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Islamic 'Pipeline to Extremism' Turns Out to Be Mostly FBI Set-Ups

The railroading of suspects into the justice system is reminiscent of tactics used by the FBI and prosecutors during the era of McCarthyism and COINTELPRO.

The recent rash of charges against Somali-Americans on “conspiracy to provide material support” to al-Shabaab, a Somali rebel group on the U.S. terrorism list, seems designed to send a clear message that any support for the militants will lead to criminal prosecution. It also demonstrates the ubiquitous presence of law enforcement in these communities.

The Obama administration must be careful, however, not to play into the hands of jihadists by overreacting or seeming to unfairly target Somali immigrants.

The recent arrest of Mohamed Osman Mahmoud, a 19-year-old Oregonian of Somali descent, is a case in point. Like other inept would-be terrorists who fell for recent FBI sting operations, Mahmoud was obviously incapable of pulling off any complex operation without the help of the FBI. His attempts to contact international jihadists had failed. FBI agents then contacted him, built the bomb, and provided the suspect with money to rent an apartment. His indictment states Mahmoud wanted to commit an act of terrorism since he was 15 years old. Although Mahmoud’s alleged views are deplorable, merely fantasizing about jihad is not a crime.


The media and policymakers argue that this is a process of “radicalization” that turns self-identified radicals into jihadists. The New York Police Department’s much-quoted 2006 analysis of radicalization, Radicalization of the West: The Homegrown Threat,argued that there are four identifiable stages (pre-radicalization, self-identification, indoctrination, jihadization) in the process of radicalization. Borrowing mainly from the European experience, the report ascribes “jihadist or jihadi-Salafi ideology” as what mainly “motivates young men and women, born or living in the West, to carry out autonomous jihad via acts of terrorism against their host countries.”

However, this assumption does not apply to all would-be militants. Some, like the Somali youth who joined al-Shabaab in 2008, may have been motivated by nationalism rather than anti-Americanism.

Analyzing the Mahmoud case in the context of the NYPD theory, the teen was only at the second stage -- self-identification. As the NYPD report indicates, there is no formula for determining who will move from “self-identification” to “jihadization.” Indeed, according to the report, both “indoctrination” and “jihadization” require close contact and support from spiritual and operational leaders. It seems, therefore, that the FBI became Mahmoud’s operational leader.

Another recent report, the American Security Project’s Enemies Among Us: Domestic Radicalization After September 11, focuses on the psychological motivations of individuals. The report uses adjectives such as ‘bewildering” and “unpredictable.” It argues that the only commonality identified is the eventual exposure of the so-called radicals to “radical Islam” at mosques, the Internet, or through friends and recruiters. “Alienation” is considered a major factor, but it is not clear why alienation turns to actual action or plans to act.

The Bipartisan Policy Center report entitled “Assessing the Terrorist Threat," released this year and timed to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary, portrays the FBI as failing to understand that these incidents were not isolated. Rather, they indicate “an embryonic terrorist radicalization and recruitment structure had been established in the U.S. homeland.” The authors argued that the FBI, and Americans in general, seem to have been lulled into a sense of complacency by polls and statistics that showed that Americans Muslims as well-off and integrated.

The media and law enforcement officials continue to refer to these cases as “terrorism,” although so far there is no record of a person of Somali descent committing an act of violent terrorism in the United States. This amorphous definition creates the impression that Somalis, in general, are a threat. In March 2009, for instance, Deputy Director of Intelligence for the National Counterterrorism Center Andrew Liepman told a Senate hearing on al-Shabaab recruitment in the United States that some Somalis were susceptible to “criminal or extremist influence” because of their background.