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From the Midwest to Mogadishu

Author: Steven Simon, Lecturer, Dartmouth College
July 13, 2009
New York Times


Young people don't need a lot of persuasion to fight for what they see as a noble cause in distant lands, even when their governments are not involved. Indeed, in the last century passion for a cause has led many Americans to join wars in which the U.S. was not a combatant. That a few Somali-Americans have embraced the duty--and the thrill--of combat in defense of their homeland merely conforms to a long multicultural tradition. In this case, however, it pits them against the thrust of U.S. policy and opens the door to violence against their own government.

It is essential to remember that the suicide attack was not against Americans, either here or in Somalia.

The radicalized Somalis who embarked on this fateful trip displayed a variety of profiles, including strivers and slackers, misfits and conformists, religious zealots and once-a-year worshipers. Resentment, pursuit of the cool, a need to transcend the banality of everyday life in slums; all of these impulses probably played a part. But without a mobilizing ideology, the opportunity to act out these impulses and a svengali, to crystallize these impulses and transform them into action, there would have been no Minnesotan suicide bomber.

Nonetheless, the emergence of a suicide bomber from the margins of the large, mainstream and achievement-oriented ranks of American Muslims was to be anticipated. A 2007 Pew survey noted that 26 percent of U.S. Muslims between 18 and 29 years old believe that suicide bombing in defense of Muslim interests is often/sometimes justified (15 percent) or rarely justified (11 percent). These are striking numbers, though not quite as bad as in Britain, France or Spain, probably because Muslims are generally better integrated into American society than they are in most European countries.

It is essential to remember, however, that the suicide attack was not against Americans, either here or in Somalia. The issue for Washington is how to combat this trend without turning these radicalized individuals against the state and their fellow citizens.

Based on the experience--good and bad--of other countries, like Algeria, Egypt and Turkey, the British in Northern Ireland and Europeans challenged by left-wing violence, the key is to respond selectively and lawfully, while giving the embattled community a voice. Carefully targeted response is essential because indiscriminate round-ups of the sort that typified the panicky days after 9/11 in the U.S. are likely to convince fence-sitters that the state will come after them no matter what so they might as well go under ground and prepare to fight.

The need to act lawfully stems from the importance of preserving the legitimacy of the state, so that its actions are accepted by society. In the 1980s, German and Italian authorities ignored this rule and for a time made terrorists there look like the good guys. This made it easier for militant radicals to operate. And letting the community speak is essential, because nothing radicalizes more powerfully than a sense of isolation and ineffectuality. This process was at work in nearly every instance of violent radicalization, from Russian revolutionaries in the 19th century through Egyptian and Algerian rebels in the last century to Anglo-Pakistani terrorists in the 21st century.

Steven Simon is an adjunct senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the co-author of "The Age of Sacred Terror" and "The Next Attack."

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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