Be alert to signs of terror in making
A 19-year-old man's foiled plot to kill hundreds of people on the day after Thanksgiving in Portland raises concerns about the root causes of such perilous behavior - and what can be done to stop young people from turning to militancy and violence.
In the wake of the bombing plot, the community has struggled with many questions: Is this an issue of religion? Or were the actions of Mohamed Osman Mohamud foremost those of a troubled young man, regardless of his religious beliefs? What about the role of the FBI? In the cause of prevention, did agents go too far to encourage Mohamud toward his goal of mass murder?
Take the final question first: No, the FBI wasn't out of line. If a person harbors a desire to cause harm to families and children gathered for the joyous occasion of a Christmas tree lighting, then it is the duty of federal authorities to identify that deviant potential and remove the threat.
But to understand why Mohamud wouldn't have stopped short of some sort of terrorist act - either now or in the future, with or without aid from others - it helps to consider the issues of youth, religion, politics and identity.
Mohamud isn't a young Muslim from a foreign land, or someone raised in an oppressed culture that breeds radicalism. He is a Somali immigrant, a naturalized U.S. citizen who has lived a life of relative privilege made possible by this community and country. He received a good public education in Portland and Beaverton and had attended Oregon State University.
On the surface, he has no more reason for complaint than any other U.S. citizen.
But there was something boiling beneath the surface. In that respect, Mohamud is representative of a handful of other cases that show a troubling trend toward the radicalization of young Muslims within this country. Like Mohamud, these are people who enjoy the pleasures of a free society, but turn against their fellow citizens.
The exact reason that anyone turns to violence is often unknowable, but existing research provides insight into the causes of a young Muslim becoming radicalized. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies studied 117 such cases and identified six ways that the radicalization process can be observed.
Young Muslims who grow up in western societies and later become violent share these traits:
• They adopt a legalistic interpretation of Islam.
• They trust only select religious authorities.
• They perceive a schism between Islam and the West.
• They have low tolerance for perceived theological differences.
• They try to impose their religious beliefs on others.
• They become politically radical, believing that Western powers are conspiring to subjugate the Islamic world.
While religion is at the heart of this radicalization process, it's also clear from the research that these young people aren't practicing the traditional Islamic religion of their parents, but a perverted form that drives them past the edge of reason.
The above symptoms of radicalization are important beyond their ability to explain how a person changes - they also can serve as warning signs that a person is changing. And that gives everyone - parents, family members, religious leaders and community members - a role to play in the prevention of homegrown terrorism. Indeed, it may very well have been such observations that led the FBI to watch Mohamud in the first place.
Portland was exceedingly fortunate that the FBI got wind of Mohamud in time to divert his violent intent. But for that luck to continue, the community also must be alert to this growing danger within and the need to identify trouble at the start.