Sunday, May 30, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
We live in a world of global diasporas from many countries where it takes an Internet nanosecond to connect with the “homeland” and 40 hours — not 80 days — to circuit the globe. As we try to cope with multiplying transnational terrorist threats, old ways of thinking about terrorism have to go.
Law enforcement and intelligence agencies learned a brutal lesson from 9/11. The good news is that the “firewall” that prevented the CIA and FBI from even communicating with each other over domestic threats has been removed. The interagency cooperation following the abortive Times Square attack was good enough to identify and arrest the culprit seconds before his plane was to take off for Dubai.
Yet to judge from initial reactions, the underlying political and media mind-set is still to label such incidents either as “domestic” (Tim McVeigh and Oklahoma City) or “international” (masterminded by the likes of Osama bin Laden from a hideout in Waziristan).
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speculated that the would-be bomber could have been a domestic nut case “with a political agenda who doesn’t like the health care bill or something.” That may have been music to the ears to some on MSNBC, but Fox News was first to accurately report the authorities were zeroing in on a man of Pakistani origin.
Yet neither left nor right spin doctors did much to help viewers sift through the implications of 30-year-old Faisal Shahzad’s domestic connections as a recently naturalized American citizen and Connecticut homeowner who spent the past five months overseas. One unassailable point is known. This is an attack launched domestically by an American, but there is nothing purely “domestic” about its root causes.
Indeed, we’ve heard similar narratives before: A Muslim immigrant — probably radicalized rather than assimilated by his sojourn in “the Great Satan” (Islamist label for the USA) has his hate incubated and validated on virtual jihad Internet sites. He then uses the excuse of an overseas family as cover to transit back and forth between the U.S. and the Af-Pak region where he rubs shoulders with Taliban and/or al-Qaida agents.
The M.O. fits, not only Shahzad, but also Najibullah Zazi. That smiling doughnut peddler came to New York as a teenager born in Afghanistan. He evolved beneath the radar screen into one of the most dangerous jihadis among us, motivated by an insatiable hatred of America, Jews and Israel.
He plotted to use the same beauty salon chemicals like hydrogen peroxide used to kill 52 people on the London subway in 2005, and that may also provided a model for Shahzad’s abortive fertilizer bomb. Zazi’s e-mails also used the cover on an impending but fictitious Mideast “wedding” to plan his New York subway attack.
Among other “hybrid” terrorists was Major Nidal Hisan — Virginia-born of Palestinian parents — was recruited by broadcasts from Yemen from American-born al-Qaida propagandist, Anwar Al Awlaki. He killed 13 in the Fort Hood massacre.
Now, there is some speculation that Faisal Shahzad may have been a “mole” planted in the U.S. many years ago by his Mideast handlers. While that’s possible, it’s more likely he’s a “hybrid” terrorist, shaped by the dynamic interaction between Pakistan, to which he never really cut ties, and the U.S., whose secular, consumer culture may have deepened his alienation.
The role of the Internet’s virtual jihad websites in radicalizing people, both native and immigrant, promoting a version of Islam rooted, not in love of Allah, but in hatred of America; the prevalence of small-scale plots by lone wolves or a few individuals that may be multiplying toward “a critical mass”; and the failure of the American home front to do a better job of assimilating Mideast immigrants: these are three lessons that, almost a decade after 9/11, have yet to be fully learned.
Why is accurate vocabulary so crucial? Because without defining the enemies and the threats posed, America’s frontline institutions — from Congress to the media, to our law enforcement and military — will always be playing catch up with ever elusive and increasingly dangerous enemies, not just domestic or foreign but a new toxic hybrid.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Harold Brackman, a historian, is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The preceding commentary originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.