Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 there have been a number of scholarly studies on terrorism. These studies differ greatly from the social construction of the terrorist threat created by the media and politicians. The highly sensationalized and highly selective reporting on terrorism has irresponsibly raised levels of fear and incited discriminatory rhetoric targeting the American Muslim community.
Of course, research on terrorism is difficult. But scholarly research on the topic is very useful in providing real knowledge about terrorism and a basis for a realistic awareness by the public. This research is especially useful in discerning trends. A major problem with existing datasets on terrorism is that many right-wing terrorists involved in terrorist incidents are not prosecuted under existing terrorism statutes. As a result government databases are inherently biased and seriously underestimate the threat of domestic right-wing terrorism while exaggerating the threat of jihadist inspired terrorism (Schlatter, 2013).
Nonetheless, even using biased and flawed law enforcement data sets there are some clear conclusions which can be reached. First, the most significant efforts to control jihadist terrorist incidents have emanated from the American Muslim community. Second, the threat of “homegrown” jihadist terrorists is significantly smaller than the threat of right-wing domestic terrorism. The FBI’s own research demonstrates that terror from the right is the most dangerous and prolific threat to the safety of American citizens (Schlatter, 2013).
It is our intention to highlight, summarize and discuss every credible study of terrorism on American soil conducted since 9/11 and in doing so to confront the sensationalism of the media; the pandering to fear by politicians; and the xenophobic reactions to the American Muslim community.
The Threat from Domestic Right-Wing Extremists
The Congressional Research Service issued a report highly critical of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. It chastises federal agencies for using inconsistent definitions and terminologies in analyzing domestic terrorism. It also points out that there are great variations in how domestic terrorists are prosecuted. Nonetheless the report made it clear that domestic right-wing terrorists had been responsible for more than two dozen terrorist incidents since 9/11 (Bjelopera, 2012).
That report was followed by a major study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point which pointed to a significant increase in far-right domestic terrorism beginning in the 1990s. The West Point report finds that far-right domestic terrorism increased by 400% from 1990-2012. It pointed to a dramatically increased danger from racist/white supremacist groups and right-wing fundamentalist religious movements. The West Point study documented 4,420 violent incidents that occurred between 1990 and 2012 inside the United States (Perliger, 2012).
A 2011 report for the Department of Homeland Security provided additional detail by analyzing the department’s Extremist Crime Database. The research showed that domestic far-right extremists had been involved in over 560 homicides from 1990 to 2010. It also found that far-right domestic terrorists were directly involved in 60 planned or attempted terrorist acts in the United States between 1995 and 2005. Finally the report identified 275 far-right hate groups active within U.S. borders (Chermak, Freilich and Suttmoeller, 2011).
A 2009 analysis by the Department of Homeland Security called attention to significant increases in domestic right-wing extremism probably related to economic problems and the election of the first black president. The report assessed the dangers in this way:
“… lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.”
The report also called attention to recruitment campaigns by extremist right-wingers directed toward returning veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Department of Homeland Security, 2009).
The Social Construction of the Jihadist Threat
If there is one clear finding from research on the alleged danger of jihadist terrorism emanating from the U.S. Muslim community it is that politicians and the media have drastically exaggerated that threat and engaged in a campaign that creates widespread unfounded fear. The truth is that since 9/11 only 139 Muslim Americans have either been convicted of terrorism charges involving violence or the threat of violence or have been arrested with charges still pending and not proven. Of those 139 individuals less than 33% involved successful terrorist actions and the vast majority of those incidents occurred outside U.S. borders. On the other hand the Muslim-American community has been actively working to denounce violence and reporting potential cases of radicalization to police officials. These efforts in the Muslim-American community are infrequently reported by the media. The simple conclusion is that the level of Muslim-American terrorism is very small and very limited (Schanzer, Kurzman and Moosa, 2010).
A report out of the RAND Corporation provides even more context to the issue finding that there is no evidence that Muslims in the United States are becoming more radicalized. In fact between 9/11 and the end of 2009 there were only 46 cases of domestic jihadist radicalization, involving only 125 people, in the United States. The report concludes that “mistrust on American Muslims by other Americans seems misplaced.” The report’s ultimate finding is that the number of domestic jihadist recruits is “tiny” when considered against the large population of American Muslims (Jenkins, 2010).
The other important point to be raised here is that the most reliable source for controls on potential jihadist recruits has been the American-Muslim community. There have been very few instances of American-Muslims becoming involved in terrorist plots. But, in those few cases 40% of the arrests resulted directly from information provided to law enforcement from the American-Muslim community. The involvement of American Muslims in monitoring radicalization is clear when we consider that plots involving domestic U.S. targets and the number of U.S. suspects have both declined by 50% (Kurzman, 2011).
The overwhelming majority of Muslim immigrants to the United States reject jihadist ideology. Rather than fearing the Muslim community, programs which assist new immigrants and prevent discrimination are among the most useful anti-jihadist policies. In fact, terrorism expert Brian Jenkins suggests that exaggerated and alarming portrayals of the Muslim terrorist threat actually encourage terrorism (Jenkins, 2011).
The threat of domestic terrorism and violent extremism is clearly rising in the United States, but the source of that threat is not found in the Muslim community. It is true that there has been an increase in violent extremist plots, but there is no evidence of rising ideological extremism among Muslim Americans. Since 9/11 67% of violent extremist plots within the United States have originated with non-Muslims (Beutel, 2011). Since 9/11 63% of the people killed in terrorist incidents in the United States have died at the hands of nonjihadist extremists and 80% of those involved right-wing extremists. Islamist terrorism has been markedly less deadly than other forms of terrorism (Bergen, 2012).
Gary Potter, Professor, School of Justice Studies
Adrienne McCarthy, Graduate Student, Criminal Justice
Eastern Kentucky University
Bergen, P. 2012. The Homegrown Threat: Right- and Left-Wing Terrorism since 9/11. New American Foundation and Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Policy.
Bjelopera, J. 2012. The Domestic Terrorist Threat: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service.
Chermak, S., J. Freilich and M. Suttmoeller. 2011. The Organizational Dynamics of Far-Right Hate Groups in the United States: Comparing Violent to Non-Violent Organizations. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, Department of Homeland Security.
Department of Homeland Security. 2009. Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment. Office of Intelligence and Analysis.
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Undated. Terrorism 2002-2005.
Jenkins, B. 2010. Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001. RAND Corporation.
Jenkins, B. 2011. Stray Dogs and Virtual Armies: Radicalization and Recruitment to Jihadist Terrorism in the United States since 9/11. RAND Corporation.
Kurzman, C. 2011. Muslim-American Terrorism since 9/11: An Accounting. University of North Carolina: Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.
Perliger, L. 2012. Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far-Right. Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Schlatter E. 2012. Terror’s Measure. Southern Poverty Law Center.
Schanzer, D., C. Kurzman and E. Moosa. 2010. Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans. Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University.