’s Muslim communities have been permeated by extremists who have and continue to sow the seeds of radicalization.”
The study identifies patterns of radicalization in ten successful or thwarted plots at home and abroad since 9/11, as well as in the 9/11 plot itself, which seen in retrospect involved a threat that was “homegrown”—in Hamburg, Germany—rather than fostered in Muslim countries. It finds four “distinct phases of radicalization” common to participants in these plots. The first, “pre-radicalization,” is the “point of origin” prior to a person’s militant awakening. The second, “self-identification,” occurs when a person, sometimes prompted by a personal or family crisis, begins exploring radical ideas and associating with “like-minded” people. Following this phase is “indoctrination,” when a person’s commitment to violence and a radical outlook intensifies, often with reinforcement from a “spiritual sanctioner.” Finally, “jihadization” occurs when members of a cell or “cluster” agree to participate in jihad and prepare to act.
In most of the plots, the people “self-identifying” with radicalism gave up cigarettes, drinking, or gambling and began wearing traditional Islamic clothing and growing beards—easy enough for police to spot. But in the subsequent “indoctrination” stage, plotters withdrew from the mosques to discuss their increasingly radical agendas in more secure settings: private apartments, the back rooms of bookstores, and isolated corners of prayer rooms. As radicalization increased, “Outward-Bound-like” jihadi-reinforcing activities—camping, white-water rafting, paintball games, target shooting, and outdoor simulations of military-like maneuvers—reinforced the bonds of loyalty and trust. Often one or more members of a militant cluster traveled abroad, usually to a militant training camp in a country or region seen as a “field of jihad”—Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Somalia, and now Iraq.
By the time radicalization has progressed to this stage, strangers are no longer welcome, and the police’s ability to infiltrate the group has all but evaporated. And while most stages of radicalization occur gradually, over two to three years, “jihadization,” the phase that defines the actual attack, “can occur quickly, and with very little warning—in some cases, in as little as a couple of weeks.”
While Commissioner Kelly said that the report was a “template meant to help law enforcement in its investigations,” he declined to say how the NYPD would alter its surveillance activities in response to the report’s findings. The views of the report’s authors, NYPD senior intelligence analysts Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, are clear, however: to prevent the formation of radical clusters and the “planning of future plots,” the police need to identify suspects who are being radicalized “at the earliest possible stage.” This implies that police surveillance should include not just radical mosques that incite violence and intolerance, but also sometimes the more informal hangouts—cafés, flophouses, hookah bars, butcher shops, bookstores, and Muslim student associations—that the report identifies as the “nodes” of the radical new subculture where mainstream Muslim immigrants, along with second- and third-generation college-age Americans of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent, are getting radicalized.
This has infuriated many Muslim-Americans, or groups that claim to speak for them. The report’s “sweeping generalizations and mixing of unrelated elements may serve to cast a pall of suspicion over the entire American Muslim community,” warned a statement issued by Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal case against a Texas-based charity accused of providing millions of charitable dollars to the militant Palestinian group Hamas.
More cautious concern came from Shamsi Ali, deputy imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, who is quoted in the report. Ali said last Thursday that while the report had created “a sense of uneasiness within our community, we know that there are cases, that the report contains facts.” Concern about radicalization, he said, had prompted his center to “reach out to Muslim youth” through summer camps, seminars, and other activities to warn against extremist interpretations of the faith. Mainstream Muslims were now in the ascendancy, he asserted. If he had a critique of the report, it was that it was “outdated.” The radicals, he said, “are becoming more marginalized.”
The report has troubled civil libertarians too. Christopher Dunn, of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that by painting all Muslims as “potential terrorists,” it risked not only discouraging law-abiding Muslims from cooperating with the police, but also eroding the line that separates the police from lawful religious activity.
Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corporation whose comments introduce the report, concedes that while “intelligence operations”—such as the use of covert surveillance, confidential informants, and undercover agents—are often the best way to disrupt militant clusters, such early intervention is bound to be legally and politically problematic, since it risks violating the First and Fourth Amendments, which guarantee freedom of expression and protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. He hopes that the designation of specific stages of radicalization will help prosecutors and courts decide “when the boundary between a bunch of guys sharing violent fantasies and a terrorist cell determined to go operational has been crossed.”
But the often contentious relations between civil libertarians and the NYPD mean that a tussle over the location of that boundary is likely to begin long before actual cases emerge. Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne insisted last Wednesday that the NYPD surveillance has been “legal and constitutional” and would continue to be so. He denied that the report meant that all Muslims would be monitored. “If a lead in a terrorist case takes us to a bookstore, as it did in the Herald Square bomb plot, we investigate the suspect in the bookstore—not all bookstores, Islamic or not, in Brooklyn,” he said. While the study provided “insight” into the radicalization process, “it is not a blueprint for deployment.”
Nevertheless, civil libertarian groups will surely protest any expansion of the department’s surveillance program to monitor what Lawrence Sanchez, the NYPD’s assistant commissioner of intelligence and the study’s director, called “seemingly unremarkable people engaged in innocuous behavior” who may be quietly undergoing radicalization.
Yet this is precisely what the NYPD is already doing, and must continue to do, to disrupt terrorist plots. The militant plot to blow up the Herald Square subway station, after all, was foiled by an NYPD confidential informant and an undercover officer. So, too, were some of the other plots that the study reviews. More aggressive surveillance may well be necessary if the trends identified in the new report accelerate. But public acceptance of such tactics will depend on the existence of tough-minded, independent oversight. The NYPD will need to assure concerned New Yorkers that their civil liberties are protected while the city is kept safe.