What is one to make of the spate of Americans getting involved in violent Islamist extremism? The arrest in Pakistan of five young Muslim Americans from the Washington suburbs-who had traveled to South Asia to fight against U.S. forces-is the most recent of several cases in the past few months with the apparent common thread of Muslims in America turning to violent jihad. Some of the cases, such as the recently arrested quintet, may have never gone beyond unrealized aspirations to kill. Others, such as the Chicagoan David Headley, allegedly played supporting roles in terrorism overseas. In one case, that of Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, the killing was real, direct and inside the United States.
A common, and thoughtful, response to this pattern has been to question the long-held belief that Muslim American communities are not as fertile a breeding ground for extremism as Muslim communities in Europe. The questioning is healthy in that there has indeed been some complacency about the nasty religiously inspired turns that some Muslim Americans might take. The basic belief about the differences between Muslim communities in Europe and the United States is still valid, however, notwithstanding the recent cases. American Muslims really do tend to be better integrated into their national society than their co-religionists in Europe.
The recent cases involving Americans do not say much about community integration. Neither do some of the cases involving Muslims in Europe. The perpetrators of a botched car-bombing campaign in Britain in 2007, for example, were not impoverished denizens of a Muslim ghetto but instead seven physicians and a medical technician. That case, the shooting rampage by the psychiatrist Hasan, and the fact that the alleged ringleader of the Northern Virginia five is a dental student, are almost enough to make one ask whether the medical professions are as fertile a breeding ground for terrorism as are the most deprived banlieues.
The recent cases do offer lessons, but not primarily ones about the status of Muslim Americans and the communities in which they live. Instead, they are lessons about terrorism and terrorist threats generally. They are worth thinking about, whether or not the incidents that happen to have become known during the past few months constitute a trend.
The cases are a reminder that terrorist threats, including ones that could involve significant harm inside the United States, are not primarily the work of any one group, be it al-Qaeda or any other. That reminder is contrary to much current discourse about terrorism, which posits al-Qaeda as the enemy. The specter that seems to haunt most discussion of terrorism within the United States is the al-Qaeda sleeper cell, even though neither the raft of cases over the past few months nor anything else has uncovered such a cell. The American jihadists have either had no connection with any foreign group or have turned to other organizations such as the Somali Al Shabab or the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The centrality of al-Qaeda in the common discourse has led to a division between terrorist plots and incidents we worry about and ones we don't, according to whether there are any "links" to al-Qaeda. This is somewhat analogous to hate-crimes legislation, which places higher importance, and imposes heavier punishment, on some criminal acts than on other acts with identical physical harm, according to the motivation or ideology of the perpetrator. The rationale for specially identifying hate crimes is that some hateful ideas can cause damage to the social fabric, going beyond the immediate physical harm. The apparent rationale for getting especially concerned about anything with a link to al-Qaeda is that this group is presumed to be more capable than any other of perpetrating sophisticated and highly damaging operations. The vulnerabilities of the United States to terrorist attack, however-especially given the security measures erected since 9/11-discount substantially any such advantage in sophistication. The principal vulnerabilities are to low-tech, low-organization violence such as Nidal Hasan's shooting spree. His slaying of thirteen people made him a more efficient killing machine on a victim-per-group-member basis (counting Hasan as a one-person group) than anything al-Qaeda has accomplished, even with its off-the-charts spectacular in September 2001.
Another lesson of the domestic cases is the need to be more precise than the common discourse about what links to a group do and don't mean. The usual tendency is to highlight any such links, as if they necessarily indicate instigation or initiative by the group. But they do not. A pattern in the recent cases is that, to the extent that links were established with a terrorist organization (or with another font of radical ideology, such as Hasan's imam Anwar al-Aulaqi), it was the individual Americans reaching out to the group rather than the other way around. In his speech at West Point announcing his surge in Afghanistan, President Obama stated, without further details, "In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror." What we actually have seen in the last few months has been the opposite: people within our borders (such as the Northern Virginia five or an earlier arrestee, Najibullah Zasi) sending themselves to the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.