How should the United States counter homegrown jihadist terrorism? With al Qaeda and its jihadist allies extolling the exploits of Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, and even failed attempts like that of would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shehzad, we must anticipate further attacks by terrorists who have been recruited and radicalized here in this country.
Fortunately, the number of homegrown terrorists is still small. Since 9/11, there have been 48 reported cases of recruitment to jihadist terrorism in the United States. In all, 131 persons have been identified—a tiny fraction of the American Muslim community, which numbers about 3 million. In contrast, several thousand Muslim Americans serve in the U.S. armed forces. However, the number of domestic terrorist incidents and the number of persons involved have both increased sharply in the past 12 months. Whether this is a spike or a trend we cannot yet say.
What drives jihadist recruits? Radicalization is a complex process that combines ideology and personal circumstances. America's jihadists cite assaults on Islam to justify their violence, but they also view armed jihad as a chance to gain status in a subculture that exalts violence, to be perceived as warriors in an epic struggle. Al Qaeda's ideology has also become a vehicle for resolving individual discontents and transcending personal problems—a path to glory.
Most of those who start down the path toward terrorism self-radicalize, seeking confirmation and connections here and abroad. Many homegrown terrorists began their journey to violent jihad on the Internet. It is accessible to eager acolytes, reinforcing and channeling their anger. It creates online communities of like-minded extremists.
Should the United States follow the example of other governments that block material deemed subversive or blasphemous and shut down jihadist websites? Of course, authorities should try to identify and remove jihadist recruiters, especially those who target susceptible prison populations. But online exhortations to Americans have produced only a tiny cohort of real-world terrorists. Moreover, cyberspace offers radicals a public place to vent where they can be easily observed, providing a valuable source of intelligence.
Should the U.S. government actively intervene to counter al Qaeda's propaganda? Nearly nine years after 9/11, U.S. counterpropaganda efforts remain feeble, while legal constraints prevent the government from aiming propaganda at a purely domestic audience. Local Muslim leaders generally advise the authorities to let them deal with radicalization. Let them do so, but it is necessary to continue collecting intelligence.
The federal government could try to persuade convicted terrorists to denounce jihadist recruiting, perhaps in return for reduced sentences, as Italy did in its "repentants" program, which mobilized imprisoned terrorists to speak out against their comrades' continuing campaign.
What about socioeconomic issues? In some local communities, poverty and alienation may contribute to recruiting. But according to a 2009 PEW survey, "Muslims in the U.S. are generally as well-educated and financially well-off as the general population." Income disparity is not driving jihadist recruiting. America's jihadists are a diverse group: university students, ex-convicts, seemingly successful men, along with society's losers.
What role does religion play? A delicate question—even asking it implies a connection between Islam and violence, provoking angry protest. True, al Qaeda's ideology expresses itself in religious terms, and jihadist versions of the Koran are used to recruit fighters. Not surprisingly, almost all of those involved in domestic jihadist plots are Muslims, although there is little evidence that becoming a terrorist is the result of profound religious discernment. But while religion cannot be excluded from our understanding of terrorist radicalization, it lies beyond the realm of useful government intervention. Official focus on faith could arouse suspicion and anger among Muslims worldwide and among Muslim Americans, who are the first line of defense against radicalization.
The overwhelming majority of American Muslims reject al Qaeda's exhortations to violence. There are veins of extremism, handfuls of hotheads, but no deep reservoirs from which al Qaeda can easily recruit.
Many non-Muslim Americans demand public denunciations of jihadist terrorism as proof of patriotism. American Muslims do condemn terrorism, but their most valuable contribution is largely invisible—quiet discouragement, intervention by family and friends, tips to the authorities.
Because of the complexity of where and how terrorists are recruited or recruit themselves to violence, government officials should tread carefully. Well-meaning intervention can do great harm, destroying trust among diasporas that are America's allies.
What one believes is a matter of conscience. What one does to impose beliefs on others raises broader concerns. When the imposition of beliefs involves violence, it must be dealt with as a matter of law.
The criminal justice system has worked. Thwarting terrorist plots, arresting would-be terrorists, trying them as ordinary criminals, depriving them of political pretensions, and denying them glory may be the best deterrents to homegrown terrorism.
Brian Michael Jenkins, author of "Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States since September 11, 2001" (RAND, 2010), is senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.
This commentary originally appeared on RAND.org and GlobalSecurity.org on June 24, 2010.