I mentioned yesterday that I was working on a piece about the recent fusillade of arrests of American Muslims for terrorism-related activities, something that warranted an update to my 2005 TNR piece about the resistance of American Muslims to radicalization. But I wanted to take the idea further, and address both the implications of this seemingly ominous development for al-Qaeda’s capabilities and the Obama administration’s curious recent statements connecting the Afghanistan war to domestic U.S. terrorism. And today the Washington Independent published my piece.  Highlights:

Indeed, Marc Sageman, a former CIA official and terrorism researcher affiliated with several universities and think tanks, testified in October to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the number of successful al-Qaeda attacks in the past 15 years was significantly smaller than the number of successful attacks carried out by al-Qaeda-affiliated or al-Qaeda-inspired organizations. Furthermore, only 22 percent of attacks by terrorist groups with worldviews similar to al-Qaeda’s over the past five years actually tied back to al-Qaeda itself, according to Sageman’s research. In an interview with TWI, Sageman said that Clinton’s testimony “an oversimplification to the point that the truth is unrecognizable.”

The Obama administration is mischaracterizing the terrorist threat to get the public to back escalating the Afghanistan war, Sageman said. “Secretary Clinton’s distortions are typical of a politician,” he said, “who distorts reality to muster support for a policy.”

But al-Qaeda’s message is finding at least some appeal, however marginal, among American Muslims in their teens and 20s, more than it did to their older brothers, cousins or fathers. “Those people were 10 years old when 9/11 happened” and have since “felt like they grew up under a cloud of suspicion because of their religion.” said a former counterterrorism official who declined to speak for the record. Those individuals — whom the ex-official clarified were “a few bad apples” among millions of law-abiding American Muslims — “saw issues like torture, Guantanamo, and Iraq and decided to react because they lacked an understanding of history, and view things instead from a conspiratorial view and are open to being radicalized.” By contrast, the older generation — the families of the five Virginians — were encouraged to go to the FBI with their worries about their children’s travel to Pakistan after the prompting of a major American Muslim lobby group, the Council on American Islamic Relations.

I don’t know if this is Cuban Linx II to my 2005 Purple Tape — that piece was like 4000 words; this is around 1300 — and I’d still like to scrutinize this more. But I hope this makes a similar contribution.

Finally, there’s this:

“Al-Qaeda’s are capabilities basically almost nothing these days,” the ex-official said. “Sure, they’ve got a couple good operatives, and maybe will try to pull something big to make themselves relevant again … If we make them appear relevant — they’re at war with the greatest country on earth — then guess what? They’re gonna be big.” Instead, the ex-official continued, “if we treat them as insignificant, small, pathetic men with nothing to do with Islam, they’ll lose their relevance.”

I’m going to explore the implications of that in a second post later today.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman