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Counterterrorism Czar Resists Muslim Labels, As Critics Say Right-Wing Threat Looms Larger

First Posted: 11/17/11 03:27 PM ET Updated: 11/17/11 03:39 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The federal government's point man working to counter homegrown violent extremism and defend communities from terrorist attacks isn't into labels.

"We're not using 'radicalization.' Our focus is not to police thought but to prevent violence," said John Cohen, recently named by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to head her agency's program on countering violent extremism, in an interview with The Huffington Post. "The ultimate goal is to understand behaviors so we can better train law enforcement to understand the indicators and behaviors that forewarn of violence."

Cohen said that in his briefings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill he tries to raise questions about the right approach. "Should we be using terms like' jihadist' or 'Islamist?'" he asks. "What I do is talk in a very concrete operational way. Words are often interpreted differently by different people."

Are they ever. Despite a report by the nonprofit New America Foundation citing evidence that "Islamist terrorism has been no more deadly in the United States than other forms of domestic terrorism since September 11," many Republicans in Congress have insisted Islamic extremism poses a greater threat on American soil. In controversial hearings on "Muslim radicalization" earlier this year, House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Peter King called witnesses to testify about the "cancer" lurking within a particular religious community. Last month, the committee passed a bill that would create a coordinator for DHS' "efforts to counter homegrown violent Islamic extremism, including the violent ideology of Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups, in the United States.'

"Of course there is Islamic radicalization," King said. "The only question is the extent of that radicalization. The White House admits that."

A Democratic amendment to include radical groups of all ideological and religious stripes was voted down. But that didn't end concerns about a new McCarthyism on the rise amid recent reports showing that the pace of Muslim-American terrorism has fallen and that the FBI and other government agencies have used paid informants to instigate plots.

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the committee, is holding a forum Thursday on Capitol Hill entitled, "Islamist Radicalization: Myth or Reality?" Thompson said the "rational, fact-based discussion" was prompted by King's hearings and a report that police and the CIA teamed up to spy on New York's Muslim-American community.

"If you overreact by targeting or perhaps trampling, as reported in New York, on the civil liberties of a group, that will make you less safe. If you lose the trust of those communities, you've got a real law enforcement problem" because possible informants will stop cooperating, said Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. "It's a real balancing act."

King's bill has yet to become law, but Cohen, whose full title is principal deputy counterterrorism coordinator and senior adviser to Napolitano, seems to already fit the job description. Except that, on paper at least, his mandate is supposed to be broader than King's.

A recent White House policy paper lays out how the federal government is working with local law enforcement and community groups to counter homegrown terrorism.

As part of the effort, DHS and the Department of Justice have trained more than 100,000 front-line officers on how to identify suspicious activity that may be related to terrorism. The government also has sponsored workshops to raise cultural awareness in order to avoid incidents like the one in Minneapolis in 2006 in which six imams were barred from a flight after they were seen praying in the airport terminal at the usual time for Muslim devotions.

Despite such specific lessons on Muslim practice, though, the administration's policy claims to be non-sectarian: "Individuals from a broad array of communities and walks of life in the United States have been radicalized to support or commit acts of ideologically-inspired violence. Any solution that focuses on a single, current form of violent extremism, without regard to other threats, will fail to secure our country and communities."

Cohen said the administration pays due attention on an ongoing basis to credible threats posed by Islamic extremists. "We prioritize to those recruited by al-Qaida and those motivated by its philosophical underpinnings," he said. But he also echoed what Napolitano has said many times publicly: Her department doesn't have the luxury of focusing on any one group.

Experts on terrorism though, from academics to those on the front lines of combating violent extremism in the nation's cities, worry that political pressure and limited federal resources may be missing a threat as dangerous, if not more so, than that fueled by Muslim ideology.

"Typically what we do is we focus on the most present threat and try to address that and that does make sense," said David Cid of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT). "But we also have to be concerned about emerging threats. The domestic extremists on the far right have become more vocal on immigration and health care reform and eminent domain."

MIPT is a law enforcement training center that was founded in Oklahoma City after a former Army soldier killed 168 people in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building there. Cid said the FBI had focused on domestic terrorism until 1993, the year the first World Trade Center attack prompted it to switch gears.

"We can't be a one-eyed cyclops about what the threats are because they are always evolving," said Michael Downing, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's Counter Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau. His department has been among the most active in reaching out to the Muslim community, and when King's staffers invited him to testify on "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response," he declined to take part.

"I definitely think we need a broader view," he told HuffPost, citing the need to monitor the "sovereign citizen" movement, black separatists, white supremacists, animal rights groups and environmental terrorists.

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