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Threat Assessment
David Schanzer
David Schanzer
Megan Morr


The past year has seen near misses by terrorists—most recently, the thwarted cargo-bomb and Portland plots. It’s also seen intense controversy surrounding Islam’s place in America, including public rancor over Park51, the so-called Ground Zero mosque; the proposed “International Burn a Koran Day”; and the passage of a ballot measure in Oklahoma banning the recognition of Sharia law. David Schanzer, associate professor of the practice of public policy at the Sanford School and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, explains the threats to our country and what our response means for both American Muslims and our long-term security.

How do you explain the rise of radical Islam?

From its beginnings in the seventh century, Islam was an incredibly successful religious and social movement that expanded dramatically in territory, scientific achievement, and governance. But it then experienced a dramatic decline, to the point that, during the colonial period, there were hardly any places in the Muslim world where Muslims were being governed by Muslims.

And so radicalism is a reaction to this decline and a search for explanations. Some people found them by saying, “We’re in this position because we have strayed from the righteous path—let’s go back to the fundamentals.” Radical Islam’s power comes from combining a critique of modern history with a reading of the Qur’an that justifies using
violent means to topple oppressors. The initial targets were the secular Muslim leaders, tyrannical despots in the Middle East. [Osama] Bin Laden took that notion, shifted it to the idea that the situation Muslims found themselves in was the fault of the United States, and turned his ire toward us.

How do Muslims become radicalized?

I don’t think there’s one pathway to radicalization. Some people radicalize in groups. Some are inspired by individual leaders. Some are loners and are inspired by what they read on the Internet.

In my view, a small number of Muslims fall prey to this ideology because of a conflict in their identity. Something has dissatisfied them with their position in the world, and they have reached out and looked for sources to help make sense of it. Radical Islam, once you grasp onto it, is a very powerful ideology that can move you to do what we perceive as generally irrational actions. But, for them, it has a compelling logic that makes perfect sense.

So, what should we do?

Bin Laden’s got a very compelling narrative—it’s simple, it explains why the world is the way it is, and it incorporates the most powerful, persuasive force of all, religion. We need to develop a story the civilized world can tell that competes with bin Laden’s narrative. Ultimately, we need to find a way to convince people that integrating with the globalized world can bring the things that Muslims most want: clean water, health care, education, jobs, economic growth.

We need to argue that all of the things that radicals do make these things harder to achieve. The good guys—the West and the vast majority of Muslims—don’t do a good job of explaining this.

Our task is made more complicated because many of the things we have to do to protect ourselves—such as military interventions and drone attacks that result in civilian casualties—as well as massive screwups like the torture tragedy of Abu Ghraib, and allowing Iraq to spiral out of control for a number of years—all made it much harder for our message to be heard and understood.

That’s the struggle of counterterrorism. How do you do the things you need to do to protect yourself while, at the same time, developing a narrative that helps persuade and undercut the support that radicals need to survive?

Car burning after car bomb

Events like the public opposition to the so-called Ground Zero mosque or the threatened Qur’an burning can’t help.

I feel like Americans have lost their bearings a bit with regard to this conflict. I don’t think we understand it well. We are fearful, and we are frustrated at what we see in the newspapers and on television. We’re experiencing very unsettling economic times, and we understand that these conflicts abroad are not only imposing a tremendous burden on our soldiers and their families, but are costing us a lot of our resources. So we lash out.

Does that create a climate for homegrown Islamic terrorism?

Yes. First off, how do we stop a person like the Times Square bomber from executing a successful attack? He is a naturalized citizen who was totally integrated into the United States. It’s very hard to find someone like that and detect his plot before he does something.

The best way to identify people heading in this direction is to receive information from people who know him, from people in his community. However, the more the climate here is hostile to Muslim Americans and Islam itself, the harder it will be to get the kind of cooperation we need.

Another big problem is that when we promote a feeling that Muslim Americans don’t belong here, that they don’t share our values, which is the message that many are purveying, that increases the pool of people who might become so disenchanted with their lives that they are vulnerable to becoming radicalized. It’s deeply disturbing.

What do you see happening to our society and to American Muslims if we’re successfully attacked again?

I hope our leaders would keep things in perspective and understand that the threats we face are real, but they’re hardly existential. We have a vibrant, secure, amazing country and no two-bit terrorists—even if they can execute attacks inside our borders—can change that. The way we should react is to develop better policies, devote resources where they can actually make a difference, and make sure that we don’t destroy the things that are great about America—our economy, our civil liberties, our national unity—in order to try to defeat this threat.

With respect to Muslim Americans, I’d like to see our leaders take important symbolic actions to embrace the Muslim community and make them feel they are partners and friends in working to address these threats, much as President Bush did right after 9/11. Strangely enough, we seem to be in a worse frame of mind now after nine years of no other major attacks on our soil than we were then. I am fearful that our misunderstandings and the loud voices, whether they’re on the Internet or cable channels, will stoke fear and anger. And then we might see a backlash, which will make us less safe.

What would help make us safer?

In many ways, the much greater threat to our security is our economic future. We’re spending so many of our resources and so much energy and national commitment dealing with the terrorist threat that we’re diverting ourselves from the fact that we’re doing a bad job educating our children, our infrastructure is crumbling, and we’re losing our edge in international competitiveness. We need to refocus our national energies on those kinds of problems. I’m not saying we should ignore terrorism—it’s a necessary evil to continue doing the things that we’re doing—but to preoccupy and divide ourselves politically over this issue is damaging our ability to address these far graver, more long-term threats.

This interview was conducted, condensed, and edited by Aaron Kirschenfeld.