US Representative Peter King's congressional hearings--on Muslim radicalization, the war on terror, and the role of America's Muslims--proceed, provide an opportune time to take stock of a homegrown terrorist phenomenon that has gripped headlines across the country particularly since Christmas Day 2009. Even a cursory look at the past 18 months gives rise to a number of incidents that seem to reflect a view of the United States increasingly under attack, whether it be the Fort Hood shootings, the Christmas Day bomber Abdul Muttalab, or the attempted Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad.
The most alarming things about these attempted attacks have been both the apparent ineffectiveness of the Homeland Security apparatus put in place post-9/11 and the rise in what is commonly termed homegrown terrorism: attacks conceived and launched by US citizens on US citizens. The link between some of these attacks and Anwar ai-Awlaki--an American imam living in Yemen--highlights the new threat from the United States' own. Even Michael Leiter, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently described af-Awlaki as the greatest threat to the United States. These attacks, albeit unsuccessful, have punctured a false sense of security that has developed post-9/11, and contested the commonly held narrative that the United States was free from attack for seven years.
A History of Domestic Terror
Firstly, is domestic terrorism in the United States a new phenomenon? While the concept of international terrorism has resonated strongly for many European countries, especially those with post colonial histories, this heady mix of insurgency, terrorism, and bourgeois radicals, such as the Baader Meinhof gang and the Red Army Faction, appears to have no parallel at home. However, previous waves of international terrorism have both been launched from the United States and also terrorized Americans. Clan na Gaei (United Irishmen), led by Jeremiah Donovan Rossa, organized and fundraised from the United States in the 1870s. In today's parlance of material support they raised US$23,350 to fund a terrorist campaign. In January 1881, they bombed Salford Barracks, Manchester, killing a seven-year-old boy and injuring three people. From 1881 to 1883, they conducted an indiscriminate bombing campaign of underground and railway stations in the United Kingdom.
Even the US homeland was not immune to violence. In May 1886, an anarchist threw a bomb at Haymarket in Chicago, killing eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians. US President William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901 by another anarchist, Leon Czolgosz. The attacks were linked to a global ideology, and they struck significant political and civilian targets both in the United States and across the world, including former French President Marie-Francois Sadi Carnot in 1894. Throughout the 20th century, US citizens continued to provide material support for terrorists, including arms for the Irish Revolutionary Army (IRA), even when it was abundantly clear they would be supporting a mainland bombing campaign aimed at civilian targets. Americans have also actively participated in supporting international terrorist groups, including Tupac Amaru in Peru.
More recently, even the earlier Al-Qaeda operatives included some local recruits. Jose Padilla, "Abdullah al Muhajir," the millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian living in Montreal, and Ali Mohammed Abdel-soud Muhammed, a former Egyptian military officer who immigrated to America and became a sergeant in the US Army, all worked with Al-Qaeda long before 9/11. While these recruits were luckily few in number, it does belie the notion that the latest outbreak reflects a new tactic which has emerged from nowhere. There are conflicting opinions about the actual role and motivations of John Walker Lindh (the "American Taliban"), but no one contests he was in Afghanistan training with the Taliban while they were supporting Al-Qaeda, three years after the US Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania in 1998. …