Understanding Homegrown Terrorism

The recent bomb plots out of Yemen shouldn't blur the big picture that nowadays, terrorists are mostly homegrown.  Their action fits into a new tactical shift that embraces attacks on Western countries conducted from within, by their own Muslim citizens, as it was announced by al-Qaeda's U.S.-born spokesman, Adam Gadahn.

Unlike so-called "lone wolf" violence, which is generally conducted by isolated and disturbed individuals, homegrown terrorism is associated with an international organization.  In the case of al-Qaeda, in particular, homegrown terror can strike in the U.S. and other Western countries, unhindered by the logistical problems encountered when it needed to send in bombers from abroad, in addition to the clear advantage that homegrown terrorists have in identifying targets in their countries of residence.

For Western countries, the new danger comes in with unprecedented challenges.  As an example, the FBI was rightly credited for its ability to make it harder for al-Qaeda members to pass unnoticed in the U.S. after 9/11.  Yet the FBI had mistakenly determined Army major Nidal Malik Hasan not to be a threat prior to the shooting at Fort Hood, despite clear signs to the contrary.

To understand the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism in the West, we need to understand al-Qaeda's doctrine, known in Arabic as "Al-wala w'al-bara" (Allegiance and Disavowal).  According to this doctrine, a Muslim's "allegiance" should be restricted to believers, while "disavowal of  the infidels" is his religious duty.

As regards Muslims residing in non-Muslim countries, which nowadays is the case of homegrown terrorists living in the West, they are religiously bound to dissociate with infidels' customs.  A Saudi textbook for high school pupils warns them: "If they have to live in the infidel lands by necessity, they must harbor hatred for them while living amongst them."

Unfortunately, the same teaching is currently provided in Islamic schools in Western countries.  An undercover survey, sponsored by the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, found that Islamic schools in America are exposed to widespread radicalism and that three in four Islamic centers are hotbeds of anti-Western extremism.

It is my contention that the above-outlined explanation of homegrown terrorism by al-Qaeda's ideological inspiration presents a better alternative to the paradigm that stresses the lack of integration of Muslim communities in the West.  This is a paradigm that remains superficial to say the least, since it doesn't explain why Muslims fail to integrate in the West, compared to Chinese and Indian communities, as an example.  Also, the argument seems to be based on a wrong premise.  According to a Pew poll, 72% of American Muslims responded that their communities are good places to live in.  Yet this didn't reduce the threat of homegrown terrorism in the U.S. compared to Europe, as an example, where Muslims' integration is clearly lacking.

Hence, the problem of homegrown terrorism isn't so much one of failure to integrate into Muslim communities, but rather a failure to effectively counter the brainwashing machine of al-Qaeda's doctrine.  This was clear following the aborted attempt last Christmas to blow up the U.S. airliner, when a White House review concluded that the problem wasn't one of failure in information-sharing, but rather of an inability to "connect the dots," i.e., the inability to make sense of the available information in decision-making.  Also when Major Hasan expressed his willingness to join the Yemeni Sheik Al-Awlaki "in the afterlife" in one of the eighteen intercepted e-mails the two exchanged, the FBI experts saw no threat in these messages.  Even worse, these experts considered the e-mails consistent with "mental health research about Muslims in the armed forces."

To counter the brainwashing machine of the doctrine of "Allegiance and Disavowal," the focus should be on the curriculum of Islamic community schools in the West and the Friday mosque sermons.  And there is a need for a more effective outreach to the Muslim community, which has a clear advantage in identifying potential local threats.

Abu Khawla is a human rights activist and writer.