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Do High-Profile Terrorism Arrests Actually Help the Islamic State?

Every time government officials make noise about how the Islamic State is threatening a series of deadly attacks on American soil, it only adds to the group's notoriety.

by Ramzi Kassem
28 May 2015, 5:00am

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton with NYPD and FBI officials after an arrest of alleged Islamic State sympathizers in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Earlier this month, when nine biker gang members were killed in a Sons-of-Anarchy–worthy shootout in Waco, Texas, Sergeant Patrick Swanton, a police spokesman, made a statement that was refreshingly sensible. The shootout had taken place outside a heavily frequented shopping mall, in broad daylight, and the bikers had even opened fire on responding police officers. Yet, when asked if the authorities knew the names of the gangs involved, Sergeant Swanton responded: "We do, but we're not going to give them the privilege at this point of putting their names out there."

Politicians and law enforcement officials commenting on the recent spate of Islamic State–related arrests would be well advised to take a page out of Sergeant Swanton's PR playbook. Instead, they consistently provide the Islamic State with the publicity it so obviously craves. In that way, the current Islamic State craze in US law enforcement and security circles serves two seemingly opposed but fundamentally codependent narratives: that of the US security apparatus, but also, counterintuitively, that of the Islamic State itself.

After all, what better publicity could an ambitious—if brutal—political startup like the Islamic State pray for than being mentioned by the most powerful man on the planet, President Barack Obama? Back in February, Obama referred to supposedly widespread Islamic State recruitment here at home as an "urgent threat."

Unsurprisingly, his subordinates have been disseminating that same message. Federal law enforcement spokespersons have decried the growing influence of IS and the allegedly surging risk of attacks on US soil. Earlier this year, FBI Director James Comey announced open investigations in all 50 states of "people in various stages of radicalizing."

Realities do not seem to deter any of these officials from their statements. Even crediting unsubstantiated US intelligence estimates, only about 150 Americans have traveled—or attempted to travel—to Syria to join militant groups, a small number compared to the overall population of American Muslims.

Nor has there been an attack carried out or attempted on US soil at the confirmed behest of the Islamic State. All officials can point to if pressed is the recent attempted attack in Garland, Texas, whose perpetrators appear to have been freelancing. Or maybe a single case out of Columbus, Ohio, where the defendant is alleged to have returned from Syria with instructions from the al-Nusra Front, a US-designated terrorist organization, to carry out an attack in the US, which he never did.

Even the director of the FBI is not above relying on a discredited theory that individuals "radicalize" to violence along a predictable path with "stages" as innocuous as deciding to grow a beard.

And, of course, the tendency to overstate the threat represented by the Islamic State does not stop at our borders. Commenting on the recent apprehension of a 16-year-old girl who attempted to travel from London to Syria, UK Home Secretary Theresa May, too, spoke of "the seriousness of the threat ... from IS," casting it in stark, existential terms.

The point here is not that authorities should disregard whatever threat might be posed by any individuals seeking military training overseas or planning acts of mayhem domestically. But the frequency of public expressions of concern by high-level government officials and the stridency of their warnings bear little relation to the actual scope and gravity of the threat.

There have been more than 20 Islamic State–related arrests in the United States so far. Quite often, they have turned out to be heavily government-driven, involving paid informants or undercovers, following a pattern observed in the recent arrest of six young men in Minnesota, for instance.

The story told by politicians and law enforcement officials around these cases and, more broadly, about the grave threat that the Islamic State purportedly poses to the United States, serves to justify our current expansive and expensive domestic surveillance and security apparatus. Indirectly, it bolsters current US foreign policy. Even local cops want in on the action, including New York City top cop Bill Bratton, who recently waxed apocalyptic about the Islamic State in order to ask for 450 extra police officers to be added to what is already the country's largest police force.

But the heated rhetoric and high-profile prosecutions of insignificant Islamic State wannabes come at a cost that is far less obvious, but every bit as real as the political and financial windfall they occasion for some officials in the United States. (Not to mention the havoc these cases wreak on defendants, their families, and their communities.)

In tangible ways, these very same arrests and the accompanying overheated talk advance the Islamic State's interests, too. In its propaganda, the Islamic State postures that it can project its military might into the hearts of pluralistic societies like the United States. Having already demonstrated an ability to draw impressionable Western Muslims as recruits to such danger zones as Syria and Iraq, it has threatened to activate unspecified elements for strikes in North American and Western European cities.

Of course, that is mostly empty talk, likely aimed at sharpening divides and suspicions between, say, American Muslims and their non-Muslim compatriots. No official has credibly claimed the existence of a network of sleeper cells in American cities under direct Islamic State command. The territorial United States is not awash with terror cells. Even those Americans who want to travel to Syria do not necessarily pose a direct threat to the United States.

But splashy Islamic State–related cases and the official chatter surrounding them fill the gap between reality and the perception that the Islamic State relies on. In that way, those prosecutions and the rhetoric around them perform valuable propaganda work for the Islamic State, at no cost, while serving law enforcement's self-justifying agenda.

One way out of this strange bedfellows paradox would be for officials to refrain from exaggerating the peril represented by youths who seek to go abroad to join up with the Islamic State and similar groups, and to no longer highlight and exceptionalize attempted or actual acts of violence by Muslim-identified actors.

It is largely because, in the post-9/11 era, terrorism incidents are virtually guaranteed to draw high-level official reaction and extensive media coverage that they are politically valuable to groups like the Islamic State. For those reasons, too, they appeal to young people in search of a cause and to would-be terrorists leading marginal or troubled lives and looking for a greater purpose.

Reducing the profile and visibility of such incidents and of claims relating to the ambient "threat" would likely undercut potential recruits and the groups they wish to join. It would also create space for a sane and rational conversation around security in the present era, away from the clamorous rhetoric that characterizes the usual debate.

But while it would certainly make for sound policy, pressing officials to reign in their saber-rattling and fanfare about the domestic threat posed by the Islamic State and the attendant small-fry cases amounts to asking them to abandon a prolific cash cow. Sadly, this is likely to prove a stillborn proposition.

Ramzi Kassem is a professor at the City University of New York School of Law. He directs the CLEAR project (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) as well as the Immigrant & Non-Citizen Rights Clinic.