American Muslims First Line of Defense Against Jihadists

James Fallows declares that we have won the war against the terrorists in the cover story of this month’s Atlantic Monthly. One of the key reasons given will be quite controversial: the support of the American Muslim community.

The dispersed nature of the new al-Qaeda creates other difficulties for potential terrorists. For one, the recruitment of self-starter cells within the United States is thought to have failed so far. Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands are among the countries alarmed to find Islamic extremists among people whose families have lived in Europe for two or three generations. “The patriotism of the American Muslim community has been grossly underreported,” says Marc Sageman, who has studied the process by which people decide to join or leave terrorist networks. According to Daniel Benjamin, a former official on the National Security Council and coauthor of The Next Attack, Muslims in America “have been our first line of defense.” Even though many have been “unnerved by a law-enforcement approach that might have been inevitable but was still disturbing,” the community has been “pretty much immune to the jihadist virus.”

Something about the Arab and Muslim immigrants who have come to America, or about their absorption here, has made them basically similar to other well-assimilated American ethnic groups—and basically different from the estranged Muslim underclass of much of Europe. Sageman points out that western European countries, taken together, have slightly more than twice as large a Muslim population as does the United States (roughly 6 million in the United States, versus 6 million in France, 3 million in Germany, 2 million in the United Kingdom, more than a million in Italy, and several million elsewhere). But most measures of Muslim disaffection or upheaval in Europe—arrests, riots, violence based on religion—show it to be ten to fifty times worse than here.

The median income of Muslims in France, Germany, and Britain is lower than that of people in those countries as a whole. The median income of Arab Americans (many of whom are Christians originally from Lebanon) is actually higher than the overall American one. So are their business-ownership rate and their possession of college and graduate degrees. The same is true of most other groups who have been here for several generations, a fact that in turn underscores the normality of the Arab and Muslim experience. The difference between the European and American assimilation of Muslims becomes most apparent in the second generation, when American Muslims are culturally and economically Americanized and many European Muslims often develop a sharper sense of alienation. “If you ask a second-generation American Muslim,” says Robert Leiken, author of Bearers of Global Jihad: Immigration and National Security After 9/11, “he will say, ‘I’m an American and a Muslim.’ A second-generation Turk in Germany is a Turk, and a French Moroccan doesn’t know what he is.”

Michelle Malkin has done an excellent job rounding up the many individual exceptions to this larger rule. More systematically, Steve Emerson has done yeoman’s work in documenting the real threat of Saudi Wahhabist influence in American mosques and madrassahs. See his important NYT bestseller American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us for that story.

Still, Fallows’ experts are almost certainly right when they say that the American ability to assimilate immigrants into our society after a generation or two–both aborbing parts of their culture and imparting the best parts of our value system–is unparalleled. And it applies to Muslims as it does for those from other cultural backgrounds.

More excerpts from the article, surrounding Fallows’ main thesis, are below the fold.

[T]the overall prospect looks better than many Americans believe, and better than nearly all political rhetoric asserts. The essence of the change is this: because of al-Qaeda’s own mistakes, and because of the things the United States and its allies have done right, al-Qaeda’s ability to inflict direct damage in America or on Americans has been sharply reduced. Its successor groups in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will continue to pose dangers. But its hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing. Its destiny is no longer in its own hands.


Brian Michael Jenkins, a veteran terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, recently published a book called Unconquerable Nation: Knowing Our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves. It includes a fictional briefing, in Osama bin Laden’s mountain stronghold, by an al-Qaeda strategist assigned to sum up the state of world jihad five years after the 9/11 attacks. “Any al-Qaeda briefer would have to acknowledge that the past five years have been difficult,” Jenkins says. His fictional briefer summarizes for bin Laden what happened after 9/11: “The Taliban were dispersed, and al-Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan were dismantled.” Al-Qaeda operatives by the thousands have been arrested, detained, or killed. So have many members of the crucial al-Qaeda leadership circle around bin Laden and his chief strategist, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Moreover, Jenkins’s briefer warns, it has become harder for the remaining al-Qaeda leaders to carry out the organization’s most basic functions: “Because of increased intelligence efforts by the United States and its allies, transactions of any type—communications, travel, money transfers—have become more dangerous for the jihadists. Training and operations have been decentralized, raising the risk of fragmentation and loss of unity. Jihadists everywhere face the threat of capture or martyrdom.”

Michael Scheuer was chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit from 1995 to 1999 and was a special adviser to it for three years after 9/11 (the CIA disbanded the unit this summer). In a similar mock situation report that Scheuer has presented at military conferences, a fictional briefer tells his superiors in al-Qaeda: “We must always keep in focus the huge downside of this war. We are, put simply, being hunted and attacked by the most powerful nation in the history of the world. And despite the heavy personnel losses we have suffered, may God accept them as martyrs, the United States has not yet made the full destructiveness of its power felt.”


[M]ost experts agree that the combination of routing the Taliban, taking away training camps, policing the financial networks, killing many al-Qaeda lieutenants, and maintaining electronic and aerial surveillance has put bin Laden and al-Zawahiri in a situation in which they can survive and inspire but not do much more. “Al-Qaeda has taken some very hard blows,” Martin van Creveld, a military historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of The Transformation of War and other books, told me. “Osama bin Laden is almost irrelevant, from an operational point of view. This is one reason why he has to keep releasing videos.”


John Robb, a former clandestine-operations specialist for the Air Force who now writes a blog called “Global Guerrillas,” says that it is relatively easy for terrorists to disrupt society’s normal operations—think of daily life in Israel, or England under assault from the IRA. But large-scale symbolic shock, of the type so stunningly achieved on 9/11 and advocated by bin Laden ever since, is difficult to repeat or sustain. “There are diminishing returns on symbolic terrorism,” Robb told me. “Each time it happens, the public becomes desensitized, and the media pays less attention.” To maintain the level of terror, each attack must top the previous one—and in Robb’s view, “nothing will ever top 9/11.” He allows for the obvious and significant exception of terrorists getting hold of a nuclear weapon. But, like most people I interviewed, he says this is harder and less likely than the public assumes. Moreover, if nuclear weapons constitute the one true existential threat, then countering the proliferation of those weapons themselves is what American policy should address, more than fighting terrorism in general. For a big, coordinated, nonnuclear attack, he says, “the number of people involved is substantial, the lead time is long, the degree of coordination is great, and the specific skills you need are considerable. It’s not realistic for al-Qaeda anymore.”


[Excerpts about American Muslims from top of post go here in sequence]

An even deeper problem for al-Qaeda and the self-starter groups is an apparent erosion of support where it would be most likely and necessary: in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The difficulty involves what they have done, and what they cannot do.

What they have done is to follow the terrorist’s logic of steadily escalating the degree of carnage and violence—which has meant violating the guerrilla warrior’s logic of bringing the civilian population to your side. This trade-off has not been so visible to Americans, because most of the carnage is in Iraq. There, insurgents have slaughtered civilians daily, before and after the death this spring of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But since American troops are also assumed to be killing civilians, the anti-insurgent backlash is muddied.

The situation is different elsewhere. “Like Tourette’s syndrome, they keep killing Muslim civilians,” says Peter Bergen. “That is their Achilles’ heel. Every time the bombs go off and kill civilians, it works in our favor. It’s a double whammy when the civilians they kill are Muslims.” Last November, groups directed by al-Zarqawi set off bombs in three hotels in Amman, Jordan. Some sixty civilians were killed, including thirty-eight at a wedding. The result was to turn Jordanian public opinion against al-Qaeda and al-Zarqawi, and to make the Jordanian government more openly cooperative with the United States. In October 2002, a suicide bomber from Jemaah Islamiyah (the Indonesian counterpart to al-Qaeda) blew up a nightclub in Bali and killed more than 200 people. Most of them were Australians and other foreigners, and the attack created little backlash among Muslims. A year ago, a second wave of suicide bombings in Bali killed twenty people, fifteen of them Indonesians. “The reaction in Indonesia was extremely negative,” Bergen says. Other people described similar reactions to incidents in Egypt, Pakistan, even Saudi Arabia.


“The things we have done right have hurt al-Qaeda,” says Caleb Carr, who strongly supported the reasoning behind the war in Iraq. By this he means the rout of the Taliban and the continued surveillance of Pakistan. “The things they have done wrong”—meaning the attacks on mosques and markets—”have hurt them worse.”

“There is only one thing keeping them going now,” he added. “That is our incredible mistakes.” The biggest series of mistakes all of these experts have in mind is Iraq.


In its past military encounters, the United States was mainly concerned about the damage an enemy could do directly—the Soviet Union with nuclear missiles, Axis-era Germany or Japan with shock troops. In the modern brand of terrorist warfare, what an enemy can do directly is limited. The most dangerous thing it can do is to provoke you into hurting yourself.

This is what David Kilcullen meant in saying that the response to terrorism was potentially far more destructive than the deed itself. And it is why most people I spoke with said that three kinds of American reaction—the war in Iraq, the economic consequences of willy-nilly spending on security, and the erosion of America’s moral authority—were responsible for such strength as al-Qaeda now maintained.


Jim Guirard, a writer and former Senate staffer, says that America’s response has helped confirm bin Laden’s worldview in an unintended way. The Arabic terms often brought into English to describe Islamic extremists—jihadists or mujahideen for “warriors,” plus the less-frequently used shahiddin for “martyrs”—are, according to Guirard, exactly the terms al-Qaeda would like to see used. Mujahideen essentially means “holy warriors”; the other terms imply righteous struggle in the cause of Islam. The Iraqi clergyman-warlord Muqtada al-Sadr named his paramilitary force the Mahdi Army. To Sunnis and Shiites alike, the Mahdi is the ultimate savior of mankind, equivalent to the Messiah. Branches of Islam disagree about the Mahdi’s exact identity and the timing of his arrival on earth, but each time U.S. officials refer to insurgents of the Mahdi Army, they confer legitimacy on their opponent in all Muslims’ eyes.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    I wouldn’t really call Malkin’s list ‘exceptions’ any more than I would call criminals of other backgrounds warriors for their faith.

    Certainly, the fact that these guys turned their backs on a propserous life in the U.S. calls to question their sanity.

    Additionally, their actions largely seem to be more in line with typical workplace violence, bell tower shooters, or in the case of John Allen, serial killings (by ANY nationality), than organized terror or warfare.

    Not to downplay the possible existence of these ‘cells’ in the U.S. They just have simply not (yet) been able to or planned to execute their attacks in any effective way.

  2. James Joyner says:

    LDJ: Agreed that most of those on Malkin’s list aren’t part of any organized cell. But most of them are people who have rejected assimilation into the American culture and been influenced by Wahhabi or other radical Islamic doctrine.

  3. slickdpdx says:

    The help of American Muslims is a big part of many anti-terror operations here. There are many reasons why that help isn’t publicized – operational and personal. While individuals may not want to be recognized, I think it is important to recognize that American Muslims are contributing.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s certainly a hopeful conclusion. For us. Rather less so for Europeans.

    I’m not sure the verdict is in yet. Are the forces for assimilation, the process of immigrants becoming Americans, still as strong as they’ve been for the rest of our history? I don’t know. The strongest counter-indication seems to me to be the enduring pockets of non-assimilating, non-English speaking groups without the geographic isolation that was the case in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I’d meant to mention that we should remember that the single greatest force for assimilation is birthright citizenship.

  6. Anderson says:

    Well, the last time the Atlantic did a big story on terror, it was a profile of Zarqawi’s menace to America, & we nailed him just as the issue came out.

    Let’s hope and pray that Fallows’s article doesn’t get similarly overtaken by events.

  7. floyd says:

    arab & muslim should not be lumped together when assessing the threat, as in the income ststistics.the article represents good strategy in it’s appeal, but truely blind as policy influence.