Jake Filip didn’t know what he was getting into. A sophomore economics major, he wanted a work-study job that had something to do with foreign affairs or international relations. He wound up helping Islamic societies expert Charles Kurzman draft a 2011 report on one of the predominant issues of our time.
In 2010, Kurzman co-wrote Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim Americans, in which his team noted that Muslims were active in tipping off law enforcement officials about radicalization within the Muslim American community. Kurzman also noted that there were forty-seven homegrown terrorism suspects or perpetrators in 2009, a sharp increase from the previous eight years, when the average number of suspects or perpetrators each year was fourteen. Some people saw the 2009 spike as the beginning of a trend—evidence of increased radicalization among Muslim Americans. New York Congressman Peter King planned hearings to bring attention to radicalization. Kurzman, who was not asked to testify, took a wait-and-see approach.
When Filip came to Kurzman’s office in September of 2010, Kurzman knew just the right project for him—dig up news accounts of Muslim American terrorism plots and keep track of such plots as news broke throughout the rest of the year. Filip also found and reviewed information in criminal indictments of terrorism plotters. While searching these documents, one of Filip’s goals was to pinpoint when the police or FBI found out about each terrorism plot and who, if anyone, tipped them off.
“My first impression was that this project was really relevant, a national security issue,” Filip says. “I was really captivated to do something so meaningful.”
But it wasn’t easy. “The information you need is clear once you get perspective,” he says. Once cases are closed. “But sometimes news reports don’t tell the whole story until later.” So he had to be vigilant, keeping tabs on stories during the twelve hours a week he could dedicate to Kurzman’s project.
In January 2011, Filip helped Kurzman clean up all the data before Kurzman wrote a report, published February 2, titled Muslim-American Terrorism Since 9/11: An Accounting. It starts with a simple fact: the number of suspected or prosecuted Muslim American terrorists dropped to twenty in 2010. “The previous year, when there were forty-seven people involved, might have been more of an aberration than a trend,” Kurzman says.
Filip also found that ten of the terrorists’ twenty targets were domestic. The other ten cases involved Muslim Americans joining foreign jihadist groups. That’s a trend that has continued since 2001, according to figures one and two in Kurzman’s report. In 2009, for instance, just eighteen of the forty-seven targets were domestic.
All told, there have been 161 cases where Muslim Americans were involved in terrorist plots since 9/11. In 25 of those cases, authorities did not disclose where they had received tips that plots were underway. In 16 of the 161 cases, law enforcement officers learned of the terrorist plots after the attacks had been carried out. For the remaining 120 plotters, the largest single source of initial tips was the Muslim American community. That doesn’t include information that authorities received from questioning suspects. The next largest source was U.S. government investigations.
“This was fascinating to me,” Filip says, “that so many people in the Muslim American community would speak out. It was confirming to me. Before this project, I felt that people had prejudice against Muslim Americans and that there had been a backlash against them.”
Kurzman says that homegrown terrorism is a serious problem, but one that the media can easily blow out of proportion. As he told Endeavors in the spring of 2010, according to national homicide statistics, you are much more likely to be killed by a member of your own family than by a terrorist. Since 9/11 there have been about 150,000 murders in the United States. Muslim American terrorists have committed a handful of those. And in 2010, according to Filip and Kurzman’s findings, 20 non-Muslims committed terrorist attacks in the United States.
Still, Kurzman doesn’t want to downplay the seriousness of homegrown radicalization and terrorism. Just 1 percent of U.S. citizens are Muslims. But they accounted for half of all terrorist attacks in the United States in 2010.
As for Filip, he’s still helping Kurzman on a few projects until the end of the spring semester.
“To me, this felt like a huge accomplishment,” he says. “I always wanted to do research with professors. In the past I had done office work or helped professors clean up PowerPoints.”