To combat domestic terrorism, president biden should learn from the successes of the muslim world

Nearly two years after the Christchurch attacks, the United States, like other Western nations, is facing an unprecedented terror threat — even though its substantial counter-terror apparatus has evolved over the last two decades. American intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been dedicated to the destruction of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, principally in Africa and Asia. Now terrorism is marching into the Main Streets of the United States, with friends and family in America’s own armed forces.

The war on terror can be fought more recklessly when the terrorists are beyond one’s borders. Deploying the same techniques honed in Afghanistan for fighting extremists in Arkansas (as Robert Grenier, the former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, put it recently) is untenable. An over-reaction to domestic terror will simply create more recruits. In fact, it won’t be tolerated.

Instead, America and others should learn from those countries that have spent generations fighting extremists who look like the population at large, pray in the same way, and even wave similar flags — despite being at war with their government and most of their fellow citizens. Which is to say, the United States needs to learn from the Muslim world.

We must remember that the origins of the American domestic terror threat — like the threat of Islamic extremism — go deeper than recent events, such as the presidency of Donald Trump and the emergence of QAnon. They go back a generation, running parallel to the emergence of Islam’s lunatic fringe, to violent clashes between law enforcement agencies and domestic extremists.

In 1993, a gunfight between police and an extremist cult led to a fire that killed 76 people in Waco, Texas. This and a handful of other incidents precipitated the radicalisation of anti-government terrorists, leading to the bombing of an Oklahoma federal building in 1995 — after 9/11, the deadliest terror attack on US soil.

Although domestic terror plots have been sharply rising since 2013, senior Trump officials remained deeply allergic to the notion of “right-wing terrorism”. Little wonder, then, that Michael McGarrity, the FBI’s head of counterterrorism, told Congress in 2019 that the bureau only devoted about 20 per cent of its counterterrorism resources to domestic threats.

The Biden White House is unlikely to continue the denialism. Focus and resources will increase. Indeed, Joe Biden’s inauguration speech openly addressed the “rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism”. What America now must learn is that the type of resources needed to address domestic terrorism are a far cry from the resources required to oppose terrorism outside its borders. The Pentagon can’t use drone missiles on white, baseball-loving communities.

Just as Islamist violence owes itself to a warped understanding of Islam’s genesis, America’s homegrown terrorism springs from a far-out interpretation of a static American identity. Biden must argue the case for a living American identity, not a dead one — an identity that has grown and continues to grow for the better, and not one that tries to unlearn from its many mistakes; an identity, that is to say, that embraces its errors.

Although some Muslim countries have robust security apparatuses, Muslim-majority countries have been successful in tackling their own terrorist problems largely through nuanced communication. Since the 9/11 attacks, notwithstanding the prohibition of suicide in Islam, the percentage of citizens in Muslim countries who believed suicide bombing is often or sometimes justified fell off a cliff.

A series of uncoordinated initiatives enabled this:

All three initiatives are about hearts and minds, about identity and xenophobia. It doesn’t require paramilitary equipment, or involve smearing 70 million Americans as a “basket of deplorables”.

President Biden, like his allies in the Muslim world, must empower those who are in a position to persuade. He must also invest in the training and education of grass-roots figures, teachers, and community leaders (including those in Evangelical and QAnon communities) who are as committed to patriotism as they are to non-violence. Let this be dismissed as an attempt to establish an “official church” — something which both American Christian and global Muslim communities are wary of, if not outright hostile towards — such training and the outcomes it would produce should be a mutually enriching conversation and consultation, rather than a series of “official positions” foisted on pastors.

Beyond speaking about unity and healing, Biden needs to create the conditions for unity and healing. And he needs to compel America’s national security apparatus to hit the reset button on the way it fights terror.

This will not be easy. Actually, it will be very hard. President Biden is under tremendous pressure to revert to the conditions of the socio-political civil war in Washington DC, which has now spread into communities across the country. But the Muslim world’s counter-radicalisation success suggests that, unless he wants to oversee a full-blown American civil war, Biden must take the higher ground still.

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