If 2001 was the year when international terrorism hit American soil, then 2009 was the year when Americans became the targets of domestic terrorism. In November, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, born in Virginia to Palestinian Muslim parents, killed 13 and wounded 30 in his one-man attack on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas. The massacre, which Senator Joseph Lieberman properly labeled “the most destructive terrorist act to be committed on American soil since 9/11,” capped a year of terrorist plots or conspiracies inside the United States, most of which were stopped by law enforcement in their planning stages. The notable fact about all these cases is that they are examples of so-called homegrown terrorism—meaning that they were planned by individuals either born or raised in the United States and executed without significant assistance from overseas networks.
In October, the American-born David Coleman Headley, who had changed his name from Daood Sayed Gilani to disguise his half-Pakistani origins, was arrested for planning an attack on the Danish newspaper that published cartoons depicting Muhammad in 2006 and for providing assistance to the Pakistan-based terrorist group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 170 were killed. Two days after Headley was charged, Pakistani authorities arrested five Muslim men born and raised in and around Washington, D.C., for planning to take up arms against coalition forces in Afghanistan. The Washington Five were all college students, “fun-loving, career-focused children that had a bright future for themselves,” in the words of a youth coordinator who knew them.
On June 1, 2009, a 23-year-old Army recruiter in Little Rock was shot and killed by an African-American convert to Islam who, upon his arrest, began complaining about American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. A week before that, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which coordinates some 40 local and federal law-enforcement agencies, arrested four men for attempting to shoot down military planes based at an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York, and detonate bombs at two synagogues in the Bronx.
Of the 30-odd attempted terrorist plots against the United States or American installations abroad that have been foiled since 9/11, roughly a third have been uncovered in the past year alone. What is new, and particularly frightening, about these recent attempts is that the budding perpetrators were initially indoctrinated inside the United States, with help from extremist websites or Islamic preachers. It was only after they had been brought some ways along the road to holy war that at least some of these would-be jihadists sought training and logistical support from al-Qaeda and others overseas.
This development has come as a surprise. It had become accepted wisdom that the openness of the United States and its acceptance of minority faiths and communities had helped to prevent the spread of the kind of Islamic radicalism that has gripped Western Europe over the past decade. Whereas European Muslims, many of them descendants of manual laborers imported from North Africa and the Middle East, comprise a ghettoized underclass and face great difficulty adapting to the rigid notions of European national identities, Muslims in the United States are, on average, better educated than most Americans and earn about the same amount.