Mitchell Silber at New America Foundation on January 31, 2012 (Creative Commons-licensed Photo on Flickr by New America Foundation)

In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, US media organizations have been providing a platform to a former New York Police Department head of intelligence analyst and co-author of a heavily critiqued and rejected report on the radicalization of Muslims in the West. He has been on CNN and Fox News sharing his views and was also quoted by Judith Miller, former New York Times journalist who had a story celebrating the NYPD published by the Wall Street Journal.

Cable news appearances by Mitchell Silber, now a managing director for K2 Intelligence, have focused on what he thinks the attack by Dhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, two ethnic Chechen Muslims who immigrated to America, shows about “homegrown terrorism.”

During “Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees” on April 26, Silber was introduced as someone who “wrote a report about the threat of home-grown terrorists, citing the biggest threat coming from ordinary citizens who become radicalized in the west, specifically Muslims. It generated controversy.”

CNN correspondent Mary Snow said the NYPD has “come under criticism for monitoring Muslims but the department insists everything done is within a legal framework.” She added, “Silber stresses that keeping tabs on suspicious behavior can potentially track down a lone wolf. He points out that in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, questions from Russia about his travel there as well as being asked to leave a mosque would have put him on the radar of the NYPD. He says there are other personal changes that can be warning signs of radicalization.” For example, according to Silber, Tamerlan “gave up boxing because that was considered a secular activity.”

“Silber says social networking sites and chat rooms are often enablers and strengthen the radicalization process. All of it funneling through the NYPD’s counterterrorism search for a needle in a haystack,” Snow shared.

When the report was over, Cooper was fascinated. “It’s really interesting, that idea that there are certain sort of common markers that might indicate someone going down the road of increased radicalism, and these are all things that the NYPD tries to look out for, things like causing disruption at a mosque or leaving a mosque or social media networks, things like that.” Except, it is not, really, because this theory for rooting out “homegrown terrorists” is deeply flawed.

There is no “religious conveyor belt” where a person, like a Muslim, goes from a peaceful law-abiding citizen or resident of the United States to one, who is committed to violence against America. A Brennan Center for Justice report, “Rethinking Radicalization,” thoroughly debunks this theory that “the path to terrorism has a fixed trajectory and that each step of the process has specific, identifiable markers.” It deconstructs this widespread belief in law enforcement, made popular by the NYPD, that by “closely monitoring the communities deemed susceptible to radicalization, law enforcement officials can spot nascent terrorists and prevent future.”

Former CIA case officer and psychologist Marc Sageman, who analyzed 500 cases in a study of how individuals “evolve into terrorists,” found,” according to the Brennan Center, “No linear progression from one stage to the next and that ‘[o]ne cannot simply draw a line, put markers on it and gauge where people are along this path to see whether they are close to committing atrocities.” The Rand Corporation also has done research for 14 years and found “no single pathway towards terrorism exists, making it somewhat difficult to identify overarching patterns in how and why individuals are susceptible to terrorist recruitment as well as intervention strategies.” It is next to impossible to “identify the smaller sub-set of individuals,” who will commit violence and isolating them is “often a matter of happenstance.” And, a Department of Homeland Security academic study on the “pathways to terrorism and political violence” concluded that there is no “trajectory profile,” but rather “many different paths.”

“Some of these paths do not include radical ideas or activism on the way to radical action, so the radicalization progression cannot be understood as an invariable set of steps or ‘stages’ from sympathy to radicalism,” author of the Brennan Center report, Faiza Patel, wrote. Even the Defense Department has conceded that, “Identifying potentially dangerous people before they act is difficult. Examinations after the fact show that people who commit violence usually have one or more risk factors for violence. Few people in the population who have risk factors, however, actually [commit violent acts].”

Thus, the more fascinating aspect of all this, Anderson Cooper, might be how the NYPD’s theories on “homegrown terrorism” are permitted to influence American perceptions when they are wrong.

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Media who give voice to Silber and anyone with an interest in defending the NYPD are implicitly endorsing surveillance and profiling practices that include infiltrating Muslim businesses, student groups and places of worship, tactics which chill free speech and activism in Muslim communities—if they do not challenge their theories on “homegrown terrorists.”

None of the effects of surveillance or profiling on Muslims are bothersome to Miller. She parrots the message of Silber that the NYPD’s techniques in detecting “homegrown terrorists” and how the NYPD would have stopped Tamerlan.

“Withdrawal from the mosque” indicates the “onset” of “indoctrination,” Miller writes. It is “when a believer rejects traditional Islamic mentors in favor of ‘Salafist,’ or more radical, fundamentalist preachers and friends.” The “mosque quarrel” that Tamerlan had and his “sudden behavioral changes might well have been reported by concerned worshipers, the imam himself or other fellow Muslims.”

As she continues to reference the NYPD’s 2007 report, Miller uses law enforcement euphemisms for infiltrating and spying on Muslims. “The NYPD maintains close ties to Muslim preachers and community leaders, as well as a network of tipsters and undercover operatives,” and the department has a “continuing effort to understand Muslim communities and follow tips and leads by sending plainclothes officers to mosques, restaurants and other public venues where Muslims congregate.”

It is more COINTELPRO than conduct following “court-ordered guidelines,” as Miller suggests, but the bottom line for Miller is it “might have secured information preventing” the bombing.

Furthermore, if Miller was not so focused on being servile and friendly to the NYPD, she might broach the possibility that the FBI has, in fact, been influenced by NYPD theories of radicalization in Muslim communities and may have been using them while Tamerlan and Dhokhar were plotting their act, which they failed to prevent.

Laura W. Murphy of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office told the House Committee on Homeland Security, during one of Representative Peter King’s infamous “Muslim radicalization” hearings, the FBI was developing training recommended by Senator Joe Lieberman and Senator Susan Collins in the aftermath of the Fort Hood shooting that would look for “ideological indicators and warning signs.”

At another one of King’s “Muslim radicalization” hearings in December 2011, Murphy wrote in her statement to the committee, “The ACLU, through Freedom of Information Act requests and litigation, and investigative reporters have uncovered numerous FBI counterterrorism training materials that falsely and inappropriately portray Arab and Muslim communities as monolithic, alien, backward, violent and supporters of terrorism.” The materials had been used between 2003 and 2011 and an “integral part of FBI training programs.”

“A 2006 FBI Intelligence Assessment, ‘The Radicalization Process: From Conversion to Jihad,’ identifies religious practice—including frequent attendance at a mosque or a prayer group, growing a beard, and proselytizing—as indicators that a person is on a path to becoming a violent
extremist,” Murphy noted. FBI training had “included a graph that shows Islam as a consistently violent religion over a 1300-year span while graphing Judaism and Christianity as in explicitly ascending directly to non-violence from 1400 BC to 2010 AD.”

The FBI has not hesitated to target Muslim males, who have simply “accepted the cause” and are increasingly isolated from their former life. They look for individuals who are “forging new social identities,” “developing” new “social bonds with new groups” and have “overseas experience, religious training or language training.” The targeting has sometimes involved the manufacturing of terrorism, where undercover agents entice individuals to plot an attack so they can arrest him and convict him for conspiring to commit an act of terrorism. And, it is all done under the permissible view that the person was likely to commit “terrorism” anyways so law enforcement was merely speeding the process along to ensure that individual did not attack and kill any Americans.

The case of Tarek Mehanna, who is serving a 17-year jail sentence for First Amendment-protected activity that consisted of watching videos on “jihad,” sharing his views on suicide bombings in conversations, translating texts that were already available on the Internet and seeking information on those believed to have attacked America on September 11, 2001,” law enforcement arrested, charged and had him convicted and sentenced to prison for “dangerous” thoughts. Abroad, the Obama administration drone bombed US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. He was targeted because of his influence as a radical Muslim preacher, who was advocated violence in response to US torture, wars and policies he believed were explicitly directed at Muslims.

The problem with Silber and media that provide him a platform for his views is the disregard for the fact that all Americans have a First Amendment right to think “dangerous” thoughts.

Gabe Rottman for the ACLU has appropriately argued, “Many people have dangerous thoughts, but never do violent things, and it’s virtually impossible to systematically predict which “dangerous” thinkers are going to end up engaging in violence or criminal activity. The Constitution strictly limits restrictions on ‘radical’ speech, and even speech that advocates violence, for precisely this reason.”

He cited the Supreme Court, which once concluded when government was trying to suppress and criminalize ideas of Communists, “[T]he mere abstract teaching of Communist theory, including the teaching of the moral propriety or even moral necessity for a resort to force and violence, is not the same as preparing a group for violent action and steeling it to such action.”

Silber’s views may be acceptable to individuals who work in law enforcement. US media outlets might find theoretical and simplistic explanations for “radicalization” to be “really interesting” too. However, these theories are not the answer to preventing “terrorism” and, instead, have the effect of criminalizing entire communities or groups, who become victims of a climate of fear.