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Don't Even Think About It

The war against "homegrown terrorism" is on. Enter the thought police.

| Wed Jan. 23, 2008 3:00 AM EST

Plenty of people will argue that the "subversive" groups targeted during the McCarthy era or the COINTELPRO period were nothing like today's Islamic radicals—and there are, of course, differences, not least in terms of new tactics like suicide attacks and dirty bombs. But the Weather Underground set off at least a dozen bombs, which is a dozen more than the homegrown jihadists have managed so far. And just as the FBI spied on Weathermen and anti-war activists alike, it will be unlikely to distinguish between active jihadists and Muslims who are simply ardent or angry. What's more, anything that can be applied to one "extremist" group—laws, policies, law enforcement strategies, domestic intelligence operations—can be applied to others. A case in point is offered by Brian Michael Jenkins, a Rand Corporation terrorism expert who served as a consultant on the NYPD's report. In his book on terrorism, Unconquerable Nation: Knowing Our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves, Jenkins wrote, "In their international campaign, the jihadists will seek common grounds with leftist, anti-American, and anti-globalization forces, who will in turn see, in radical Islam, comrades against a mutual foe." Once a terrorist is defined by thought and word rather than deed, there will be room for all of us in the big tent.

The bill does include a provision that all activities "should not violate the constitutional rights, civil rights, or civil liberties of United States citizens or lawful permanent residents," and must observe "racial neutrality" policies. They are also to be audited by Homeland Security's Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Officer. But as Mike German of the ACLU told In These Times, an internal review does not constitute real independent oversight. "Nobody should be fooled that such an office would have authority to address policies that are approved at a high level of the administration."

Outside of civil liberties groups, most criticism of the bill seems to be coming from the libertarian right—including presidential candidate Ron Paul, who gave a shout-out to his diverse base of supporters when he warned that "otherwise non-violent anti-tax, antiwar, or anti-abortion groups [could] fall under the watchful eye of this new government commission."

For an indication as to where the initiatives outlined in the bill could lead, we can look to the NYPD report on the "homegrown threat" that was released in August 2007. Prepared by two senior analysts in the department's intelligence division, it compiles information from case studies of successful attacks and thwarted plots by domestic terrorists in the United States and other Western nations, and uses them to create what the authors call "a conceptual framework for understanding the process of radicalization in the West."

The NYPD report, like the House bill, starts out with a definition of terms. But unlike the bill, it is frank about which "extremist belief system" poses what it calls "the homegrown threat" (although it often avoids referring to Islam and instead uses the term "jihadi-Salafi ideology"): "What motivates young men and women, born or living in the West, to carry out 'autonomous jihad' via acts of terrorism against their host countries? The answer is ideology. Ideology is the bedrock and catalyst for radicalization. It defines the conflict, guides movements, identifies the issues, drives recruitment, and is the basis for action. In many cases, ideology also determines target selection and informs what will be done and how it will be carried out."

The lines between thought and action are blurred. And the report states explicitly that both are dangerous and need to be policed: "Where once we would have defined the initial indicator of the threat at the point where a terrorist or group of terrorists would actually plan an attack, we have now shifted our focus to a much earlier point—a point where we believe the potential terrorist or group of terrorists begin and progress through a process of radicalization. The culmination of this process is a terrorist attack."

Central to the report is an analysis of the four phases of this "radicalization process": pre-radicalization; self-identification with the jihadist cause; indoctrination following exposure to jihadist literature or arguments; and finally, "jihadization." None of these phases involves any violent acts, although the last, in the report's definition, will "ultimately" lead to "operational planning for the jihad or a terrorist attack." The way that one phase leads into another suggests a kind of seamless continuity between thought and action, a sense of inevitability—as if once an individual admits the ideology into his mind, he will eventually end up with a bomb strapped to his body.

The report acknowledges that individuals destined to follow this trajectory do not fit any particular profile. They can be citizens or resident aliens (legal or illegal); immigrants or second- and third-generation Americans; Muslim-born or converts. The "radicalization incubators" where they gather, the report says, "can be mosques," but also "cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, nongovernmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores." Or they may meet on the Web, which the report calls "a virtual incubator of its own" and New York police commissioner called "the de facto training ground" for terrorists.

Future jihadists, the report says, "look, act, talk and walk like everyone around them," and "in the early stages of their radicalization, these individuals rarely travel, are not participating in any kind of militant activity, yet they are slowly building the mind-set, intention and commitment to conduct jihad." In other words, as Spencer Ackerman writes on TPMMuckraker, "most of what we learn about potential homegrown jihadists is that their pre-radical behavior is...a lot like that of non-jihadists." How, then, can we identify these people? Only by keeping an eye on everyone who might remotely fit the bill.

"The NYPD must have the tools it needs to investigate and combat terrorism, but this report lays the foundation for blanket surveillance of the entire Muslim community," said Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The NYPD report outlines no concrete strategies for combating "jihadization," but these would presumably involve the same kinds of tactics that have been used to track "dangerous" and "subversive" groups in the past, the basic tactics of domestic intelligence work: electronic surveillance, recruiting informants, placing agents—and sometimes agents provocateur—inside suspect communities, and taking up other opportunities to watch, look, and listen.

The report also seems to have inspired renewed calls for ordinary citizens to join in the task of rooting out potential jihadists by spying on their neighbors. "They can live next door," warned the New York Post, which also declared that the report "underscores the relentless efforts by civil libertarians and leftist groups—with the New York Times at the head of the line—to thwart counterterrorist efforts" by the NYPD.

Interestingly, the NYPD's "counterterrorist efforts" to which the Post refers had nothing to do with crushing jihadist plots; instead, they involve one of the most blatant crackdowns on legitimate dissent in recent memory, and show why the police force honed by Rudy Giuliani needs no more weapons against constitutional liberties added to its arsenal. Before and during the 2004 Republican National Convention, with no credible threat of violence, the NYPD conducted not only mass arrests of peaceful protesters (almost three times as many as Chicago 1968), but widespread preconvention surveillance of activists with "anti-Bush sentiment," from anti-war organizations to church groups to street-theater companies. "The police action helped to all but eliminate dissent from New York City during the Republican delegates' visit," said the New York Times editorial that aroused the Post's wrath. "If that was the goal, then mission accomplished. And civil rights denied."

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