And what makes it ferment? In both the Boston Marathon and the Fort Hood cases, the attackers seem to have been driven by the perception that the U.S. is at war with Islam, as evinced (in their minds) by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So, if homegrown terrorism is fostered by the perception that the U.S. is at war with Islam, what should we do to counter that perception? Here’s what I don’t recommend: Declare war on an entity that calls itself the Islamic State, enmeshing yourself in combat that will last for years.
Obviously, this entity doesn’t deserve to be called the Islamic State, because its values don’t align with the values of the great majority of the world’s Muslims. But the relatively small number of Muslims who are vulnerable to the appeal of terrorism will consider a war against this “Islamic State” a war against Islam.
The problem of terrorism is complicated, and so is the problem of ISIS. I’m not saying that our thinking about how to respond to ISIS should begin and end with the question of whether declaring war on it will foster homegrown terrorism. But, given that, since 9/11, homegrown terrorism is the only kind of Islamic terrorism that has shown much in the way of an ability to actually kill people in the United States, it would be nice if the debate over how to handle ISIS at least included some discussion of the question.
Yet, during the deliberations over what to do about ISIS, did we hear a single member of the administration raise the question of homegrown terrorism? Or a single influential commentator? So far I haven’t found any examples. This tweet of mine, for example, failed to elicit evidence of such a thing.
A few commentators did raise related questions. After the first bombing strikes, Dan Drezner asked on bloggingheads.tv whether they might have led ISIS to direct more fire toward America. That’s not the same as the question of homegrown terrorism, which can happen regardless of whether ISIS focuses on the U.S. Still, to even raise the question of blowback at that point (late August) was to place oneself among a minority of prominent U.S. foreign-policy commentators.
Assuming ISIS does turn its gaze more to the U.S., and tries to train and deploy anti-American terrorists, as Obama fears, its recruiting will likely be helped by America’s new war on it. The man who is the best post-9/11 example of the kind of terrorist Obama seems worried about is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, aka the “underwear bomber,” who got training from an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen but failed in his 2009 attempt to blow up an airliner. His main guru seems to have been Anwar al-Awlaki, who relentlessly harped on the America-is-at-war-with-Islam theme. (A poster for an event Abdulmutallab organized in 2007 as a London college student was set against a background photo of a Muslim detained at Guantanamo, kneeling, shackled, and hooded.)