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Radical Islamists Try to Exploit Islamophobia

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The plan to build an Islamic center in New York City near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks has sparked a backlash of opposition.  Other manifestations of anti-Muslim sentiment have recently sprung up elsewhere as well. 

Counterterrorism analysts who monitor jihadist Internet chat rooms and websites say that there is modest but growing chatter in those forums about the opposition to the New York City Islamic center plan.

Evan Kohlmann, senior partner of the New York-based security consulting firm Flashpoint Global Partners, says radical Islamists see a propaganda and recruitment opportunity in the New York mosque controversy as well as other manifestations of anti-Muslim feeling.

"The reaction is, at least on the part of extremists, fairly gleeful - that America is playing into our hands, that America is revealing its ugly face, and that even if it doesn't further radicalize people in the Middle East, there's no doubt that it will radicalize a kind of a key constituency that al-Qaida and other extremists are seeking to covet, seeking to court, which is the small number of homegrown extremists here in the United States," Kohlmann said.

Al-Qaida and allied groups view American Muslims as a potentially valuable asset because they can mount attacks from within the United States.  Army Major Nidal Hassan, the accused Fort Hood shooter, and Faisal Shahzad, who tried unsuccessfully to set off a bomb in New York City's Times Square, are both American citizens whom investigators believe were drawn into radical Islam.

In its message of violent global jihad, al-Qaida rails against U.S. support of Israel and what it calls apostate regimes in the Middle East.  But Brian Fishman, a terrorism analyst at the New America Foundation, says American-born radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who now lives in Yemen, is now honing the recruitment message more directly for American Muslims.

"That message, that broad jihadi message, doesn't seem to be resonating tremendously well with American Muslims.  But what I worry about is that a guy like Anwar al-Awlaki has better insight into what will work here.  And his message has been a little bit different over the last six to nine months," Fisherman explains. "It has included all of those general themes.  But it also discusses this idea that the West is turning on you, America is coming to get you, you won't be safe there for long, you have to fight back now."

Some Americans voicing anti-Muslim hate messages are providing even more ammunition for the Islamic radicals.  Terry Jones, a fundamentalist Christian clergyman, calls Islam a religion of the devil and has pledged to hold a communal burning of Korans, the Muslim holy book, at his Gainesville, Florida church on Sept. 11.  Analysts say Jones' pronouncements have drawn even more chatter and threats of violence in jihadist chat rooms than the New York controversy.  

Brian Fishman says that, unfortunately, the extremist views of people like Terry Jones draw more media attention than the opposition to the hatemongering. "There are 15 or 16 other churches in Florida, or in Gainesville where this is going on, that are going to do readings from the Koran that day and do sort of interfaith stuff as a response and say, 'you know what? This is not what Americans believe, this is what one group believes,' Fisherman said. "Part of the problem is that there are these people out there doing really hateful things.  The second problem, though, is that those hateful things tend to get more attention than the responses to them."

Evan Kohlmann says each instance of hate-mongering plays into al-Alwaki's strategy of trying to radicalize moderate American Muslims. "When you see some of the rhetoric that is taking place, whether it is talking about burning a Koran or Islam being a devilish religion, this kind of rhetoric is extremely damaging," Kohlmann says, "and it does tend to push people like Nidal Hassan and Faisal Shahzad into doing things like what they've done, the Fort Hood massacre and the Times Square bombing.  So the risk here is that the level of rhetoric has become so poisonous that we could end up turning the very moderates we seek to bring into the fold against us."

Counterterrorism analysts say there is grave potential for protests and attacks that may be even more violent than those that erupted after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.  Depictions of Mohammad are forbidden in Islam.  As Evan Kohlmann put it, if cartoons can provoke that kind of violence, what would a burn the Koran day ignite?

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