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Napolitano responds to surge of homegrown terrorism cases

With more Americans suspected in plots, the Homeland Security secretary has stepped up intelligence sharing with state and city law enforcement and increased outreach to Muslim communities.

December 19, 2009|By Sebastian Rotella

Reporting from Washington — Responding to a surge of terrorism cases involving American suspects, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says her department is deploying more intelligence analysts nationwide and expanding teams that do outreach with Muslim communities.

In an interview this week, Napolitano outlined a strategy against radicalization that features stepped-up intelligence sharing with state and city law enforcement agencies as well as increased efforts to engage American Muslims and prevent backlash against them.

She suggested that economic hard times and the spread of the Internet have contributed to the challenges.

Napolitano's first year leading the vast department -- 230,000 employees and an array of agencies including the Border Patrol, Secret Service and Coast Guard -- has been marked by an unusual number of prosecutions of terrorism in the United States.

Authorities have charged several Americans with training with Al Qaeda and its allies overseas and plotting attacks at home and abroad.

In addition, homegrown terrorism suspects have been accused in extremist plots from Texas to North Carolina.

The suspected role of extremism in the shooting that killed 13 people at Ft. Hood last month worsened fears of radicalization in the United States after years in which Europe's restive Muslim communities were considered the front line in the West.

In a recent speech, Napolitano issued a strong warning about "home-based terrorism."

During the interview, she said it was hard to pinpoint reasons for the trend, but she noted that economic hard times spur anger and disenchantment. She also cited a wave of propaganda aimed at aspiring American extremists.

"There's a lot of beauty about the Internet and how it globalizes information," she said.

"But there's a dark side . . . in materials that feed into this terrorist type of mind-set," she said. "Then connected to that is the growth of the new media, YouTube and Facebook. . . . They serve as a way to connect people so they develop more of a group dynamic."

Although Homeland Security does not gather front-line intelligence, its Office of Intelligence and Analysis helps coordinate the flow of information between federal and local authorities.

Napolitano said she has already re-deployed about 36 intelligence analysts from Washington to beef up 72 "fusion centers" created around the country during the previous administration.

She intends to send more analysts to those centers, where federal officials work with local investigators to share intelligence and provide training on detecting potential threats.

"One of our big initiatives now is really working with state and local law enforcement in a closer way in terms of sharing information . . . about threats and threat streams that may be emanating from the [tribal areas of Pakistan] but could have applicability in the United States," she said.

Napolitano said she is also expanding "engagement teams" of the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties that are in charge of improving ties between the government and Muslim communities.

"The notion, of course, is to build bridges," she said.

Napolitano acknowledged that she has not had many opportunities to meet with Muslim groups so far.

But she said her work with the Muslim community in Arizona, where she served as attorney general and governor, gave her a firsthand look at the need to balance enforcement with protection of civil liberties and tolerance.

She recalled a horrific case in Mesa, Ariz., after the Sept. 11 attacks when a gunman intent on killing Muslims ended up murdering an Indian American Sikh, mistaking him for a Muslim because he wore a turban. The crime spread fear among Muslims in Arizona.

"The Muslim community was saying, 'We don't want to send our kids to school right now,' " she recalled. "I got a sense then of that feeling of being singled out in the wrong way. So I really worked with the Muslim community on those issues."

Because of the size of the Homeland Security Department, and because cases of alleged radicalization have surfaced in a number of regions, the key to an effective response is systematic cooperation across the country, Napolitano said.

"As we move forward, you can't just do the security of the United States from one or two departments located in Washington, D.C.," she said. "It's got to be shared across the nation."

sebastian.rotella@latimes.com

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