The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, May 10, 2010

Jihads and Mortgages

Emerging Information About the Times Square Bomber Demonstrates the Limits of a Purely Military Response to Terrorism

In some ways, Faisal Shahzad very much fits the profile of what many Americans envision when they hear the word “terrorist.” Of Pakistani descent, Shahzad was a Muslim who had traveled back to his native country multiple times, where he apparently learned the art of bomb making from the Pakistani Taliban. Ultimately, he drove an SUV rigged with explosives into New York City’s Times Square with the intention of detonating it there to harm innocent civilians.

On the other hand, Shahzad was a naturalized U.S. citizen. He had chosen the United States for his education and employment. The child of affluent middle-class parents back in Pakistan, he rose to the same economic class in this country, once owning a house in the suburbs worth over a quarter of a million dollars. He was married with two small children. He worked in the heart of the capitalist corporate world.

Both President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder characterize Shahzad as part of a “terrorist plot” and say he attempted to commit a “terrorist act.” At the same time, Obama pledged, “As Americans and as a nation, we will not be terrorized. We will not cower in fear, we will not be intimidated. We will be vigilant and we will protect and defend the country we love.”

Most political observers took this to mean American would not repeat the national security buildup that followed September 11. It was a condemnation of those supporting violence to bring about political change rather than criticism of Islam. “We will not tolerate any bias or backlash against Pakistani or Muslim New Yorkers,” agreed New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“Authorities responded to the attempted Times Square bombing about as well as anyone possibly could – proving, once again, that viewing terrorism exclusively in a military context is wrong. It's a police matter, too . . . So maybe this will silence those who scream ‘military tribunal’ after every domestic terrorist attempt,” fumed Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post.

Well, no.

Many refuse to see anything other than the former side of Shahzad. They see it as proof that America is under attack by radical Islam and must respond to it solely through military means. They view those who even acknowledges the latter side of Shahzad as apologists, deniers, and soft on national defense.

The fact is that while forces moved Shahzad to attempt a monstrous crime, there was little about him that suggested a monster. He was the poster child for the type of U.S. citizen who was never a radical but becomes a targeted convert for radicals; one who would do their dirty work for them.

Shahzad attended Southeastern University in Washington D.C. and, later, the University of Bridgeport Connecticut. He earned a B.A. in computer science and engineering and then an M.B.A. in 2005. Upon graduation, he entered the corporate world, working as an accountant for Elizabeth Arden and a financial analyst for Affinion Group.

Shahzad met and married his wife, a U.S. citizen born in Colorado of Pakistani heritage, who held an accounting degree. The U.S. government granted him a green card in January 2006. Shahzad bought a two-story colonial home in a suburban neighborhood of Shelton Connecticut in 2004. It cost $273,000 and he paid twenty percent down on it. He became a U.S. citizen in April 2009.

U.S. Immigration officials report “no derogatory information” on Shahzad in any databases – no ties to Islamic radicals or terrorist organizations, no violent outbursts, no tirades against U.S. imperialism or Western decadence. Everyone from former teachers to neighbors to co-workers uniformly regarded Shahzad as a quiet, ordinary, unimpressive person.

The sole potential red flag comes from a real estate broker who said Shahzad once talked about former President Bush and the U.S. war in Iraq with unusual vehemence.

Like many Western terrorist recruits, Shahzad was a product of two cultures who felt he did not belong to either. Globalization, particularly enhanced communication through the Internet and other media, makes the assimilation of immigrants more difficult than in the past.

What is more, Muslim and Middle East immigrants are particularly vulnerable to alienation in America in recent years. “Other minorities didn't perceive that the United States was at war with them,” notes Geneive Abdo, Director of the Iran Program at the Century Foundation. In this sense, the material success enjoyed by immigrants like Shahzad only enhanced feelings of guilt over alleged suffering of their native brethren.

These feelings grow and slowly begin blinding them to the genuine benefits of capitalism and democracy as well as the shortcomings of Islamic society. Then they become fodder for the true radicals, who twist legitimate concerns into outrage and justification for violence.

“Most Americans don't see this – that every day something happens to underscore the extremely anti-Muslim sentiment in this country," says Muqtedar Khan, a University of Delaware political scientist. “You can’t abuse Muslims while you try to assimilate them.”

It is not a small problem. Since September 11, one hundred and forty-six American Muslims have been publicly accused of planning or carrying out extremist violence, according to a study by Duke University. Another study by the New York University Center on Law and Security found eight hundred and four people from around the world charged with terrorism in U.S. federal court since September 11. Two hundred and seventy-three of them were U.S. citizens – almost triple the number from any other nation.

Analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center have been predicting a switch from attacks by highly organized terrorist cells to home grown, lone wolf terrorists for several years. This is partly due to success on the part of the U.S. at containing and destroying the senior leadership of al-Qaida and other groups. The lone wolves tend to be sloppier and less deadly when they attack but they are also harder to detect.

“The real key to minimizing the damage such people can accomplish is to keep these disaffected individuals from making connections with larger networks,” according to Michael Sheehan, former Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism with the New York Police Department and Director of the Madison Policy Forum.

David Schanzer, an anti-terrorism expert from Duke University agrees. “The more we distance Muslim-Americans from the mainstream of society and make them feel like outcasts or discriminated against, in some ways we're in a self-perpetuating cycle. We're increasing the likelihood of individuals from that community being alienated.”

However, another crisis occurred in Shahzad’s life that may have driven him over the edge and it was neither religious nor ideological but economic in nature.

In February 2009, Shahzad took out a $65,000 equity loan. By June, he stopped paying the mortgage and other bills. He began selling off his expensive home’s furnishings. When the bank finally threatened foreclosure, Shahzad had abandoned the property and much of its contents. He moved his family to a smaller house in a less prosperous neighborhood of Bridgeport Connecticut.

Maybe Shahzad was abandoning a lifestyle he had already rejected as corrupt. Alternately, maybe the downfall of Shahzad’s own American dream – so common in the past months of economic crisis and recession – were enough to turn him against America and back to his roots where agitators with warped motives awaited his disillusionment.

It is still more evidence that one need not be the product of prolonged poverty to be rocked to the core by a sudden and extreme downturns in economic fortune. Those who see terrorism as a wholly military problem scorn local police and social welfare solutions, calling them both unaffordable and insufficient. In fact, the link between economic security and national security may be closer than they think – as is the link between jihads and mortgages.

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