Domestic-Terrorism Incidents Hit a Peak in 2009

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Marc Piscotty / Getty

Najibullah Zazi arrives at the Byron G. Rogers Federal Building in Denver

You may not have noticed, because most of the plots were foiled, but 2009 saw an unprecedented surge in terrorism events on U.S. soil. When analysts tally these events, they refer to anything from a disrupted plot to U.S. citizens traveling abroad to seek terrorism training or a lone gunman running amok in the U.S. And by the calculations of Rand Corp. expert Brian Jenkins, more terrorist threats were uncovered in the U.S. in 2009 than in any year since 2001.

"There appears to be an increase in [terrorist] activity in the U.S.," warns Jenkins, who calculates that there have been 32 terrorism-related events on these shores since 9/11 and that 12 of them occurred in 2009.

Some of the more noteworthy events of 2009:

• In January, Bryant Neal Vinas, a Long Island, New York, convert to Islam, pleaded guilty to helping al-Qaeda in a plot to blow up a train in Penn Station.

• In late 2008, Shirwa Ahmed, a Somali-American college student from Minneapolis, became the first American suicide bomber on record when he killed 29 people in an attack in Somalia. Earlier in the year, the FBI revealed that at least 20 Somali-Americans from the Minneapolis area had traveled to Somalia to join al-Shabab, a radical militia tied to al-Qaeda. Five Somali-Americans are believed to have died in fighting there this year, and Somali officials say at least one more unnamed U.S. citizen has become a suicide bomber for al-Shabab.

• In June, Abdulhakim Muhammad, an Arkansas convert to Islam, was accused of killing one soldier and wounding another in an attack at a military-recruitment center in Little Rock.

• In September, Michael Finton, an Illinois man who converted to Islam in prison, was accused of trying to blow up a federal building in Springfield.

• In October, Chicago businessman David Coleman Headley was arrested for allegedly plotting a terrorist attack on a Danish newspaper that had published controversial cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. (Tahawwur Rana, a Pakistani-Canadian resident of Chicago was also arrested in connection with the same plot.) Headley was later additionally charged with abetting the Mumbai terrorist attack of November 2008.

• In November, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the son of Palestinian immigrants, who had grown up in the U.S., was accused of going on a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding 30.

• Also in November, eight Somali-American men from Minnesota were charged with terrorism-related counts involving al-Shabab. Six other had been charged previously. Most of the men were charged in absentia because they remain in Somalia, along with dozens of Somali Americans who are believed to have joined the al-Qaeda-linked militia.

• And earlier this month, five men from the Washington area were detained in Pakistan, where local officials say they had been trying to join the fight against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Ramy Zamzam, said to be the leader of the group, is a Howard University dental student; two others are sons of businessmen.

• Some other cases involve legal residents who are not U.S. citizens, like Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan suspect arrested in Denver and charged with a plot to bomb targets in New York City, and Jordanian Hosam Smadi, arrested in Dallas and accused of trying blow up a skyscraper.

Terrorism experts and Muslim-community leaders caution that the spurt in such events doesn't necessarily add up to a trend. For one thing, the cases are unconnected. "Each case has its own special circumstances," says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Nor is there likely to be wide-scale extremism in the American Muslim community. Jenkins points out that there's "no underground network and no deep reservoir of resentment." Hooper notes that the problem "is not coming from rhetoric within the community. It's not the case that young men are being radicalized in American mosques."

Indeed, one of the lessons of 2009 is that the Internet can serve as a recruitment tool for extremists. From Smadi to the Virginia Five, many of the men accused of terrorist-related activities in the past year first made contact with jihadist groups online, officials say. "More and more people are going online to find inspiration," says Danny Coulson, a former deputy assistant director of the FBI.

Jihadist recruiters have grown increasingly sophisticated in their use of the Internet, and many of them specifically target American audiences. Extremist e-preachers like Anwar al-Awlaki — an American living in Yemen who exchanged e-mails with Hasan — communicate in English, which makes them more accessible to American Muslims. Pakistani authorities believe the Virginia Five were recruited by a man known as Saifullah, who communicated mainly through e-mails.

Not all jihadi recruiters want their American recruits to travel abroad for training or to join existing groups. "They've figured out that people who travel to Pakistan or Afghanistan or Somalia are probably being watched by the authorities," says Coulson. "So they'll just encourage you to act independently, without direct affiliation with any group. That makes it harder for law enforcement."

The good news: if recruiters can use the Internet, so too can U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. Terrorism experts say U.S. authorities have become much better at finding plotters online and putting them under surveillance. Smadi, for instance, was first spotted on a jihadi website.

Coulson argues, in fact, that one reason so many terrorism-related cases popped up in 2009 was the improvement in the ability of U.S. authorities to detect plots. It helps too that ordinary Americans have grown more alert to the danger. "More and more people will call in the police or FBI when they see something suspicious going on," he says.

Also, the American Muslim community has become better at nipping potential threats in the bud. In the case of the Virginia Five, the families of the men approached CAIR, which encouraged them to get a lawyer and make contact with the FBI. Hooper says community leaders are working harder to promote mainstream Islamic thinking among younger American Muslims, to counter extremist interpretations they may discover online.

Despite these efforts, however, terrorism experts warn that some American Muslims will continue to succumb to extremist calls for holy war against their own country. Some will be inflamed by the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Says Hooper: "Extremists use U.S. foreign policy as a recruitment tool."

Jenkins suggests there may also be a generational conflict at work. He points out that many of the American Muslims accused of terrorism this year are young men who "would have been at a very impressionable age when 9/11 happened." Although the majority of the community was repelled by the terrorist attacks on that day, he says, "some would have been inspired by it and caught up in the jihadist narrative."

If 2009 alerted Americans to the domestic-terror threat, it's a safe bet that there will be more reminders of the danger in 2010.