A terrorist threat in our midst?

Posted: Sunday, December 13, 2009

As alumni notices go, it was one of the more opaque:

"There are news reports that a Howard University student was arrested on Wednesday overseas. By law, universities must maintain the privacy of student records, and Howard is committed to that.

"There is no evidence of imminent harm to the University community. Students who may be in need of counseling have been advised to contact the University Counseling Center."

As best can be determined, Howard students have not been flocking to the counseling center in search of psychological support. Neither have they taken to their beds with covers over their heads. There's probably plenty of buzz on campus, however, particularly in the university's College of Dentistry.

Ramy Zamzam, a 22-year-old Muslim and Howard dental student of Egyptian background, and four other young American Muslims were arrested in Pakistan last week.

Pakistani law enforcement officials said Zamzam and his friends, all Northern Virginia residents, had met with an al-Qaida-linked terrorist group in Sargodha, a city in the north of Punjab province. They reportedly were seeking training in jihad, which they hoped to wage against American troops in Afghanistan.

According to news accounts, the president of Howard's Muslim Student Association, Samirah Ali, who has known Zamzam for three years, said she never suspected Zamzam would be involved in radical activities. "He's a very nice guy, very cordial, very friendly," she said.

The Washington Post reported that friends and fellow worshipers at the Northern Virginia mosque that the five men attended were incredulous that they had traveled for jihad. The five were described as respectful and devout but not given to radical ideas or beliefs. This refrain is heard frequently in communities where news about possible local jihadists has surfaced.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has put a name on it . "Home-based terrorism is here," she said in a speech to the America-Israel Friendship League in New York City. "And like violent extremism abroad, it is now part of the threat picture that we must confront," she said.

"We are," Napolitano told the audience, "seeing young Americans who are inspired by al-Qaida and radical ideology." Some of those U.S. citizens are radicalized abroad or become adherents of violent, extremist ideologies, she said.

That explains why the FBI has been arresting extremist suspects in the cities cited above. Some of those arrested appear to have not been well-trained terrorists but rather radicalized klutzes and hapless al-Qaida wannabes. Nonetheless, their desires and intentions seemed clear, even if they lacked the means to carry out their plots.

And that is what has animated the conversations where home-based radicals have surfaced. Their presence - whether they are operating as a pack or as lone wolves - comes as a surprise. They have materialized as a danger, a serious threat from within, driven by a radical ideology that respects only its adherents.

President Obama, in his masterful speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, captured the nature of the threat posed by religious extremists.

"Most dangerously," he said, "we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan." Obama noted that Islamic extremists aren't the first to kill in God's name. Other have done so, too, in the name of their religions. Those killings cannot be justified, Obama said.

"For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint - no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the Red Cross worker, or even a person of one's own faith."

This is a reality of violence unlike any this country has faced.

The men who pulled off the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were motivated by something apart from greed, lust or a thirst for power. Their malice sprang from a belief that the world in which they lived could not be reconciled with the wider world around them. They were on a mission to kill without regard to race, color, age, gender, sexual orientation or religion - except maybe those sharing their warped views.

Which brings us back to the five young men from Northern Virginia. Their families, according to a lawyer, doubt they have been involved in the activities alleged by Pakistani authorities. That will be sorted out in the weeks ahead, and along with it some hard truths.

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