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Homeland Security

Backgrounder: American Muslims and the Threat of Homegrown Terrorism

Council on Foreign Relations

Author: Eben Kaplan, Assistant Editor
Updated: May 8, 2007


Experts say it is quite likely the next terrorist attack in the United States will not be the work of well-trained al-Qaeda operatives sent from abroad, but rather that of an American citizen. As al-Qaeda leaders focus more of their energy on trying to inspire others to commit acts of terror, most security and counterterrorism officials believe their message will resonate with at least some small number of Americans. Such fears tend to focus on American Muslims, and experts say this is logical given recent events in Europe. Yet the American Islamic community also has proven one of the government’s best resources for preventing the emergence of homegrown Islamic terrorists.

How serious a threat is homegrown terrorism in the United States?

“The possibility of a ‘homegrown’ terrorist attack against New York City or any other American city is real and is worsening with time (PDF),” Richard A. Falkenrath, New York City’s deputy police commissioner for counterterrorism, recently told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. This kind of threat is particularly troublesome to counterterrorism officials because it is hard to anticipate the motives or actions of a homegrown terrorist. Yet despite the high probability of a homegrown terrorist attack, experts say such an event is likely to have a relatively small impact when compared to attacks by conventional terrorist networks. As CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon told a recent symposium, homegrown terrorists are often “feckless and ineffective,” though they have at times proven quite lethal. Simon cautioned that self-radicalized individuals and groups can become far more dangerous when they reach out for support from more established terrorist networks.

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Copyright 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on with specific permission from the Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to

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