The questions Peter King should have asked

There is deep expertise available in the federal government and among social scientists about homegrown terrorism. If Rep. King is serious about addressing the issue, his next hearing — he has promised a series of them — should include these specialists. 

The first issue these experts could illuminate is the extent of the homegrown threat. Clarifying this point will ensure that we neither minimize the danger nor overreact, but take measures that are commensurate with the risks. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, as well as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, have already testified before King’s committee about the overall threat landscape. Their testimony, however, leaves open many questions, which they should be asked to explore.

To begin with, how are these agencies measuring the domestic threat? Government officials point to Al Qaeda propaganda targeting Muslims in Western countries as evidence of this threat. They don’t explain, however, whether this rhetoric is resonating with American Muslims who, according to polling by the Pew Research Center, unambiguously and overwhelming reject suicide bombing and Al Qaeda.

Others claim there are signs that Al Qaeda is beginning to develop an embryonic recruitment structure in the United States. With its thousands of dedicated analysts, who have access to an array of intelligence information, the government’s counterterrorism experts can explain whether this assertion has any merit.

Rep. King should also ask these expert agencies — and others with specialized knowledge in the field — to explain what their years of research have taught us about the path to terrorism.

The FBI, for example, posits a model of “radicalization” that begins with a religious epiphany, moves on to acceptance of an extremist mindset, and eventually leads to violence. The Bureau is determined to intervene early in this process, where the only signs of incipient terrorism are linked to religious behavior that also characterizes thousands, if not millions, of peaceful citizens.  The National Counterterrorism Center, on the other hand, has explicitly rejected such a model.  Its website clearly states that there are no visible signs of radicalization short of participation in terrorist networks or plots.

Where does the truth lie? Does available research support looking at religious behavior as a “marker” of terrorism, or is this simply another example of stereotyping of the sort that has brought us opposition to mosques around the country?

Finally, we should have an accounting of current anti-radicalization measures, evaluating their coherence, effectiveness, and consonance with our shared constitutional values. The FBI’s approach would seem to justify monitoring religious behavior. And, despite denials from its director, there is mounting evidence that the FBI is placing informants in mosques simply to find out what the imam and those who worship there are saying. The Bureau should explain how this approach comports with First Amendment values of free speech, association, and religion. Equally important, the FBI should make clear how keeping tabs on American Muslims’ religious beliefs affects its critical relations with these communities, whose members have been instrumental in disrupting some 40 percent of terrorist plots.

These are just a few of the questions that Rep. King can explore if he is really concerned about domestic terrorism. 

Faiza Patel is the author of a recent report, Rethinking Radicalization, and an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and public policy institute.