By Ben White
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates actively “seek American homegrown recruits to implement a campaign of individual jihad and do-it-yourself terrorism.” This presents a formidable and unavoidable national security challenge. However, unlike other nations (notably Britain), facing similar—or perhaps even greater—threats from foreign nationals the “United States does not have a domestic counter-radicalization strategy.” The effort, rather, has been delegated to the often-inconsistent approaches of various federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
A notable exemplar, the NYPD is taking measures to protect New York from the threat posed by radicalization of its citizens. Such an effort is not problematic in itself. As justified by recent events, our nation’s economic and cultural capital cannot be blamed for taking measures to protect itself, especially where federal guidance is lacking. Problems arise, however, when the NYPD uses indefensibly invasive methods to meet its justifiable ends.
This month, it surfaced that the NYPD has been monitoring Muslim student associations at universities far from the five boroughs—notably at Yale—as “part of a larger effort to build databases of where Muslims live, pray and shop.” The report follows a previously released Associated Press investigation documenting, among other methods: further infiltration of Muslim college students, surveillance of Muslims who choose to directly assist the NYPD’s anti-terror operations, and, most troubling, creation of a Demographic Unit, which hires “mosque crawlers,” and maps Muslim neighborhoods by “monitor[ing] daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs,” and collect[s] information on people who show no signs of radicalization.”
While some heightened suspicion of the Muslim-American community may be warranted, the NYPD goes too far. Historically, in times of global conflict, we have increased pressure at home on those domestic communities most closely resembling our enemies overseas. Such efforts—always taken in the name of national security—gave birth to some of our most regrettable intrusions on traditional liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Notable examples include the 1942 internment of Japanese-Americans and the Red Scares of the early and mid 20th century.
The NYPD’s approach to domestic radicalization of jihadists is not categorically different than these historical oversteps and poses its own set of problems. First, the NYPD’s program disproportionately and aggressively targets one discrete and insular community. The disproportionality may be unwarranted, given that in the 10 years following 9/11 there were just “32 homegrown jihadist plots to carry out attacks in the United States. Most of these plots never got beyond the discussion stage.”
Second, and more importantly, from a security perspective, the NYPD’s approach suffers from a major strategic flaw: its ineffectiveness.
The NYPD’s methodological approach towards policing the Muslim-American community—focusing on the “influence of expected rewards and penalties … [rather than] legitimacy and morality”—serves to actively harm the counterterror effort, according to a 2010 study. Put differently, the NYPD seeks to elicit compliance with the law by publicizing the consequences of transgression, rather than promoting adherence to the law as a normative value. While both methods can be effective, the “deterrence-based model” necessarily limits the likelihood that individuals under generic suspicion will actively cooperate with police. This has significant effects in the counter-terrorism realm. Per the study, Muslim-Americans are almost universally loyal to the United States and abhor terrorism, yet are hesitant to provide much-needed information to law enforcement when they are viewed as members of a group universally classified as suspicious. Accordingly, the study found a “robust correlation between perceptions of procedural justice and … legitimacy and willingness to cooperate among Muslim American communities in the context of antiterrorism policing.”
For a law enforcement community that relies extensively on Muslim-Americans as informants, such cooperation is essential. Mother Jones reports that almost half of criminal prosecutions for terrorism rely on informants, and that “all [but three] of the [FBI’s] high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings,” where informants tend to be vital. Thus, aggressive and suspicionless investigation of the Muslim-American community actively limits the availability of law enforcements’ preferred strategy.
Further, the NYPD’s efforts not only deter would-be informants, but also limit the chances that Muslim-Americans will put law enforcement on notice of members of their community who may be ideologically radicalizing. This is quite intuitive: groups under suspicion by law enforcement typically become suspicious of law enforcement. Muslim-Americans fear that if they report their suspicions, they will become the targets of even further invasive policing.
It’s clear that the NYPD’s methods, through fear, will deter and/or force further underground certain would-be belligerents. What is equally clear, however, is that such fear will also deter individuals from assisting police in the counterterrorism effort, either by serving as informants or reporting suspicious behavior.
In sum, the NYPD confronts an unenviable dilemma. They face a real threat to New York’s security, but lack the traditional authority to address it. Further, the institution possessing that authority, the federal government, has put forth no general program to address that threat. Thus, as can be expected, the NYPD has taken decisive action. Condoning the basis of some action, however, is different than condoning any action. The NYPD should re-evaluate its approach in investigating the Muslim-American community such that it respects the traditional rights and protections expected by all Americans. Doing so will strengthen, rather than hinder, the NYPD’s ability to prevent future acts of terrorism.
Image courtesy of TLJ News.