The Good and the Ugly on the Domestic Terrorism Front

A new study out of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, "Muslim-American Terrorism Since 9/11: An Accounting," appears to offer up some good news when it comes to Islamist-inspired terrorism originating in the United States. In 2009, nearly 50 individuals were identified as terrorist suspects or terrorists; in 2010, that number dropped to 20—leading the study's author, Charles Kurzman, to suggest that 2010 "may have been more of an aberration than a trend." If true, this would be good news to the Obama administration which found itself very much on its heels during its first year in office when it came to all the cases and incidents involving domestic terrorism and terrorism aimed at homeland targets.

Of course, the main reason for the spike in 2009 was the 17 Somali-Americans who had joined up with al-Shabaab in Somalia. But separating out individual suspects whose plans originated in the U.S. and whose targets were overseas from those whose plans were purely domestic also reveals a downward trend from last year for the latter group. According to the report, "the number of individuals plotting against domestic targets also dropped by half, from 18 in 2009 to 10 in 2010." The figure 10 matches the total for both 2006 and 2007, with there being no publicly-revealed cases involving Muslim-Americans targeting domestic targets at all in 2008.

Also of interest in the study is its accounting for "initial sources of information," leading to the disruption of plots or arrest of suspects in cases since 9/11. More than half the time, according to the study, either a tip comes from inside the Muslim-American community itself (30 percent) or from government investigative techniques (27 percent), such as the use of undercover agents.

None of this says the U.S. doesn't face a terrorism problem. In 2010, for example, the plot to attack the New York subway was discovered late in the day and the Times Square car bombing was only discovered after it smoldered but didn't explode. Both plots, if they had been carried out successfully, would have resulted in a significant number of casualties. Moreover, while the number of plots the U.S. faces pales in comparison with, say, those that the British security officials face every day, what the numbers in the report should also remind us is just how difficult a task it is to find the few Islamist terrorists here given the diversity of the American-Muslim community itself—it really is a daunting 'needle-in-the-haystack' effort.

Finally, if the report is accurate in detailing how and when plots have been disrupted, preventing attacks still depends on the willingness of local Muslim communities to turn in neighbors they suspect are up to no good and the police and FBI's ability to use undercover assets or, in some instances, using those same assets to raise a "false [Islamist] flag" in order to see who might rise to the bait. Nasty business but, almost certainly, still a necessary one.

Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar and the director of the Program on Advanced Strategic Studies at AEI.

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