Earlier this week, I visited Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, to discuss, among other things, the possibility that her department would consider rolling-back some of the security measures it has put in place since 9/11, if it is indeed true, as Leon Panetta has said, that al Qaeda is near defeat. The answer (short version) is: Not really. Technical advances might make air travel less onerous (if more invasive), but not much is coming in the way of rollback. Some of this is for a good reason: al Qaeda as we understand it -- a Pakistan-based organization with affiliates in different parts of the Muslim world-- is not the potentially-cataclysmic threat it once was. But lone-wolf, self-radicalized terrorists are a different story.
One of the challenges we face when confronting Islamist terrorism has to do with a seeming contradiction: We have to simultaneously acknowledge that the vast majority of Muslim-Americans are patriotic, law-abiding citizens, and that their religious faith is heartfelt and benign, and at the same time recognize that within this community, a small but meaningful number of young men are finding their way to terrorism. This is an extract from from my Bloomberg View column on the subject:
On the Islamist lone wolves, Napolitano is clear: She believes they may succeed in carrying out an attack that would have failed if it were organized solely overseas. "It is much more difficult to defeat a lone actor for all the reasons you would suspect: They usually use simpler tradecraft, they're not conspiring with people, there's nothing to intercept, a lot of times they act on almost a sporadic basis, so it's very hard to predict."
She went on, "The growth of homegrown violent extremism within the United States, individuals and small cells, is something that I've seen expand in my tenure as secretary. Protecting the American people from this is one of the most difficult problems we have."
Napolitano believes that community policing, and close cooperation with imams and other Muslim leaders, will help law enforcement identify dangerous young men before they become radicalized. Yet how do we as a society isolate a small minority of potential terrorists from the much larger population of innocent and loyal Muslim-Americans? Napolitano said she is confident law enforcement can work within the bounds of the Constitution to do so.
But the problem has become more complicated than that. The notion that Islamic jurisprudence is somehow penetrating our legal system -- and that American Muslims and their (mainstream) organizations seek to undermine this country -- has infected the way many people (even some Republican presidential candidates) think about Islam. It's possible that the extreme vilification of Islam one finds in some quarters of the right-wing Internet and talk radio could intensify the alienation and anger of a young Muslim man already exposed to Islamist propaganda -- and perhaps even prod him to violence.
The radicalization cycle remains something of a mystery, and unlocking it will preoccupy the Department of Homeland Security for some time. It clearly concerns Napolitano. "I've been thinking a lot about what causes someone who lives in a comfortable suburb of northern Virginia to want to camp out" in Pakistan's tribal areas, "then come back home and kill people. We just don't know what flips that switch."