Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Al Qaeda in the U.S.

Last week FBI Director Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee there have been al Qaeda cells in the U.S.:

FBI Director Robert Mueller said last week that the FBI has uncovered small groups of Al Qaida terrorists in the United States, although he declined to provide details.

As to your first question as to whether we have found affiliates or, as you would call them, cells of Al Qaida in the United States, yes, we have."
Mueller gave some credit to the FBI's program to develop relationships within America's Muslim community.
“And every opportunity I have, I reaffirm the fact that 99.9 percent of Muslim-Americans or Sikh-Americans, Arab-Americans are every bit as patriotic as anybody else in this room, and that many of our cases are a result of the cooperation from the Muslim community in the United States,” Mueller said.
Within some circles, engaging the U.S. Muslim community is controversial. But as a tactic to deter the emergence of radical jihadism in the U.S., I think it only makes sense. As Mueller argues, the vast majority of American Muslims are peaceful, and it only make sense to engage them as allies to be on guard against the emergence of violent groups. This approach is codified in the National Strategy for Homeland Security:
The arrest and prosecution inside the United States of a small number of violent Islamic extremists points to the possibility that others in the Homeland may become sufficiently radicalized to view the use of violence within the United States as legitimate. ... We will continue efforts to defeat this threat by working with Muslim American communities that stand at the forefront of this fight.
I'm also reminded of this 2006 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, which found that, although the FBI had been more proactive in its outreach efforts within Arab American communities, those communities generally perceived local law enforcement as more trustworthy:
Toward local police agencies, Arab Americans reported a fair amount of goodwill, even in jurisdictions where the two had little interaction. Where departments invested resources to cultivate this goodwill, the evidence points to dividends in the form of reduced tension. Community perceptions of federal law enforcement were less positive. Even though most of the FBI field offices in the study had reached out to Arab American communities, many Arab Americans remained fearful and suspicious of federal efforts.
Local law enforcement has a role to play in detecting potential threats of all types - not only those that emerge from a radical jihadist mindset, but from other ideologies as well (e.g., Timothy McVeigh-type "patriot" groups, narco-terrorists, etc.) My post on the Vera report is here.

Update 2008-05-07: Yesterday, DHS Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis Charlie Allen also riffed on al Qaeda's improved recruiting capabilities in Western societies:
Al-Qaeda's leadership has delivered over the past 12 months, an unprecedented number of audio and video messages and has increased its translation capability, diversity of subject matters, and media savvy to reach out to wider audiences globally. Its objective is to gain wide Muslim support, empathy, financing, and future recruits.

At the top of this sophisticated marketing machine, al Qaida leaders have carefully crafted and controlled their words. Al Sahab produces the audio or videotapes; the al-Fajr online media network plays the messages on numerous electronic platforms to include messages that download onto iPods and similar electronic devices. The Global Islamic Media Front then translates, re-packages, and re-disseminates these messages onto numerous - sometimes redundant - websites with the capacity to regenerate any website if a government or private entity attempts to bring it down.

I find it particularly alarming that al Qaida is improving its ability to translate its messages to target Europeans and North Americans. A year ago, al Qaida leaders solicited for "English translators" and subsequently have ratcheted up the speed and accuracy of translated statements openly marketed to U.S. and other English-speaking audiences. Last month, Osama bin Ladin's Chief Deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri released English translations of a two-part online interview to address questions from both extremists and mainstream Muslims around the world. To help al Qaida target US citizens, several radical websites in the United States have re-packaged al Qaida statements with American vernacular and commentary intending to sway U.S. Muslims.

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