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Congressman launching probe into local Muslim radicalization

Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, says more young American Muslims are contemplating terrorism at the prodding of religious leaders in the U.S.

January 16, 2011|Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The new chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security is preparing a controversial investigation next month into what he calls a "very real threat" — the radicalization of young Muslims by local religious leaders.

Many officials have praised cooperation from Muslim religious leaders in the United States and blamed the growing number of young American Muslims willing to contemplate terrorism on radicals overseas reaching out through the Internet.


FOR THE RECORD:
Homeland radicals: An article in the Jan. 16 Section A about upcoming House hearings into the radicalization of American Muslims reported that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was the sole Muslim member of Congress. Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) also is Muslim. The article also reported that Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who will conduct the hearings, is focusing on attempts by American Muslim religious leaders to radicalize American Muslims. The investigation will focus on Al Qaeda's attempts to radicalize American Muslims. —

But Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said he had heard an increasing number of stories from federal law enforcement officials that U.S. Islamic leaders have not cooperated with police or are fomenting young Muslims.

"There's a systematic effort to radicalize young Muslim men," King said. "It would be irresponsible of me not to have this investigation. If it was coming from some other demographic group, I would say the same thing."

U.S. Islamic leaders said King was unfairly tarring the Muslim community, which they said had helped U.S. law enforcement break up terrorist plots.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the sole Muslim member of Congress, said in an interview that he recently approached King on the House floor and offered to volunteer himself and other witnesses as proof that several terrorist plots — including those in Times Square and in Virginia — were initially brought to the attention of federal law enforcement by Muslims.

"I walked up to him like a colleague and said, 'Pete, I'm kind of concerned about this,' " Ellison said.

King is considering Ellison's offer. But he remains unmoved by the growing criticism, saying his weeklong hearings will go forward.

King noted that Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspected Ft. Hood shooter, had worshipped at a mosque in Falls Church, Va., where U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar Awlaki was once a spiritual leader. Awlaki is now believed to be living in Yemen.

King also cited three other cases: A young Muslim in the Washington suburb of Ashburn, Va., was arrested on allegations that he tried to blow up subway lines feeding the Pentagon; another young Muslim in Portland, Ore., is accused of attempting to detonate a bomb during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony; and a new Muslim convert in Baltimore is accused of planning to blow up an Army recruiting station.

He said there were signs in each of these cases of radicalization by local religious leaders, and added that 15% of young American Muslims in a Pew poll believed suicide bombing was justified.

"I also know of imams instructing members of their mosques not to cooperate with law enforcement investigating the recruiting of young men in their mosques as suicide bombers," he said. "We need to find the reasons for this alienation."

But Ellison pointed to a case in which five young men in Virginia traveled to Pakistan to join militant groups, only to "have their parents step forward to stop them" by tipping off police. He also mentioned Faisal Shahzad, who was arrested and sentenced to life in prison last year for trying to detonate a bomb in his SUV in New York's Times Square. It was a Muslim immigrant from Senegal who alerted police to the suspicious vehicle.

"The bottom line is you have people who desperately want to help protect their country," Ellison said, "and they are being nudged out of that opportunity because we're told we are the problem."

Corey P. Saylor, national legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said two members of his organization had alerted police to possible terrorist plots.

Saylor called King's investigation a "witch hunt." But Ellison said, "I don't think Pete King is an evil person. He's concerned about public safety and homeland security. And there have been cases where Muslims have done awful things. But it's a narrow investigation, and it's going to make a particular group feel targeted."

William C. Martel, an international security expert and professor at Tufts University, said that though the threat of radicalization from abroad was greater, it was "prudent" to investigate radicalization inside the U.S. as well.

"We need to understand all of the forces, whether overseas or here at home," he said. "It's much more severe overseas, obviously. But I don't think it's a nonzero situation here. It would be prudent to understand what's going on here in this regard, too."

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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