Monday, August 20, 2007

Other Views on the NYPD Report

In a follow-up to last week's post about the NYPD report on jihadist radicalization, today I did a quick review of what others are saying about the report. I've tried to avoid the shallow analyses and partisan sniping that the report has generated and focus on some substantive comments from various corners:

TPM Muckraker argues that the radicalization process described by the NYPD is too generic to be of much practical value:

[T]he process is itself a generic description of the process of joining any identity-oriented group. al-Qaeda adherents or al-Qaeda-inspired radicals are a maddeningly diverse bunch, extending in background from former high-tech engineers to Mary Kay cosmetics representatives to former metalheads. They can be second-generation U.S. or European Muslims, or converts.

As a result, describing patterns of "pre-jihadist" behavior inclines towards the generic, making it difficult to know what to do with the information.
Point acknowledged. There are two ways to deal with this, as I see it:

1. To locate potential emerging jihadist radicals, make sure you've got trustworthy contacts within the local Muslim community. (More on this below.) Unlike other major battles that law enforcement must fight (e.g., against organized crime, drug gangs, etc.) the fight against jihadist radicalization includes an element that can potentially serve as a major advantage: The presence of trustworthy people who may be in close proximity to potential jihadist radicals. It's worth remembering that as radicalization proceeds, jihadists tend to leave the mosque. They want to separate themselves from our potential allies within the Muslim community, who can help guard against emerging radicalism. The challenge for homeland security is developing a trusting relationship, often across religious and ethnic boundaries. It can be done, however.

2. Watch for precursor crimes that emerging terrorists tend to commit. The commission of these crimes differentiates potential terrorists from other identity-oriented groups.

Columnist Peggy Noonan argues that we make it easy for potential terrorists to see us as "bad":
The only thing I'd add is that all modern young people come from two environments. The first is the immediate family, which is human and therefore by definition imperfect, sometimes to a serious and destructive degree. The other is the broader culture in which we all live, and which includes everything from schools to the neighborhood to the media. It's not a new thing to say but it's still true that the latter, which is more powerful than ever, is wholly devoted to the material. People are money winners or luxury item enjoyers. They just want stuff. It is soulless.

The view we show of life to ourselves, and to whatever lost young men are watching, is not broad and inspiriting. It is limited and dispiriting. It is every man for himself.

We make it too easy for those who want to hate us to hate us. We make ourselves look bad in our media, which helps future jihadists think that they must, by hating us, be good.
Even if Noonan is right that the root of the problem is a "soulless" culture, this is such a broad take on the problem that it's hard to know what to do with it. Such a broad, sweeping problem would require a broad, sweeping solution.

On the local level, I suppose it's possible to do everything we can as individuals to show that American culture is not soulless. Most people already do that every day. I suppose it's always good to remind ourselves to be good, though.

Senator Joseph Lieberman (I - CT) issued a statement which mostly consisted of bland platitudes. But I though this particular bland platitude was worth repeating:
The report underscores the critical role of local law enforcement in proactive efforts to find the terrorists before they strike.
I'd be doing a disservice if I didn't consider the reaction from major American Muslim organizations; after all, this is a report about the potential growth of jihadism in the U.S. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said the report would cast suspicion on all Muslims:
[A] new NYPD report on "radicalization" may result in all U.S. Muslims being viewed with suspicion.

"Whatever one thinks of the analysis contained in the report, its sweeping generalizations and mixing of unrelated elements may serve to cast a pall of suspicion over the entire American Muslim community."
The Muslim Public Affairs council added:
The report and comments made by NYPD officials use overly broad language to describe average Muslim American young people who they say could pose a threat. ... This generalization could potentially lead to further isolation of youth who will feel like they are being singled out due to their racial or religious background.
Meanwhile, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) commended the report and criticized the reaction of CAIR and MPAC, arguing that:
Understanding the ideological footprints which create a radicalized Islamist is vitally necessary in detecting and preventing future tragedies from occurring. Vigilance and caution is far different from blanket suspicion.
My take: If everyone acts incredibly dumb about this, then CAIR and MPAC could be right. If law enforcement agencies do in fact read the report as MPAC reads it (i.e., as a direction to "be on the lookout for Arab males between the ages of 18-35") then they'll cast a net that's far too broad and in the end they'll end up alienating the very people who could be helpful allies in this ideological struggle.

If, however, everyone is smart about it, then no such scenario needs to occur. Jihadist-inspired terrorism is a fact, and the U.S. is vulnerable to it (New York in particular). It is perfectly reasonable for the NYPD to examine this phenomenon and its roots - in fact it would be a dereliction of duty for the NYPD not to examine it. Furthermore the NYPD is right to point out that you can't predict where a jihadist will come from. The profile of jihadists is incredibly diverse. The stories of John Walker Lindh and Adam Gadahn are more than enough evidence of that.

I'll go out on a fairly sturdy limb and say that the average U.S. police officer does not have a deep, highly sophisticated understanding of Islamic theology and/or a very intimate familiarity with the Muslim community in their jurisdiction. To avoid counterproductive, "broad brush" anti-terrorism efforts, they need better information. They need to understand the subtleties that may indicate cells of jihadism within the Muslim community. The best way to gain this understanding is through sharing information with the Muslim community itself.

If both law enforcement and American Muslims are smart, they'll collaborate in the interest of a common goal: preventing radicalization and jihadism in the U.S. If neither makes the attempt, then an important opportunity will be missed.

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