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Special Report: U.S. shifts gears to tackle homespun terrorism

DEARBORN, Michigan (Reuters) - At a recent congressional hearing on homespun terrorism, Indiana Representative Mark Souder tore into a little-known Los Angeles County sheriff named Lee Baca.

Los Angeles County sheriff's Sergeant Mike Abdeen (C) and Deputy Sherif Morsi (R), attend Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of San Gabriel Valley, April 2, 2010 in Rowland Heights, California. Sergeant Abdeen heads the sheriff's Muslim Community Affairs unit, the first Muslim outreach program established by a U.S. law enforcement agency. Photo taken April 2. REUTERS/David McNew

Souder, a Republican member of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment, pointedly asked why Baca had attended several fund-raisers for an American Muslim group that some describe as a front for Hamas, which is designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization.

“The question is, at what point do you start giving legitimacy to groups who fund Hamas?” Souder said. He was referring to Baca’s association with the Council On American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, which says it does not support terrorism.

Raising his voice and pointing his finger at the congressman, Baca exploded: “For you to associate me (with terrorism) somehow through some circuitous attack on CAIR is not only inappropriate, it is un-American.”

In an interview with Reuters afterward, Baca said the congressman was playing politics. “Souder doesn’t have a solution for dealing with extremism in the United States,” he said. “I have a solution. I have a vision. I have relationships with the Muslim community and am working to make that vision a reality.”

The public altercation on March 17 between Souder, whose office did not return calls seeking comment, and Baca took place amid a significant shift in how the U.S. intends to deal with an alarming, relatively new threat: the recruitment of American Muslims, especially the young, by Islamist militants.

But the heated exchange also underlines the treacherous politics involved in adopting a new strategy that depends less on surveillance (though that won’t go away) and more on dialogue with the U.S. communities in danger of losing their most impressionable cohort to violent jihad.


The administration of President George W. Bush prided itself on taking a hard line on terrorism. Part of its rationale for fighting a war on two fronts was, as Bush said in June 2005 speech, “taking the fight to the terrorists abroad, so we don’t have to face them here at home.”

But a recent spate of security incidents involving the American Muslims is considered by many as evidence that terrorists are already in the house.

“While our European counterparts have been dealing with the threat of radical extremism for some time now, I think we can all agree that the problem is now in the United States,” said Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican member of the subcommittee Souder serves on, at the March 17 hearing.

Teenagers are a top target for recruiters. “A lot of Muslim kids doubt that they belong here because they are made to feel like they are different and inferior, that somehow they are not American,” said Abed Hammoud, a political activist and prosecutor in the Detroit area. “That makes it potentially easier to recruit them.”

A growing school of thought among counterterrorism specialists, and within the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, argues that law enforcement should engage more deeply with the Muslim community. Their case has been bolstered by encouraging examples of outreach programs in the Netherlands, Britain and, closer to home, Los Angeles.

“There is no guarantee that we can stop every attack,” said Mike Rolince, a counterterrorism specialist who spent 31 years at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and now works for consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and provides technological and strategic consulting services to the U.S. intelligence community. “But the best chance we have lies in sustained engagement with the Muslim community.”

As part of the shift, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, on February 3, asked the department’s Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) -- which consists of state and local government officials, first responders, plus academics and private sector representatives -- to come up with recommendations on how to overhaul its operations with an eye toward community-based law enforcement.

An official said that review would also focus on how to make the DHS less centralized and more of a resource center for local law enforcement, plus how to fund, train and support those on the ground who are best placed to tackle homegrown terrorism.

“We are at a watershed moment where we are asking, what is the role of the Department of Homeland Security? What is the best way to use our resources?” said an official at the DHS, who was not allowed to talk on the record. “This problem is not going to be solved by someone from Washington.”

HSAC’s preliminary recommendations are due in May.

U.S. officials and members of America’s Muslim community say two recent incidents show that both sides want to engage each other. There was Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with trying to detonate explosives in his underwear on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on December 25. His father had tried to alert U.S. authorities to his son’s growing radicalism in Nigeria last November, although his warning was not heeded.

That same month, a group of young Pakistani Americans known as the “Northern Virginia Five” were arrested in Pakistan, where they had gone to try to join the Taliban, after their parents were put in touch with the FBI by CAIR.

“This is a case study of cooperation and partnership,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR. “We should not waste this opportunity.”


But outreach has the potential to turn political, with Democrats anxious not to appear soft on terrorism before the November elections and Republicans smelling opportunity. Opponents on the right are fiercely critical of this shift in counterterrorism strategy.

“Outreach is a joke,” said conservative commentator Debbie Schlussel, who advocates being tough on mosques and immigration. “Muslims don’t respect people who kowtow to them. I think they respect those whom they fear.”

Obama and Napolitano came under fire for their handling of the failed December 25 bomb attempt, which fueled Republican criticism that the president is weak on national security.

The expected reaction from the right, some say, has made the Obama administration nervous.

“The DHS is very, very skittish about outreach,” said a former government counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They are being overly tentative because there are plenty of people on the right who want to portray the Obama administration as soft on terror.”

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But outreach advocates say growing support for a policy shift in the intelligence community means while opposition will be stiff, it is not insurmountable.

“There has been a perceptible shift,” said Keith Ellison, who was elected America’s first Muslim congressman in 2006. “More and more Americans understand we need to reach out and stop demonizing an entire community. This (opposition to outreach) is still a powerful lobby, but I think in six months to a year their inflammatory voices will begin to be ignored.”


All told, Muslim community leaders say the eight plus years that have elapsed since the attacks of September 11, 2001, have seen a massive and worrying breakdown in trust between Muslim Americans and U.S. authorities.

“Before 9/11, parents told kids that if they saw anything bad or suspicious they should find a police officer because the police were there to help,” said Ned Fawaz, a businessman in the Detroit area. “Today they tell kids to stay away from the police no matter what. That breakdown in trust is terribly sad.”

When 19 attackers hijacked four planes on September 11, 2001, crashing two of them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and one into the Pentagon, Sam Abed had just finished law school. He passed the bar exam that October and started looking for a job.

A year later, he had sent out more than 1,000 resumes and had not had a single interview while classmates who graduated lower than him in his class all found work.

Frustrated and demoralized, Abed asked one of his law professors at the University of Richmond in Virginia for advice. The professor changed one word on his resume. He crossed out Abed’s real first name, Osama, and wrote ‘Sam.’

Abed sent out 12 resumes the next week and was offered three interviews. “I thought people wouldn’t judge me based on my name alone, but it apparently had an impact,” said Abed, who now works at the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice. “It was a very tough time for me.”

“But it was a very tough time for everyone,” he added, philosophically. “I am not saying that the racism and discrimination that we saw after 9/11 was right, but it was understandable given the fear and anger that everyone felt.”

Estimates vary as to how many Muslims there are in America. No one knows for sure, in part because the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask people to list their religion.

According to a May 2007 study by the Pew Research Center, there were some 2.35 million Muslims in America. But the Association of Religion Data Archives put the number at almost 4.8 million in 2005. The majority of Americans, around 75 percent according to Pew, are Christians of various denominations.

One of the biggest complaints from American Muslims is that they say they are aggressively profiled by the government based on their religion, especially at airports -- a charge that the U.S. Transportation Security Administration disputes. The TSA says its security measures are “based on threat, not ethnic or religious background.”

Many American Muslims say they have experienced greater harassment since the December 25 “Underwear Bomber” incident. This has caused frustration because that incident is widely seen as a failure of the U.S. security system.

“Muslims have had to pay the price for the government’s mistakes,” said Imam Hassan Qazwini, a prominent moderate cleric at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, the country’s largest mosque.


Clark Ervin, director of the homeland security program at the Aspen Institute, was the DHS’s first inspector general and is a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council charged with looking at how to retool the department’s approach to law enforcement.

He said that common factors that contribute to leading impressionable minds down the path to violence are: a lack of economic opportunity; a limited education; strained family ties; a sense of impotence; alienation and grievance, plus a desire to be a part of something big and noble.

“We need to get ahead of that production curve and find out what causes the problem,” he said.

Imam Husham Al-Husainy, director of the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn, which is home to America’s largest Muslim community, says that every time he drives into Canada, he is held up at the border for hours at a time when he returns to the United States.

Al-Husainy said this treatment makes him worried for his 16-year-old son. “I am a grownup so I can understand what is happening. But I’m worried because what would happen if he started carrying hate in his heart because he’s treated differently than other Americans?”

Eboo Patel, executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, said that there is a “pretty clear process that works like gang recruitment in inner city neighborhoods.”

“The extremists have created a strong network of recruiters,” he said. “And they use a three-part story on recruits.”

“The narrative goes that we were meant to be and were once a magnificent people,” Patel added. “The trouble is, now we are the victims of oppression. You can help return us to glory. What you have to do is overthrow the oppressors.”

Radicalization is not, however, restricted to the young. Major Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, charged with 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder following a rampage at Fort Hood Army base last November 5, reportedly visited extremist websites and exchanged e-mails with radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Zudhi Jasser, president of Phoenix-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy, a moderate group that advocates the separation of mosque and state, said Hasan’s biography was “freakishly similar to my own.” Both attended medical school and served in the U.S. armed forces. Hasan’s parents were Palestinian, Jasser’s came from Syria.

“I was raised by my parents to believe that we could be more Muslim here in America than anywhere else,” Jasser said. “Somewhere along the way, Hasan’s narrative obviously differed greatly from mine.”

In a report released last month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that the Internet’s “limitless scope allows for the relatively unchecked proliferation of radical material.”

“These communications (between recruiters and recruits) often occurred online, whether via e-mail, Facebook, YouTube, or one of thousands of extremist chat rooms,” the report said.

Rolince of Booz Allen Hamilton, the consulting firm, echoed that view: “Now it’s harder to find recruiters because it’s easier to hide messages and to hide intent, and people can look at that content online in their basement, in libraries and coffee shops.”

Congressman Ellison, whose district in Minnesota includes a Somali community from which some two dozen young men were recruited to fight for an insurgent group in Somalia, said low-income teenagers with no prospects are easy targets.

“The sales pitch is ‘Come home to your country and rid it of foreign invaders,’” he said. “Kids coming from fractured families and low-income backgrounds find a way to get into trouble if given no opportunity. So we need to give them those opportunities.”


U.S. counterterrorism specialists have looked to recent European experiences.

“Given the nature of its society, America has handled the integration piece well, so that Muslims feel like they are part of the culture,” said Stephen Grand, director of U.S. relations with the Islamic world at the Brookings Institution. “But the Europeans have handled the outreach piece better.”

A March 2009 bipartisan study compiled by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy titled “Rewriting the Narrative: An Integrated Strategy for Counterradicalization” looked at how the Dutch and British have tried to engage with their Muslim communities. The study praised the Netherlands for a “particularly innovative approach to countering radicalization at the local level.”

The Dutch approach employs an “information house” using networks of local Muslims to whom people can refer concerns about specific individuals. The aim is for the local community to handle situations itself without referring to local law enforcement unless there is imminent danger.

The British outreach project, called Prevent, was also held up as a good example. But that program has experienced its own difficulties, as the British government has found that intertwining outreach activities and law enforcement has fueled suspicion among Muslim communities that the program has been used to spy on them.

In a U.S. case that could undermine efforts to encourage cooperation, an imam who previously had been helpful to law enforcement in New York is being deported after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI as they investigated a plot to attack the New York subway system.

The Aspen Institute’s Ervin said the shift in government thinking on outreach has also been greatly influenced by what the U.S. military “famously and disastrously” learned from direct experience as the 2003 invasion of Iraq turned into a long occupation.

“The military discovered in Iraq that reaching out to a community and involving local leaders brought much better results than working without them,” he said.


As part of its policy review, the DHS’s Homeland Security Advisory Council is looking at the experience of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department under Lee Baca, who is on the council. His outreach program, as well as a Muslim Contact Unit, is staffed by Muslim officers. Los Angeles County is America’s most populous county with nearly 10 million residents and Baca heads the world’s largest sheriff’s department with more than 13,000 employees.

“We cannot afford to alienate the great portion of society that is Muslim by virtue of our ignorance,” Baca said of his outreach program. “I’m very well received in the Muslim community now, not because I’m special but because I know how to listen.”

Sergeant Mike Abdeen, who heads the unit, said that when he started in 2007 the reception from local Muslims was frosty at best.

“After what they went through post-9/11 with the FBI using informants and infiltrating the mosques, the Muslims thought we were here to gather intelligence on them,” Abdeen said. “It took a lot of daily contact and working with the community to prove that we are here to serve them too.”

“Now, if there is a problem people in the community will pick up the phone and talk to me,” he added. “They know me and they trust me.”

Chief Mike Grossman, who heads the department’s Homeland Security Division, said daily contact with the Muslim community had paid dividends. He said an American Muslim parent had approached him recently seeking advice about a son whose demeanor, dress and attitude had changed and he was now clearly becoming a devout Muslim.

“What this parent wanted to know was whether the signs they were seeing indicated their son was just being more devout or becoming radicalized,” Grossman said. “We were able to talk calmly about what signs to look for and how to tackle the issue.”

“This program is priceless,” he said. “Without personal daily contact and personal relationships, we would not have a clue what’s going on.”

Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, Rebecca Cook, Tim Gaynor, William Maclean and Steve Holland; editing by Jim Impoco and Claudia Parsons