Many of New York's Muslims believe they are being watched—that informants are in their midst, undercover officers are in their mosques, that they aren't safe in their homes and that someone listens to their phone calls. Those fears would seem exaggerated, even hysterical, if it weren't for the fact that the NYPD—already known to operate a network of informants—has, over the past two years, announced that dangerous, radical ideology is pervading the city's Muslim community.
F ears of "sleeper cells" or "homegrown terrorists" have been heightened ever since September 11, but concern about domestic terrorists swelled after the 2005 London-transport-system bombings, which were perpetrated by people raised in Britain. About a year after those bombings, the NYPD hired Richard Falkenrath, an expert on weapons proliferation who worked on President Bush's transition team, national security staff and 2004 campaign.
Two months into his NYPD tenure, Falkenrath appeared before the U.S. Senate's Homeland Security committee. Citing the NYPD's "great deal of knowledge of local extremist, radical and militant individuals and groups," Falkenrath said that Al Qaeda's "powerful radical influence on the city's younger generation—especially among its sizable Muslim community—continues to pose a serious threat from within…. We consider the fuel that ignited this inside threat—extreme militant ideology and influence—as the most critical challenge in addressing this inside threat in New York City." He concluded: "The possibility of a 'homegrown' terrorist attack against New York City or any other American city is real and is worsening with time as the radical process unfolds."
F alkenrath's comments attracted little attention, even though they apparently marked the first time a city official had suggested that New York Muslims were becoming radicalized in a way that made them an "inside threat."
A Detailed Study
There was more buzz the following August when the NYPD's Intelligence Division released a report called "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat." The 90-page study was, according to Time magazine, "The most sophisticated government analysis of the homegrown terrorism threat to be made public in the United States."
The report, written by NYPD intelligence analysts Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, examined five foreign terrorist plots—including the London attacks, the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh—and concluded that the plots fit a pattern in which radical Islam drove the participants to their deeds.
Silber and Bhatt posited a four-stage radicalization process. "Pre-radicalization" is the period before exposure to jihadi- Salafi Islam, a radical interpretation of the Muslim faith. "Self-identification" is what happens when a "cognitive opening or crisis" leads a person to explore radical Islam. "Indoctrination" occurs when the person "wholly adopts jihadi- Salafist ideology" and decides that "action" is required, usually with the help of a "spiritual sanctioner." Finally, "jihadization" happens when the person decides to become a "holy warrior."
The report says "there's no useful profile to assist law enforcement" but also claims that the four-step pattern "provides a tool for predictability." Not everyone who starts the radicalization process finishes it, of course, but that "does not mean that if one doesn't become a terrorist, he or she is no longer a threat," it reads. "Individuals who have become radicalized…may serve as mentors and agents of influence to those who might become the terrorists of tomorrow."
That means anyone who starts the process is a threat. And that's where the report really breaks new ground. "Taken in isolation, individual behaviors can be seen as innocuous," but when seen as part of a process of radicalization, they look more menacing, the report reads. Hence "the need to identify those entering this process at the earliest possible stage."
The report then applies this framework to six U.S.-based plots (including the 9-11 attacks, which were partly planned in Hamburg) to see how well it matches, and finds at least partial corroboration.*
New Ideas On Identifying Threats
To help with that identification, the report identifies clues that a person has started down the path to radicalization. It names mosques, cafés, cabdriver hangouts, student associations, hookah bars and bookstores as potential "radicalization incubators" and lists "signatures" that someone has adopted Salafism, including "giving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling," along with "wearing traditional Islamic clothing, growing a beard" and "becoming involved in social activism and community issues."
Later, the report contends that a hallmark of the indoctrination stage is that "rather than seeking and striving for the more mainstream goals of getting a good job, earning money, and raising a family, the indoctrinated radical's goals are non-personal and focused on achieving 'the greater good.'" It also posits that the spread of radicalization in Europe has been exacerbated by the continent's "generous welfare systems" and "immigration laws that don't encourage…assimilation."
New York, it seems, doesn't suffer from those policy shortcomings, but Silber and Bhatt nonetheless contend that "radicalization continues permeating New York City, especially its Muslim communities."
Critics of the NYPD's approach take issue with much of the radicalization report—not just what it says, but what it leaves out. The study only looks at cases of terrorism that involve Muslims*; Oklahoma City's Timothy McVeigh, Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph (who bombed the 1996 Olympics, a health clinic and a nightclub in Atlanta) are recent homegrown terrorists who don't make the cut, and neither do other terrorists from domestic groups like the Animal Liberation Front or Earth Liberation Front.
What's more, the report "doesn't follow the rules of inference, because it doesn't look to see if the features it sees as connected to violence are present in a broader spectrum of cases in such a way as to make the correlation they are suggesting suspect," says Aziz Huq, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. For instance, a concern for the "greater good," which nonterrorists from Dorothy Day to Jerry Lewis have exhibited, might not be a useful predictor of potential violence.
The central conclusion of the report regarding New York—that radicalization is spreading here—gets little support among people who live and work in the city's Muslim communities. Sure, it's easy to find terrorist propaganda videos on Atlantic Avenue, but that doesn't mean an increasing number of people are watching them. Teachers College Professor Louis Cristillo, who has studied the city's Muslim community, believes there is actually less radicalization post-September 11 because mosques and community centers all suspect that informers are in their midst. Cristillo released a survey this spring of Muslim high school students. Only 25 percent attended a mosque weekly. More than 55 percent said most or all of their friends were non-Muslims.
One radical group, the Islamic Thinkers Society (whose website refers to the Holocaust as the "Hollowca$$t") has been active in New York City but is widely shunned. Radical websites are unlikely to reach a broad swath of Muslim youth, either. "On a daily basis, Muslim students are six times more likely to be looking for music than anything related to Islam," let alone radical Islam or violent ideology, Cristillo reports.
At a recent NYU counterterrorism conference, Jessica Stern, a John F. Kennedy School of Government scholar of worldwide Muslim terrorism, praised the NYPD report. But she noted that predictions of an imminent radicalization of American Muslims "might be an exaggeration." She added, "Because Muslim Americans are better off than average Americans, I would be very surprised."
The key question is how the NYPD report will be used. It's already influencing debate within security circles nationwide; a May report by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security committee adopted the department's methodology. What's unclear is whether the NYPD will employ Silber and Bhatt's findings to guide its own operations in the Muslim community.
"It provides the most articulate justification for infiltration," Huq says. "The NYPD has said the report is not affecting operations at all. I think that's very unlikely. Even if only by osmosis, the report is going to affect the kind of tactics that will be used." Those tactics are likely to include more religious and racial profiling, he warns.
* This story was corrected after publication. The original version said the NYPD report considered five cases in developing its analytical framework. It omitted the fact that that framework was then applied to six additional cases, finding partial corroboration, for a total of 11 cases, not five.
Click here to read more from City Limits July 4, 2008 issue "Freedom/Fear: Civil Liberties In Today's New York."