The myth of Islamic terrorism in America

Ali Shihabi
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After the planes hit on 9/11, a myth-making industry was born.

“Why do they hate us?” was the first thought to cross horrified American minds.


Israel’s lobby, worried that she would be seen as having sowed the seeds of anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world, quickly came up with an alternative explanation: “They hate us for our freedoms—our way of life,” screamed the headlines. Promoted by friendly journalists, politicians, and academics, these slogans quickly drowned out all other competing theories and were eagerly picked up and trumpeted by right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh, and Islamophobes like Daniel Pipes, who went on to claim that Islamists want to impose sharia law on America.

Hollywood, not to be left out of all the fun, quickly jumped on the bandwagon with a slew of entertaining programs like 24; Sleeper Cell; Homeland; and others that amplified and capitalized on this paranoia.

Bin Laden, in fact, had no interest in changing the “American way of life.” He wanted instead to topple the Saudi monarchy and saw 9/11 as a way to permanently rupture the Saudi–U.S. alliance, a goal he very nearly succeeded in accomplishing.

Islamists actually could not care less about imposing sharia law in the U.S. They want control of Arabia, its oil and its holy places, and any other Muslim-majority state they can get their hands on in the meantime. Their target, their obsession, was the Muslim world not America. Islamophobes, however, striving to keep Americans on edge, claimed to spot “homegrown” radical Islam lurking behind every tree.

A battle zone

In fact, a careful review of events since 9/11 proves, without a shadow of a doubt, that the claim that militant Islam has gained any traction among the Muslims of America is farcical.

Had militant Islam actually taken hold in America, this country would have become a battle zone. After all, with millions of Muslims in the U.S., the successful spread of any such ideology among them would have resulted in thousands of recruits, hooked on jihadist websites, eagerly building bombs, and champing at the bit to commit acts of terrorism. Such numbers could have turned a city like New York into another Baghdad. Instead, the number of terror attacks in the U.S. involving Muslims, over the course of more than a decade, are fewer than the fingers of one hand. The numbers here just do not add up to justify any credible claim of an Islamist war of terror on American soil.

Manufacturing local Islamic terrorism, either through FBI sting operations or through rebranding criminal acts by Muslims as acts of Islamic terrorism, does the United States no service.

In fact, the two major events since 9/11—first, Major Hasan’s shooting of fellow soldiers at an army base, and second, the recent Boston bombing—are little more than horrible criminal acts carried out by disturbed, maladjusted individuals, very similar to the Columbine and Newtown school shootings. The perpetrators’ motives and actions are better explained by psychologists than by those so-called “terrorism experts” who have sprung up in abundance in recent years to feed on and perpetuate this narrative. These so-called “Islamic terrorists” had no organization behind them, no training, and nothing but some superficial exposure to jihadi websites. Had they had any meaningful support, then these criminals would not have carried out their atrocities in the amateurish way that they did and gotten caught so easily.

As Philip Mudd, former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, told Charlie Rose in a recent interview about the Boston bombers, “I don’t necessarily think these are real jihadi terrorists. I think they are angry kids. … They may have some vague religious notions,” he added, but, “psychologically, this has characteristics of Columbine as much as characteristics of al-Qaeda.”

The problem here is that criminal acts, however outrageous, are no match for Islamic terrorism in the excitement department. People are used to crime, but Islamic terrorism still gets the adrenaline pumping and television ratings shooting up.

Manufacturing local Islamic terrorism, either through FBI sting operations or through rebranding criminal acts by Muslims as acts of Islamic terrorism, does the United States no service and causes public confusion, unnecessary anxiety, and a misallocation of valuable government resources.

Which brings me to a final tidbit for those eager conspiracy theorists among us. This Islamic terrorism phenomenon is tailor-made for “false flag” operations. Any intelligence agency or covert organization worth its salt can set up an “imam” to dupe some fools into committing terrorist acts, with virtually no possibility that anyone will be able to trace this action back to the source. Barriers to entry in the jihadi imam recruiting department are very low, and the characters duped into this sordid business are hardly going to be the brightest blades on the block. Identifying malcontented, disturbed individuals to target is no difficult task, either. In fact, the older Tsarneyev brother’s recent visit to Russia is certainly worthy of extreme scrutiny, if such a thing is at all possible.

Can any such incidents be false flag operations? We may never know, or at least not until Oliver Stone comes along and figures this out for us in a new blockbuster movie.

This article was first published on May 7, 2013.

Ali Shihabi is a writer on Middle Eastern politics. He is a Saudi citizen who is a graduate of Harvard and Princeton and the founder of an investment bank.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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