King’s Muslim Probe Needs ‘Semantic’ Adjustment to Avoid Maligning Islam

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King’s investigation into Muslim radicalization in the U.S. may backfire by antagonizing people who could help fight terrorism, former government officials said.

“King risks helping to promote precisely the narrative Osama bin Laden and his sympathizers try to promote, namely dividing the world between Muslims and non-Muslims,” said Jennifer Bryson, a former counterterrorism official at the Defense Department. Al-Qaeda has used the same tactic as a recruiting tool, she said.

King, a New York Republican, ignited a firestorm with his plan to explore the causes of Islamic radicalization, prompting street protests in Manhattan last week and denunciations by civil libertarians and Muslim groups. His committee is holding a hearing today to examine the roots of radical behavior.

While the issue merits attention by Congress, said Matthew Levitt, former deputy chief of the Treasury Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, King’s approach is “semantically shaped to point a finger at an entire community.”

King, 66, also has been criticized over his past support of the Irish Republican Army, which used terrorist tactics including bombings in opposing British rule in Northern Ireland. In response, King said that, unlike al-Qaeda, “The fact is, the IRA never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States,” the New York Times reported yesterday.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King. Close

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King.

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Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King.

In a 1995 CNN interview, King said, “The moral standing of the IRA is equal to that of the British army.”

Working for Peace

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, King was involved in the Northern Irish peace process, relying on his contacts with Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing. “There was a real opening here if the U.S. took advantage of it” to broker a peace accord, King told CNN yesterday.

Some of King’s critics called a news conference yesterday in Washington to condemn today’s hearing by the Homeland Security Committee.

“His bias toward the Muslim community makes him” an “unfit” chairman of the panel, said Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Washington-based Council on American- Islamic Relations.

King said his intention is to examine how U.S. Muslims have responded to al-Qaeda’s efforts to recruit them.

“A number of attempted attacks which could have killed hundreds, thousands of people have been carried out in the last several years by people who were radicalized in this country,” he said on CNN yesterday. “There are people in the community who are not fully cooperating” in tracking down terror suspects.

Home-Grown Terrorism

King cited Najibullah Zazi’s plan to blow up the New York subway in 2009 around the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the attempt by Faisal Shahzad to set off a car bomb in Times Square last year as examples of home-grown terrorists. Both men have pleaded guilty.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told King’s panel last month that the threat of terrorist attacks is greater than at any time since the 2001 attacks due in large part to an increase in militants recruited in the U.S.

Obama has made preventing radicalization a priority, said Denis McDonough, the president’s deputy national security adviser.

“This threat is real and it is serious,” he said in a March 6 speech at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a community center and mosque in the Washington suburb of Sterling, Virginia.

Cooperation by Muslims

The Obama administration disagrees with King that Muslim leaders have failed to cooperate in fighting terrorism. Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday that they have contributed to the Justice Department’s efforts. “We don’t want to stigmatize entire communities,” Holder told a news conference.

In a July 2010 report, Levitt, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and three co-authors said the administration has been too reluctant to counter Islamic radicalism.

“Administration officials have expressed concern about employing language that could be interpreted as an attack on Islam as a religion,” they wrote. “However, unless government recognizes and articulates clearly the threat posed by the ideology of radical Islamist extremism, its broader” efforts will “lack strategic focus.”

Zuhdi Jasser, president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, said Muslims themselves must confront militant rhetoric.

‘Slippery Slope’

These radical beliefs “are not violent ideologies, but they are part of the slippery slope,” said Jasser in an interview. He is a scheduled witness at today’s hearing.

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, a representative of the Council of Muslim Organizations, said at yesterday’s press conference held by King’s critics that no one is ignoring al-Qaeda’s recruiting strategy.

“We’re not in denial as a community that something is going on,” he said.

The federal government should convince Muslims about the shared goal of security, said Todd Helmus, a behavioral scientist at Santa Monica, California-based Rand Corp., who focuses on radicalization and recruitment.

“We’re all in this together,” he said in an interview. “The Muslim community is at the forefront.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Bliss in Washington at jbliss@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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