Metal shipping containers form a makeshift barrier around the Lawrence William Judicial Center as the sentencing phase for Maj. Nidal Hasan continues, Aug. 28, 2013, in Fort Hood, Texas.

Metal shipping containers form a makeshift barrier around the Lawrence William Judicial Center as the sentencing phase for Maj. Nidal Hasan continues, Aug. 28, 2013, in Fort Hood, Texas. Eric Gay/AP

Are We Downplaying the Risks of Homegrown Terrorism?

Since 9/11, Americans radicalized in the U.S. have been most lethal. So why isn't there more debate about the risk of blowback from the war on ISIL? By Robert Wright

Last week, when President Obama announced his intention to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, he gave a clear rationale: Leaders of the radical Islamist group had “threatened America and our allies.” Obama also explained how these leaders could make good on that threat: Americans and Europeans who go join ISIS, once “trained,” could return home and try to “carry out deadly attacks.”

That’s certainly conceivable. But it’s worth noting that in the 13 years since 9/11, that kind of attack hasn’t been the big problem. The most lethal attacks by radical Muslims on American soil have been of a different species: “homegrown” terrorism like the Fort Hood shooting of 2009, which killed 13 people, and the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013, which killed three people and injured more than 250.

The perpetrators of these attacks weren’t people who had been lured abroad by jihadists, given terrorism training, and dispatched to America with a mission. They were people who, while in America, got alienated, got inspired by jihadist propaganda, and, if any expert instruction was necessary (like how to make the bomb the marathon bombers used), got it via the Internet. Apparently the kind of terrorism that’s hardest to fight is the kind that ferments at home.

And what makes it ferment? In both the Boston Marathon and the Fort Hood cases, the attackers seem to have been driven by the perception that the U.S. is at war with Islam, as evinced (in their minds) by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

(Related: How Much of a Threat to the Homeland Is the Islamic State?)

So, if homegrown terrorism is fostered by the perception that the U.S. is at war with Islam, what should we do to counter that perception? Here’s what I don’t recommend: Declare war on an entity that calls itself the Islamic State, enmeshing yourself in combat that will last for years.

Obviously, this entity doesn’t deserve to be called the Islamic State, because its values don’t align with the values of the great majority of the world’s Muslims. But the relatively small number of Muslims who are vulnerable to the appeal of terrorism will consider a war against this “Islamic State” a war against Islam.

The problem of terrorism is complicated, and so is the problem of ISIS. I’m not saying that our thinking about how to respond to ISIS should begin and end with the question of whether declaring war on it will foster homegrown terrorism. But, given that, since 9/11, homegrown terrorism is the only kind of Islamic terrorism that has shown much in the way of an ability to actually kill people in the United States, it would be nice if the debate over how to handle ISIS at least included some discussion of the question.

Yet, during the deliberations over what to do about ISIS, did we hear a single member of the administration raise the question of homegrown terrorism? Or a single influential commentator?

A few commentators did raise related questions. After the first bombing strikes, Dan Drezner asked on whether they might have led ISIS to direct more fire toward America. That’s not the same as the question of homegrown terrorism, which can happen regardless of whether ISIS focuses on the U.S. Still, to even raise the question of blowback at that point (late August) was to place oneself among a minority of prominent U.S. foreign-policy commentators.

Assuming ISIS does turn its gaze more to the U.S., and tries to train and deploy anti-American terrorists, as Obama fears, its recruiting will likely be helped by America’s new war on it. The man who is the best post-9/11 example of the kind of terrorist Obama seems worried about is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, aka the “underwear bomber,” who got training from an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen but failed in his 2009 attempt to blow up an airliner. His main guru seems to have been Anwar al-Awlaki, who relentlessly harped on the America-is-at-war-with-Islam theme. (A poster for an event Abdulmutallab organized in 2007 as a London college student was set against a background photo of a Muslim detained at Guantanamo, kneeling, shackled, and hooded.)

The reason homegrown terrorism is worth worrying about isn’t that there are many American Muslims prone to commit it—there manifestly aren’t. The danger is that even a few such attacks could create a backlash (anti-Muslim bigotry and violence, more oppressive surveillance of Muslims, etc.) that could create more homegrown terrorism, which would lead to more backlash, etc: this would be a positive feedback cycle of a very negative kind.

Again, I’m not saying that the prospect of homegrown terrorism, or even of blowback in general, is by itself a killer argument against Obama’s de facto declaration of war (though I do think that, all told, the declaration was a mistake). I’m mainly saying that America’s national-security discourse is in need of repair. When we face a crucial foreign-policy decision, it fails to factor in glaringly obvious considerations.

(Read More: Obama Has a Strategy for the Islamic State But He Better Have a Plan B)

In this case, the nation was too busy reacting to actually think. Once we saw a couple of gruesome videos that seem to have been designed to freak us out, many Americans obligingly freaked out. And virtually nobody of stature said, “Wait, let’s not get emotional. Let’s think this through carefully.” Certainly not Secretary of State John Kerry, who said that ISIS, manifesting “sheer evil” was a “cancer” that must be stopped. (Dubious metaphor; with cancer, the medicine doesn’t risk making the cancer itself stronger, the way Kerry’s prescription for fighting ISIS does.) And certainly not Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said ISIS poses “an imminent threat to every interest we have.” Every single interest!

A central lesson of the disastrous Iraq War is that one job of a post-9/11 president is to calm fears, not feed them. Some of us voted for Barack Obama thinking he would do that, and help restore reason to foreign policy discourse. For a while it looked like we were right. Now it looks like we weren’t.