Aliou Nasse, a Senegalese Muslim immigrant who sells photographs of New York in Times Square, saw smoke coming from an unattended SUV parked beside his stall the evening of May 1. He alerted a nearby police officer. The car turned out to be packed with gasoline cans, propane tanks, and other components of a homemade bomb that would have created a fireball and killed and wounded many if it hadn’t malfunctioned.
Nasse’s story is a reminder of the critical role Muslims in America have played and must continue to play in fighting domestic violent extremism, said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) at a panel yesterday co-hosted by the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the National Security Network. Ellison and several experts discussed how cooperation among government, law enforcement agencies, and the Muslim American community can prevent future violent incidents, such as those attempted by Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber.
U.S. National Security Council Senior Director for Global Engagement Pradeep Ramamurthy told audience members that an increasing number of Americans had been “mobilized to violence” over the past year and a half, whether engaging in violent acts or going overseas to fight in countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan. He said that addressing this trend is a top priority for the White House and requires what he called a whole-of-government response involving cooperation among federal agencies, local police, and Muslim American communities.
William Bratton, former Los Angeles Police Department chief, saw reasons to be optimistic despite the violent trend among some youth who rely upon a distorted interpretation of Islam to justify their acts. Bratton said that “American policing can be a leading entity, a cutting-edge institution in dealing with this issue of terrorism.” He now runs a security consulting group, and said that police departments are applying their experience combating gangs in major American cities to stop violent extremists from recruiting and committing acts of terror. These lessons learned provide valuable insight for countering terrorism at home.
Building partnerships with communities is essential to preventing attacks, and Ellison said that robust civil liberties are important to making that partnership work. Racial profiling is counterproductive since it erodes trust between law enforcement and communities, making policing more difficult. “Behavior, not demographic characteristics, should be our guiding light,” said Ellison. He added. “We are all safer when Congress abides by its constitutional mandate to protect civil liberties.”
Panelists also agreed that communication between law enforcement and Muslim American communities must be a two-way street. Nadia Roumani, director of the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, said that Muslim Americans know little about terrorists’ recruiting methods and that law enforcement and intelligence agencies should reach out to inform Muslims about this threat.
Publicly condemnation of terrorism and violence by Muslim scholars and civic and community leaders, while essential, is not always sufficient, for example. Bratton asked if these messages were “reaching that 16-year-old-kid sitting in his basement who’s basically just hitting the blogs and not watching the national news.”
Panelists highlighted Anwar al-Awlaki, whose online videos have purportedly influenced many American Muslims, radicalizing them and turning them to terrorism, including Shahzad. Awlaki was born in New Mexico and speaks English with an American accent. He also was arrested in this country for soliciting prostitutes. Panelists agreed that such information needs to be made more widely known.
Ellison said about men such as Awlaki, “These deceivers use the aesthetics of Islam to persuade. They are not ham-handed, they are not inarticulate. They know just enough passages of the Koran to be dangerous.”
Muslim leaders need to offer a compelling counterargument in response, panelists said.
Rashad Hussain, U.S. special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, quoted a verse from the Koran that reads, “It is as if you have killed all of humanity if you kill one innocent person.” He also pointed out that 80 percent to 90 percent of victims of violence committed in the name of Islam are themselves Muslims. But Hussain stressed the difficulty of ensuring that message reaches disaffected young American Muslims. Muslim leaders must use the same platforms that recruiters such as Awlaki use, including social media and online videos, and they should consider who’s delivering the message.
“The people who will be most persuasive are very conservative and traditionalist Islamic scholars,” Hussain said. “If you ask them about it, they’ll say, ‘Of course, this is obvious, look through the Koran and the sayings of the prophet Muhammed. This needs to be rejected,’” even though these individuals might not be in the habit of speaking out against terrorism, he explained.
David Schanzer, a public policy professor at Duke University, added that it is important for Muslim youth to hear about U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world, where Americans routinely engage and cooperate with Muslims and their goal is a better future for Muslims than the one offered by violent extremists.
Ramamurthy concurred, pointing to the terrorist ideology used in recruiting videos for conflicts in places such as Somalia. “What you have at the fundamental level is a vision of destruction that clearly contrasts” with the hopes of communities in eastern Africa and around the world, he said.