After the September 11, 2001, attacks and more recent efforts by militant groups in Muslim countries to radicalize and recruit Muslims living in the West, there have been fears among U.S. authorities and the public of large-scale terrorist strikes on home soil.
Such fears, however, have been largely unfounded, because Muslims in the United States have overwhelmingly ignored the calls to militancy, said Charles Kurzman, a researcher with the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security in North Carolina.
“We have not seen mass radicalization of Muslims in the United States,” he said. “That’s worth taking note of.”
As part of a Triangle Center study, Kurzman, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who researches Islamic movements, tallied a total of 250 American Muslims who have been arrested for — or who have engaged in — acts that might be called terrorism since 2001. That’s out of an estimated population of 3 million Muslims in the U.S.
Kurzman’s study found that the death toll as a result of all their plots was 50 — over a period of time in which 200,000 people were murdered in the United States.
Although comparisons are tricky, other studies suggest that right-wing violence claimed more lives in the U.S. than terrorism committed in the name of Islam.
There have been serious attacks, of course. The 2009 shooting at the Fort Hood military base in Texas and the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon were carried out by Muslim U.S. citizens who claimed to be avenging American military actions overseas.
And there were also failed attempts that came close to causing massive loss of life, but the study shows that these attempts were “rare and unsophisticated.” In 2010, an SUV with propane and gasoline canisters and fireworks, parked in New York’s Times Square, detonated but did not explode. The driver of the car, Faisal Shahzad, had received bombmaking training in Pakistan’s Waziristan region.
Authorities say large-scale attacks have been prevented because of the extensive security apparatus that was set up nationwide in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.
Kurzman’s findings, however, suggest a “mismatch” between other public safety issues, such as car accidents or the easy availability of firearms on the one hand and the attention given to the possibility of homegrown terrorism on the other.
“We are stuck into this security mindset, where we have a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of violence and a much higher level of tolerance for other threats,” he said.
Kurzman said the numbers of Muslim American terrorism suspects have actually been declining, and over the last couple of years there have been almost no plots aimed at the United States. Most of those arrested recently on suspicion of terrorism were attempting to travel to Syria or Yemen to join groups that the U.S. government considers terrorist organizations.
David Schanzer, a Duke University expert on homegrown terrorism who directs the Triangle center, said that while federal authorities spend “a disproportionate amount of energy” thinking about domestic terrorism, local police departments across the country have other things on their minds.
“They very much realize that the things that are threats to public safety in their communities are much more things like drugs, gangs, domestic violence,” he said.