Vowing that he will “not back down” from critics, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, held the latest in a series of hearings aimed at exposing what he describes as the “radicalization” of American Muslims. Wednesday’s hearing, the third such installment in the congressman’s controversial crusade against domestic terrorism, targeted al-Shabaab, a militant Islamic group that controls parts of southern Somalia.
According to King, al-Shabaab “is engaged in an ongoing, successful effort to recruit and radicalize dozens of Muslim-American jihadists.” He asserted, moreover, that his investigation into al-Shabaab found that “al-Shabaab has successfully recruited and radicalized more than 40 Muslim-Americans and 20 Canadians.”
King is among many who allege that al-Shabaab is closely allied with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Council on Foreign Relations, however, disputes this claim:
“Experts say there are links between individual al-Shabaab leaders and individual members of al-Qaeda, but any organizational linkage between the two groups is weak, if it exists at all (many experts note that al-Qaeda operates in a disaggregated manner — so linking self-proclaimed members of al-Shabaab to self-proclaimed members of al-Qaeda would not necessarily indicate that the two groups are coordinating with one another in a systemic way).”
In his opening remarks, King characterized that as “a glaring example of what the 9/11 Commission called a failure of imagination” and insisted that “we must face the reality that al-Shabaab is a growing threat to our homeland.” He also fought back against critics of his efforts to root out domestic terrorism for its narrow focus on Muslim Americans.
“Finally, I note that certain elements of the politically correct media — most egregiously the vacuous ideologues at The New York Times — are shamelessly attempting to exploit the horrific tragedy in Norway, last Friday, to cause me to refocus these hearings away from Muslim-American radicalization. If they had even a semblance of intellectual honesty The Times and the others would know and admit that there is no equivalency in the threat to our homeland from a deranged gunman and the international terror apparatus of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, such as al-Shabaab, who are recruiting people in this country and have murdered thousands of Americans in their jihad attacks. Let me make this clear to the New York Times and their acolytes in the politically correct, moral equivalency media — I will not back down from holding these hearings.”
TheTimes is one among a number of publications to criticize the scope of King’s hearings. In March, the newspaper ran an editorial that stated, “Not much spreads fear and bigotry faster than a public official intent on playing the politics of division,” and an op-ed by Times contributor Richard Cohen charged King with being one of the Oslo terror suspect’s “ideological fellow travelers.” An op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune opined in March that in his campaign against domestic terrorism King “has made grossly irresponsible statements to right-wing broadcasters.”
King’s first hearing focused on American Muslims, in general, and the second on on the radicalization of the Muslim-American prison population. His stated goal is to illustrate that the Muslim-American community is not doing enough to stop terrorism within U.S. borders. Yet, as The Hill has reported, “Key U.S. law enforcement officials…say King’s claims are off-base.” In Minneapolis, for instance, Ralph Boelter, an FBI agent who has investigated Somalis who have left Minnesota to join al-Shabaab, has said that “Muslim-Americans couldn’t have been more helpful” to his investigations. And in fact, a study by the University of North Carolina reported that, of the 120 Muslims caught on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks since 2001, 48 were turned in by other Muslims.
King called three witnesses to the hearing: Ahmed Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress; William Anders Folk, a former assistant U.S. attorney general from Minnesota; and Thomas Jocelyn, a senior fellow and executive director of the Center for Law and Counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. All were sympathetic to King’s conclusions about Muslim radicalization, although Thomas Jocelyn conceded that most of al-Shabaab’s terrorism is focused on Muslims. Indeed, a study from from West Point noted that 85 percent of al-Qaeda’s victims around the world between 2004 and 2008 were Muslims.
Folk conceded that “the necessity for swift and precise counterterrorist actions…must never be replaced by an attitude of guilt by association or a belief that one’s origins or religious views make that person a likely or presumptive terrorist.” Nevertheless, he maintained, “it is appropriate — it is indeed important — that the committee spend time learning about — and educating the public about — the threat posed to the United States by al-Shabaab.” He said that we can never know when terrorists go from “aspirational to operational.”
St. Paul’s chief of police, Tom Smith, served as the Democratic witness. His testimony provided a pointed contrast to that of the other witnesses. While acknowledging that attempts at radicalizing Somali Muslim youths do indeed occur, Smith insisted that other youth groups are also targets for right-wing hate groups, such as white supremacists. He encouraged a more broad-based approach to combatting terrorism.
Several members of the Homeland Security committee voiced objections to narrow scope of the hearings. Bernie G. Thomson (D-Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, noted that “al-Shabaab has never attacked the United States or U.S. interests abroad.” He added, “While I acknowledge that the intelligence committee sees need to monitor al-Shabaab activities, I also know that vigilance must be in direct proportion to the probability and likelihood of threat. Al-Shabaab does not appear to present any danger to this homeland.”
Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY) voiced her disappointment that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) — whose district has one of the highest concentrations of Somali immigrants and who is also the first Muslim elected to Congress — had been denied the opportunity to speak at the hearing,. Moreover, she said, “For us to focus on very specific communities and [to not] put a full gamut of perspectives, I think, opens us up to the disdain of others. And that, then, perpetuates the notion we’re trying to combat. I really want to discourage us from stigmatizing and ostracizing communities.”
Committee member Michael McCaul (R-TX) said that he was “mystified” by the controversy surrounding the hearings. He asked Mr. Folk and Mr. Jocelyn how big they determined the threat of al-Shabaab to be. Jocelyn maintained that al-Shabaab is a grave threat to the United States through its training of Somali youth who go there from the United States and then return with the intention of committing terrorist acts. Both men expressed the view that al-Shabaab poses a clear threat to the United States. Though he agreed with his colleagues, Ahmed Hussen, a Muslim, proposed that the “most effective weapon is the moderate Muslim against the radical.”