Opening Pandora’s Box

As North America publicly confronts the issue of radicalization, those involved would do well to observe the lessons of the UK's experience - but have thus far shown little inclination to do so.

By Tobias Feakin for

The series of US hearings that began on 10 March on the 'radicalisation of the American Muslim community' through the House Homeland Security Committee have caused controversy and disquiet amongst sections of US society, but they also demonstrate the opening-up of a debate that needs to be had. Representative Peter King, the Chair of the Committee, has been robust in calling for the hearings, and in insisting that unnecessary 'political correctness' would not put a stop to them. However, it has been hard to ignore the volume of public unease emanating from politicians, civil rights groups and certain sections of the media upset by the hearings, seeing them as unnecessarily singling out one particular element of society, akin to 1950s McCarthyism.

Over the past three years there have been a series of high-profile terrorist incidents in the US involving Muslim-Americans. A recent report from the University of North Carolina revealed that  there have been some sixty-seven Muslim-American terrorism suspects and perpetrators globally since 2009, of which twenty-eight were focused on targets in the US.[1]  Most visible amongst these were the November 2009 shootings carried out by Major Nidal Malik Hasan, which killed thirteen and injured thirty at Fort Hood military base in Texas, Faisal Shahzad's attempted car-bombing of New York's Times Square in May 2010, and the conviction in 2010 of Najibullah Zazi, who was planning to conduct a suicide bombing raid on the New York subway system. 

Slow To Recognise The Threat

These cases have prompted an in-depth discussion by politicians attempting to understand the dimensions and extent of radicalisation in the US. For the  majority of the last decade, US authorities assumed that the terrorist threat it faced was an external one, based primarily in the tribal regions of Pakistan, and, despite a slow trickle of cases involving US citizens filtering through the system, overarching attempts to identify and tackle domestic radicalisation were not deemed necessary. The increasing number of prominent cases in the US is now changing this assumption, and there is growing criticism of the US government's failure to tackle the issue in a proactive manner. A recent expert study found that:

'It is fundamentally troubling, given this collection of new threats and new adversaries directly targeting America, that there remains no federal government agency or department specifically charged with identifying radicalization and interdicting the recruitment of US citizens or residents for terrorism.'[2]  

As the US now enters this debate in earnest and looks for solutions, and should the government seek to design its own counter-radicalisation programme, it is important that it learn from the experience and mistakes of others who have been dealing with these issues extensively. Unfortunately, the evidence of the Committee hearings so far suggests that crucial errors are being made regarding the framing and handling of the subject - errors which have the potential to lead to more serious problems in the years to come.

The Right Representatives

In the wake of the 2005 London bombings, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair called a meeting of Muslim community leaders at No.10 to confront extremism.  Blair stated that these leaders would:

'... be people who are going to be supported by the rest of us but [also] from the community, able to talk to the Muslim community and confront this evil ideology, take it on and defeat it by the force of reason.'[3]

However, it later became apparent that many from within the communities Blair was trying to reach did not know, respect, or wish to be told what to do by many of the 'leaders' who had been assembled for the meeting. The first lesson, therefore, was to exercise caution when dealing with those who identify themselves as leaders of communities - ask the communities who represents them, and be careful not to anoint one exclusive gatekeeper as your interlocutor. Muslim communities in Britain and the United States are diverse, and the Muslim public space is severely contested. It is not for government to act as purveyor of good and bad Muslims amongst different Muslim traditions - and any attempt to do so, whether construed or actual, will be met with hostility from many.

In the US context, it is clear that one of King's key objectives was to empower a different group of Muslim leaders. He accused major Muslim American organisations of being 'soft on extremism', and pointed to groups such as the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, which he felt better represented the American values that should be encouraged.[4]  This is a crucial error. To tell people who their leaders should be, especially those from a community very different from one's own, will only prove counter-productive and lead to greater resistance to change from those to whome one is hoping to reach out.

Other Forms of Radicalism

Further criticism has arisen from those who feel that the hearings are being used to single out one particular area of society: American Muslims.  King has been fiercely robust in response to these complaints:

'To back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness and an abdication of what passes for conventional wisdom in certain circles ... there is no equivalency of threat between Al-Qa'ida and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen.'[5]

In the UK the experience has been one of learning from our own mistakes and difficulties surrounding the language that is used to describe the problems faced. The first version of our CONTEST strategy focused on naming and describing Muslims, thus creating concerns from communities that the government was trying to single out, isolate and victimise them.[6] 

This lead later versions of CONTEST to use more neutral language which described 'violent extremism' and encompassed other forms of radicalisation relating to far-right movements and violent animal rights groups.  The UK government were thereby attempting to encourage a more holistic strategy which faced extremism in all its forms rather than singling out one element of society. The degree to which this was successful is still open to debate, but singling out US Muslims in the way King has will most certainly only intensify ill-feeling within the American-Muslim population. Countering King's assumptions, the White House were keen to distance themselves from such single-mindedness, stating that US domestic security efforts should look at all extremists, not focus just on Muslims. US Attorney General Eric Holder was quoted as saying: 'We don't want to stigmatise, we don't want to alienate entire communities.'[7]

Pointing to the Future

Now that the dust is settling on what has been a heated few weeks for the national discussion of US domestic radicalisation, the focus will turn to what potential solutions are proposed to counter the trend. In the country where media coverage is more emotive and overtly politicised than in most other Western democracies, and the big networks have the capacity to dramatically shape public opinion, a great deal of thought needs to go into how those solutions are presented to the US public and to those who are conducting the work. The polarised public discourse - represented by the varied reactions to Peter King's Committee hearing and to the posturing of other popularists - is hampering the substantial counter-terrorism work done amongst these communities. Through the UK experience, it is well understood that a clear communication strategy is vital in order to lower suspicions and negative perceptions of the work amongst those communities being targeted. It is easy to build the perception that the work going on is thinly veiled intelligence work, but remains incredibly hard to change that perception once it is engrained. Likewise, for those conducting the counter-radicalisation activities, they need to have clear guidelines for their work so that it does not become unfocused and counter-productive. 

Unfortunately, the US experience in other areas of counter-terrorism has not set a good standard for these sorts of communication strategies. The rollout of increased security-screening measures - closer physical inspection of passengers and increased use of millimetre wave technologies - in November 2010 offers a good example of poor timing and mishandled public opinion, which resulted in a number of protests and negative media reports. The lack of a clear public communications effort by the Transport Security Administration and the DHS prior to the rolling-out of these new measures - and hence the absence of any attempt to explain the purpose of these new measures - could much to compound, if not inspire, the tide of criticism. Compare this problem to the far more sensitive work that will need to be carried out in amongst certain sections of US society to try and root out pockets of radicalisation, and the US government could end up with a  larger problem than it ever imagined.

The Canadian Senate Terrorism report, published this week, includes bolstering efforts to understand counter-radicalisation as one of its key recommendations. Combine this with the imminently due, keenly anticipated reworking of the Prevent strand of the UK's own CONTEST strategy due, and it is clear that the long-term approach to countering terrorism is being placed at the heart of international efforts to close this chapter of the terrorist problem. However, caution must be used when creating long-term strategies: if formulated incoherently, insensitively and, ultimately, incorrectly, they will generate problems for years to come.

Main image courtesy of Brian Snelson


[1] Charles Kurzam, Muslim-American Terrorism Since 9/11: An Accounting. Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, University of North Carolina, February 2011.

[2] Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, Assessing the Terrorist Threat - A Report of the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Preparedness Group. Bipartisan Policy Center, September 2010.

[3] Tony Blair quoted in The Mail Online, "Blair: Muslims to confront 'evil ideology" 19 July 2005 >>

[4] Michael Boorstein, "American Muslim groups react to views presented in controversial hearing", The Washington Post, 12 March 2011.

[5] Peter King quoted in Joe Wolverton, II, "Jefferson and Madison and Muslim Terrorists: How Would Peter King Judge Their Approach?", The New American, 18 March 2011 <

[6] Jim Armgstrong et al, 'The Language of Counter-Terrorism: When Message Received is Not Message Intended', Harvard Kennedy School Policy Analysis Exercise. April 2008.

[7] BBC Online, 'Peter King warns al-Qaeda recruiting US Muslims', 10 March 2011, ttp://>


Dr Tobias Feakin

Senior Associate Fellow

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