Reporting from Washington — — After more than a dozen home-grown terrorist plots involving American Muslims since President Obama took office, the administration is moving to step up its scattershot efforts to counter domestic radicalism, prompting a debate over the proper role of government in addressing ideological threats.
Unlike Britain and other countries in Europe, the U.S. government does not have a national strategy to combat Islamic extremism, and no single agency in the vast American national security and intelligence bureaucracy is in charge of understanding and addressing the home-grown threat.
But since the Times Square bombing attempt this month, officials have begun to plan ways to ramp up.
On May 13, an advisory commission led by former FBI and CIA Director William Webster presented Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano with recommendations designed to boost her department's efforts against domestic violent extremism of all sorts. The recommendations are carefully worded and do not specify Muslims or Islam. They focus on community-based policing, under which the Homeland Security Department would step up training and information-sharing programs with local law enforcement.
Administration officials said other responses also were being discussed, including drawing lessons from Britain and other countries in Europe.
The National Security Council six months ago convened a policy committee to examine what some call "counter-radicalization" efforts. The council has met twice with the president on the issue, according to a senior administration official involved in the effort.
Still, the idea of the government playing a role in countering radicalization provokes uneasiness among both U.S. officials and civil liberties activists, who recall a legacy of abuses in the 1950s and '60s in the pursuit of communists and leftists.
Much of the government's counter-terrorism apparatus consists of law enforcement agencies that now see their mission as investigating threats, crimes and conspiracies — not radical ideas that, however loathsome, are protected by the Constitution.
"I don't think it's the responsibility of the U.S. government to develop these plans," said Brett Hovington, chief of the FBI's Community Relations Unit, which includes a broad program of outreach to Muslim Americans. "The communities have to be accountable for the actions of community members."
But that view cedes much of the ideological playing field to a jihadist narrative, say those who favor greater government involvement in countering extremist forms of expression. Many of the Americans implicated in plots were self-radicalized, according to a report this month by the Rand Corp., and their interactions on the Internet often played a key role.
The Rand report documents 14 plots by U.S.-based Muslim extremists in 2009 and 46 since Sept. 11, 2001. The list, compiled by Rand terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, includes the case of Najibullah Zazi, a permanent U.S. resident from Afghanistan who pleaded guilty in February to planning a suicide attack in New York, possibly on the subway; and that of Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major charged with opening fire in November on fellow soldiers at Ft. Hood, Texas, killing 13.
The case of Faisal Shahzad, the Connecticut resident suspected in the Times Square attempt, marks the 15th plot with apparent U.S. roots since Obama took office.
"We don't really think that domestic intelligence has received enough attention, especially [given] the evolving nature of the terrorist threat," former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who was co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, told the House Homeland Security Committee last week.
In Britain, the government's Home Office posts the country's national counter-radicalization plan on its website. The British strategy is designed to "challenge the ideology behind violent extremism and support mainstream voices," according to British documents. The government spends about $200 million a year to do it.
One project in the town of Luton, called Ambassadors for Islam, trains a group of young Muslims "to counter extremist ideologies, dispel misapprehensions and develop their role as citizens," according to a British government document.
Another funds the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank staffed by former Islamic radicals that speaks to Muslims in Britain and abroad in an effort to counter the extremism narrative.
Maajid Nawaz, the foundation director, said that battling terrorism while ignoring radicalization is akin to "a surgeon having to amputate a limb, even though for months he could have cured the disease with antibiotics." Nawaz forsook his radical beliefs while in an Egyptian prison from 2002 to 2006.
The view in the U.S., however, is different.