Disrupting the ‘Conditional Selfhood’ of Threat Construction

This is an excerpt from Time, Temporality and Global Politics – an E-IR Edited Collection.

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In thinking about time, temporality, and global politics, I propose that we think about conditional (non)belonging in the context of identity, insecurity, and counterterrorism. If we are to better combat counterproductive consequences of othering that increase insecurity, we must critically investigate threat labels and the meanings and policies that they legitimise through exclusionary us/them boundary-drawing. This requires that we dislocate status quo time horizons and associated identity assumptions, and that we prioritise empathy, imagination, and analytical risk-taking. It is through this disruption of time, being, and (non)belonging, I would argue, that we have the best chance of achieving effective and ethical security strategies.

This discussion contributes to ongoing conversations destabilising misperceptions of (non)belonging. This destabilisation helps us to see counterproductive effects of security practice, however unintentional these effects and their resultant insecurities may be. The consequences of dehumanisation stemming from narratives of threat construction affect individuals with no relation to violence, a consequence that is enabled and worsened by generalisations of collectives and characteristics as both ‘risky’ and ‘at risk’ (Heath-Kelly 2012).

In this sense some actors are problematically positioned along what I consider a conditional state of belonging: as part of the self, but as somehow always on the cusp of otherness and insecurity. This is ineffective with respect to security objectives, and counterproductive with respect to human rights and social justice. Identity labels are not objective signposts but ambiguous signifiers, the allocations of which too often depend upon exclusionary us/them constructions. It is our responsibility to disrupt the presumed parsimony of such representations to fight the experiences of insecurity that they enable.

How can we think about identity disruption?

There are a number of cases through which we could situate discussion on conditional belonging such as the Mediterranean migrant crisis and exclusionary discourse in Europe, xenophobic debates on immigration in US presidential campaigns, and ongoing racism in society-police relations across the US. There are, indeed, too many cases. In these examples certain actors are positioned on the (often literal) borders of full belonging, even as they do not pose a threat to security. We must ask how a temporality of conditional selfhood is formed and exacerbated by processes of boundary construction separating ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is impossible to develop effective security strategy if we do not consider how insecurities are enflamed by identity (mis)perceptions associated with security discourse and practice.[1]

For this discussion, I would like us to critically engage with the idea of homegrown terrorism, by which I mean viewing threat construction as a result of social and political practice rather than an expression of objective truth. In this sense the focus is on how we conceptualise the very idea of a ‘homegrown other’ as well as how we observe articulations of homegrown in discourse. It is an admittedly messy focus given the tensions arising from examining both idea and articulation in such a short piece.[2] However, it is hoped that this will still enable a useful starting point and introductory conversation. When counterterrorism relies so heavily on the liminal space between an imagined act of violence and an actual act of violence, the very idea of identifying a homegrown other in preventive security practice relies upon an uncertain and consequential temporal plane of targeting.[3] A critical approach does not refute the possibility of violence from some identified as ‘homegrown’, but does destabilise any notion of ‘homegrown’ as having self-evident meaning.

This helps us consider temporal dynamics of conditional (non)belonging in how processes of boundary construction often rely upon an association of terror with already marginalised groups: those seen as not having been part of the self for ‘long enough’, such as immigrant and Muslim populations. It is not that this is the only way that homegrown is constructed. There is no single definition of homegrown and there have been instances where ‘homegrown’ is applied to actors unrelated to Islamic extremism. Importantly, the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the U.S. Department of Justice very recently said ‘Homegrown violent extremists can be motivated by any viewpoint on the full spectrum of hate — anti-government views, racism, bigotry, anarchy and other despicable beliefs’, that ‘no single ideology governs’ (Williams 2015). Thus even as there was no reference to terrorism, some articulations of homegrown include white supremacist and anti-government acts in addition to jihadist extremism.

At the same time, despite this plurality of meanings, a predominant connotation seems to stem from assumptions of distance and difference as danger in relation to homegrown and Muslim groups. Further empirical research is necessary, but as a starting point this chapter engages two claims: One that such research needs to be pursued, and two, that an identity-conceptualisation of conditional (non)belonging is one way to pursue it. Through this lens we can see how overcoming insecurity requires overcoming the damaging application of outsider status to those positioned as somehow not yet a part of ‘us’, as always encompassing some degree of otherness. Given local and international narratives that the West is at war with Islam, in addition to insecurity for those who are part of the self and have no relation to violence, we must ask how ‘security’ can create insecurity, regardless of intent.

In considering the dehumanising tropes that ambiguous and consequential threat articulations often employ, the cost of using homegrown labels may outweigh the benefits. By breaking down labels we may better empathise with (without speaking for) victims of insecurity, combating politics of non-belonging without falling into parochial, racialised, and/or orientalist[4] discourse (Said 1979; Biswas 2004). This breaking down is necessary because in ‘doing security’ discursive representations and material practice often (mistakenly) conflate groups of (often minority) individuals as collectively under-civilised and under-developed (Hindess 2007). When this misperceived lack of civilised-being is linked to terrorism, assumptions of under-development are even more consequential. For example, in processes of externalisation, including specific counterterrorism law exclusion orders that enable state powers to send those under suspicion of terrorism ‘back to’ another place (Finighan 2014; Fisher 2015). In this way distancing self and other depends upon and reinforces mistaken associations of difference as danger. The homegrown identifier is one example with which we may better analyse the significance of such distancing.

Homegrown as Problematic Identifier

In 2013 James B. Comey, head of the FBI, positioned the ‘emergence of home-grown violent extremists in the United States’ (Horwitz 2013) as the threat that he wakes up to every morning and goes to bed with every night, and in 2013 President Barack Obama identified ‘homegrown extremists’ as ‘the future of terrorism’ (2013). Given this as well as the known costs of some counterterrorism (Donohue 2008), we must consider homegrown in critical depth. Identity framings in this context can, however unintentional, reinforce boundaries of assumed foreignness by asserting exclusionary us/them representations. This generalises individuals along categories that act as a source of insecurity for those who fall into such groupings but have no relationship to terrorism. Associations of danger with characteristics that have no intrinsic relationship to violence, such as race, religion, and immigration, unacceptably marginalise innocent actors from a secure sense of belonging.

To trouble ‘homegrown’ as a signifier requires that we draw on critical sensibilities, encouraging us to not take the present as given, the past as known, or the future as predetermined.[5] By viewing labels as always open to reconstruction, being critically reflective opens ways to counter terror beyond ‘standard policing and military responses’ (Piazza 2009: 77). This does not ignore problem solving, but encourages us to problem solve by destabilising unnecessary limitations of identity. The increased alienation of, and violence against, minority groups underscores the urgency to disrupt temporal and geographic identity signposts. It is hoped that this will mitigate generalisations of danger that blur rather than clarify, focusing instead on strategies that are inclusive of long term security and social justice.

Counterterrorism discourse and practice is connected to broader social and political relations, and as explained by Floris Vermeulen, local counterterrorism practice ‘quickly devolves into a complicated, multiplex discussion about immigration, belonging, citizenship, Islam, and the position of Muslim communities in Western cities’ (2014: 304). In this context representations of threat are used in legitimation struggles around exceptional policy by positioning suspects as somehow unlike ‘us’, as less human (Woods et al. 2013). The danger may be viewed as homegrown, but the processes of boundary drawing that position homegrown as an entity (Abbott 1995; Albert et al. 2001) do so by distancing actors within. Distancing creates ‘conditional selves’ and exacerbates the alienation and insecurity of those with no relation to terror.[6] In this sense representations of threat counterproductively contribute to the idea that Islam is under attack by the West in how ‘Fear and distrust, especially against innocent Muslim Americans, can easily be sown and lead to a cycle of oppression that serves to validate jihadist claims’ (Rosler 2010: 66). This narrative built on complex intersections of time, space, and identity connects local conflict with global discourses, for example how in Chechnya militants are both ‘grounded in a post-colonial conflict with Russia’ as well as struggles in a ‘global war between Islam and the West’ (Swift).[7]

A key point to consider is how social and political tensions are aggravated even when stated policy aims are to avoid such consequences. This can be seen in an attention to ‘self-radicalisation within the United States within immigrant communities’ (Lister and Cruickshank: 2013) whereby the focus becomes ‘immigrants, born in Western countries, who become radicalised’ (King and Taylor 2011: 604). Such discourses damagingly merge ’immigrant’[8] with ‘terrorist’,[9] excluding from the homegrown category violence that is perpetrated by actors such as Dylan Roof. While Roof used terrorising violence in a political way, the perpetrator, target, and victims do not ‘fit’ simplistic categories of mainstream othering based on a racialisation and foreignisation of threat.

When the meaning of ‘homegrown’ is not self-evident, we must ask at what point does ‘home’ become associated with non-belonging, and ‘grown’ become associated with violent radicalisation?[10] How long is long enough to be considered part of the referent in need of protection rather than part of an other under suspicion? When the ‘homegrown’ other is stabilised by boundaries around migrant, immigrant, and/or Muslim categories, actors with no relation to violence but who identify with such groups are positioned as a threat. Such boundary drawing is counterproductive and unethical, not least given the creation durable inequalities (Tilly 1998). Different contexts inevitably demand different considerations. At the same time, even cursory observations into how conditional (non)belonging plays out in different settings can provide important examples, as in an account of externalisation by Kurdish-German journalist Mely Kiyak:

KIYAK: In Germany, we always talk about a special group of people. Although they are Germans, we still say they are – in Germany, we call it Auslaender, the foreigner. Although these people have a German passport, they are still the Auslaender. We do not really use this term when we mean Italian people or Spanish people, but we specially use this term for people from – coming from Turkey or the Arabic countries. They cannot really reach the status of being a normal German just because of this term.

CORNISH: How long do you have to be in Germany before you’re not considered an Auslaender?

KIYAK: Until you die [laughter] (Cornish 2015).

This foreignising of the other along temporal lines in the German context may resonate with experiences in other areas, the significance of which would be even more problematic with respect to counterterrorism. As observed in studies on Irish and Muslim suspect communities in the UK (Nickels et al., 2012: 351; Lynch 2013), the terrorist threat is often obscurely positioned, linked to ideas of ‘inside’ while simultaneously depending on misperceptions of the foreigner. Recent US policy focus also implies that sources of terror are based in places beyond the self, ‘from North Africa to South Asia’ (Obama 2013),[11] with one spatialisation of threat regarding terrorist detection stating ‘Industrialised countries face the challenge of spotting international terrorists at points of entry and homegrown terrorists on their borders’ [emphasis added] (Koc-Menard 2009). An implication from such constructions may be that the targeting of threats continues to be based on assumptions of spatial belonging and movement, even as such belonging and movement is far from predictable. Processes of boundary construction position certain actors as conditional selves that are somehow forever on the perimeter of full belonging, with an analysis of ‘homegrown’ perhaps providing a useful empirical snapshot to consider.

Analysing ‘Homegrown’

The homegrown other has been observed as dangerous and unexceptional, with imminent plots coming from ‘unremarkable’ (Silber and Bhatt 2007: 5) individuals with ‘normal American lifestyles’ (Pregulman and Burke 2012: 3). To get a better sense of how homegrown has been constructed, a preliminary analysis of academic and policy-focused discourse presents observations including the difficulty of defining homegrown, the separation of homegrown from other domestic and international terrorists, the presentation of homegrown as largely synonymous with jihadi extremism, and the focus on Muslim communities – all of which contribute to an ambiguous yet consequential representation of homegrown as a ‘conditional self’.

Definitional dilemma

Possible consequences of insecurity from constructions of ‘conditional selfhood’ may be exacerbated by the confusion of defining terrorism, with boundaries around homegrown, domestic, and international labels increasingly blurred.[12] As stated by Hinkkainen Kaisa, ‘there is an increasing amount of literature about homegrown terrorism, but often without a clear definition of what this constitutes’ (2013:163). Homegrown terrorism has been defined as ‘extremist violence perpetrated by U.S. citizens or legal U.S. residents, and linked to or inspired by Al Qaeda’s brand of radical Sunni Islamism’ (Pregulman and Burke 2012, 1); homegrown extremists as ‘radicalized groups and individuals that are not regularly affiliated with, but draw clear inspiration and occasional guidance from, Al Qaeda core or affiliated movements’ (Ibid.); and homegrown extremism as ‘terrorist activity perpetrated by U.S. legal residents and citizens’ (Nelson 2010). Official websites have presented ‘homegrown violent extremism (HVE)’ (‘Countering…’ 2015), research has identified ‘self-radicalized, homegrown criminal extremists’ (Carter and Carter 2012:146), and a US Senate report has referred to ‘Homegrown Islamist Radicalization’ (‘Majority and Minority…’ 2012).[13]

The challenge of multiple labels and definitions is not exclusive to the US, for example in the UK context an individual is U.K.-based ‘only if he or she is a British citizen living in the United Kingdom or was a long-term resident of the United Kingdom during that period, regardless of immigration status’, with U.K.-related meaning ‘if he or she is a British citizen living outside the United Kingdom, or a foreign citizen who visited the United Kingdom or participated from abroad in a plot targeting the United Kingdom’ (Barbieri and Klausen, 2012:414, note 17). Efforts have been made to specify ‘homegrown’, but it has also been acknowledged that any assemblage of specifics ‘would constitute such a strict criterion that hardly any organization would fit the category’ (Bjelopera 2013: 163). Indeed, a key observation is that ‘Homegrown violent jihadist activity since 9/11 defies easy categorization’ and ‘No workable general profile of domestic violent jihadists exists’ (Ibid., 2). If there is a common definitional conclusion it seems to be that the homegrown threat ‘is very difficult to define’ (Giuliano 2011).

An arguably productive complication of defining homegrown along varied iterations are recent articles on right wing extremism (Shane 2015),[14] with another report on ‘jihadist terrorists’ that references homegrown explaining just ‘0.007 percent of Muslims in the United States have been involved in domestic terror plots since 9/11’ (Gilson 2013). Considering that ‘little research has so far examined the alleged distinctiveness of homegrown terrorism empirically’ (Kaisa 2013: 157), homegrown actors are said to have limited financial support and technical know-how (Bjelopera 2013: 6; Mueller and Stewart 2012:109), and that the number of ‘indicted extremists’ has gone from 33 in 2010 to nine in 2013 (Bergen 2013), definitional inconsistencies add further confusion to an already difficult threat assessment. With terrorism positioned in modern governmentalities as a ‘risk beyond a risk’ (Aradau and Van Munster 2007, 102), the consequential ambiguity of threat identification is exacerbated, not clarified, by identifiers such as domestic, international, and homegrown.

Domestic, international, homegrown

The argument that ‘maintaining an artificial separation between domestic and international terrorist events impedes full understanding of terrorism and ultimately weakens counterterrorism efforts’ is a compelling one (LaFree et al., 2006: 6). At the time of research the FBI referenced ‘domestic terrorist threats’ as eco-terrorists/animal rights extremists, lone offenders, sovereign citizen movement, and anarchist extremism, separating homegrown Islamist extremist threats from ‘domestic’.[15] Examples of domestic terrorism included the ‘Oklahoma City bombing’ and Eric Rudolph, but not ‘Jihad Jane’ Colleen La Rose or Nidal Hasan. Following the April 2013 Boston bombings, White House press releases stated that earlier investigations indicated no clear line if activity was ‘foreign or domestic’ (Carney 2013; Brennan 2013). One article was titled ‘Boston Bomb Suspect: It Was Just Us’ (Staff Writer 2013), but assumptions of terrorists as foreign (Bulley 2008)[16] remained even as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had spent their adult lives in the US, and even as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said ‘We don’t know the Tsarnaevs, they did not live in Chechnya’ (Locker et al. 2013). Responses to the attack were not focused on Americans, but on how ‘Chechens are now going to be seen as bad people’ (Golovnina 2013), alluding to how a historical demonisation of the ‘Chechen other’ can persist over time and across space (Russell 2005; Swift 2010).

Existing research has helpfully engaged with this difficulty of defining types of terrorism (e.g. Crone and Harrow 2011; Kleinmann 2012), and more research needs to be done on both disrupting threat labels and examining non-jihadist threats: ‘Terrorist threats against U.S. officials and police that have nothing to do with Islamist militancy are surely also worthy of the scrutiny of Congress, but neither the Senate nor House homeland security committee, nor it seems any other congressional committee, has examined the issue in any detail since 9/11’ (Bergen and Lebovich 2011). The point is not that there are no sources of insecurity self-identifying (mistakenly) with Islam. Rather, that to achieve greater security we must not let ‘homegrown’ enable a silencing of non-jihadist sources of terror, nor must we allow a silencing of the insecurities that stem from how counterterrorism affects those with no relation to violence.

Homegrown as ’jihadist’

Even as threats from ‘homegrown violent extremists’ increasingly reference both jihadist and non-jihadist extremism, there has been a particular attention to, and ongoing consequence of, constructions of terrorism as Islam-related (Jackson 2007; Croft 2012). These constructions of terrorism limit our possibilities for effective security because they encourage an almost primordial essentialisation of the terrorist, restricting our ability to conceptualise terrorism as a method of violence employed by state and non-state actors, by far right and extremist Islamist contingents. Some research has underscored the threat of far right wing militants (Perliger 2013; Taylor et al. 2013), but in broader public arenas such research has been received as ‘outrageous’ (Scarborough 2013), and ‘fears [have] focused on Muslim “homegrown” terrorism”’ (Brooks 2012).[17] There are also competitions over resources, with questions ‘what about the homegrown extremists?’ in discussions of US State Department ‘foreign “Community Engagement and Resilience” projects’ (Mirahmadi 2014 ), and competing understandings ‘over what is international and what is domestic terrorism’ (Kaisa, 2013, 159).[18] Statements that ‘there is no real strategy to counter the homegrown threat’ (Temple-Raston 2010) continue to be convincing, and while efforts to coordinate local and federal law enforcement may be well intentioned, receiving Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) training and the ‘If You See Something, Say Something™’ campaign (‘Preventing…’ 2015) do not on their own indicate effective security practice.

Instead, such practices may be counterproductive in how they can enflame insecurity from racial profiling, hate crimes, xenophobia, and Islamaphobia. Discourses that securitise Islam (Croft 2012) reinforce assumptions of terrorism as Jihadi-related, with those identified as Muslim mistakenly seen as somehow more innately terroristic than others. Immigration in this context amplifies such assumptions as the degree of threat is assessed in terms of temporal and spatial connections to ‘foreign’ places. ‘[N]ative-born European(s)’ are positioned alongside representations of ‘new generations of Western Muslims,’ (Barbieri and Klausen 2012: 418) with the ‘quintessential ‘homegrown network’ composed of individuals born in the West…who embraced a radical Homegrown Jihadist Terrorism in the U.S.’ (Vidino 2007:2). Engaging in ‘homegrown jihadism’ may relate to Al Qaeda’s ‘long-standing subversion of migrant Muslims in the West’ (Acharya and Marwah 2008), but such subversion is not all migrants, and the temporality of when and how someone identifies with a particular collective is not an indicator of threat. Discourses that link nonviolent communities to threats can in fact be highly destabilising, as seen in the late August 2015 attacks against migrants in Germany (Chambers 2015). Constructions of homegrown as Islamic and immigrant-related contribute to everyday insecurity for those connected to such categories but with no relation to violence, exacerbate a narrative of the West being at war with Islam, and increase the threat from anti-government extremists in how ‘Immigration further fuels nativist instincts and hostility toward a federal government’ (Jenkins 2012: 9).

Critical attention to constructions of homegrown as overwhelmingly ‘jihadist’ is not to disregard insecurity from actors espousing extremist jihadist views. Rather this is to encourage a focus on counterproductive consequences from exclusionary threat construction to better understand how phrases such as ‘Muslim community’ may position Islam as from ‘outside’ and marginalise innocent individuals as suspect, even if the intention was to help.

‘Muslim communities’[19]

When I testified before the current House Homeland Security subcommittee on Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence chaired by Rep. King in March 2010 on ‘Working with Communities to Disrupt Terror Plots’, I specifically warned that solutions like Rep. King’s counter-productively ‘securitise the relationship’ between communities and law enforcement by presenting communities with only two avenues, either as suspects or sources to report on suspects (Elibiary 2013).

It is not difficult to interpret a majority of representations of homegrown as being built upon misplaced assumptions of homegrown terrorism as almost exclusively from Muslim communities. Even as some attention to community may be well-intentioned, related discourse and practice such as ‘community based policing’ (‘Preventing Terrorism and Countering…’, 2014) can marginalise actors by positioning certain groups as needing more protection and more surveillance, as observed in the destructive New York Police Department surveillance programme (‘End of NYPD Muslim Surveillance…’ 2014). This mistakenly establishes communities as ‘suspect’ rather than part of the self, and is an example of how identity framings can negatively position perceived difference as danger (Hillyard 1993; McGovern and Tobin 2010; Heath-Kelly 2012; Hickman et al. 2012; Eriksen 2012; Breen-Smyth 2014).

By attending to the creation of suspect communities we can see how linkages between homegrown and immigrant intensify sentiments of alienation by connecting counterterrorism with the very narratives that counterterrorism is supposed to counter: that the West is at war with Islam. Insecurity is increased here in two ways: one, by the narrative being ‘persuasive enough to motivate a small but disturbing number of American citizens and legal residents to take up arms to prevent further perceived assaults on Muslims’ (Pregulman and Burke 2012, 4), and two, in how attacks ‘by homegrown groups’ heighten ‘distrust toward the Muslim population among ethnic Europeans and, consequently, Muslims’ sense of exclusion from mainstream society’ (Vidino 2007, 589).

In looking at recent US discourse, some redirection may be under way, but more research is needed. The 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) does not mention Muslim once, and Islam only twice, compared to the 2010 NSS that focused on the need to ‘build positive partnerships with Muslim communities around the world’ to ‘protect our homeland’ (Brennan 2010). While this represents an effort to form a united front against terrorism, on the other hand such discourse also points to an interesting dynamic linking ‘homeland’ with communities seen as external to the self. Earlier discourse positioning the best defence against ‘recruitment to jihadist terrorism in the Muslim-American community’ as being ‘the Muslim-American community’ (Jenkins 2010: 3) and stating a need for ‘positive partnerships with Muslim communities’ (Obama 2010) is similar to calls for law enforcement to work ‘with the Muslim-American community to identify signs of radicalisation’ (‘Background Briefing…’ 2013): that ‘the best way to prevent violent extremism inspired by violent jihadists is to work with the Muslim American community’ (Obama 2013). It has been said that the US should learn from the British by focusing on ‘law enforcement officers who come from a community that may be vulnerable to terrorist penetration’ (Dryer 2007), but such ‘community-based’ efforts remain under-scrutinised and highly controversial.

As seen in mixed reactions to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2015 speech on ‘extremist ideology’ (Gani 2015), in addition to important critiques on the exclusion of Muslim voices more broadly (Shafiq 2015), it is essential to consider the ways that such policies are counterproductive for security. Efforts at inclusivity are made, asserting that ‘Muslims are a fundamental part of the American family’ (Obama 2013). But ‘community’ can also signal exclusionary difference and conditional belonging. Even as Obama states that ‘violent extremism is not unique to any one faith’, he also says that ‘our best partners in protecting vulnerable people from succumbing to violent extremist ideologies are the communities themselves’, so that Muslim communities can ‘protect their loved ones from becoming radicalised’ (Obama 2015).[20] A continued focus on Muslim communities targets these actors with suspicion (they are externalised from full belonging with the self) and with responsibility (they are responsible for protecting the self). In this sense reference to Muslim communities contributes to an ongoing marginalisation that can simultaneously be seen as a cause and consequence of the insecurities identified by countering violent extremism discourse. As stated by Bjelopera (2013, 4), ‘the prevention of terrorist attacks would require the cooperation and assistance of American Muslim, Arab, and Sikh communities’ but ‘Muslim, Arab, and Sikh Americans recognised the need to define themselves as distinctly American communities’ [emphasis added].

Insecurity is evident in that ‘Muslim community activists fear that law enforcement coerces immigrants into becoming informants’ (Bjelopera 2013, 5) and in how terrorist events are ‘likely to exacerbate many of the difficulties that Muslim Americans have faced since 9/11…official discrimination by government agencies, violent hate crimes against persons and property, blatantly prejudicial legislative efforts targeted at Muslim religious practices and subtle societal discrimination that impacts employment, housing, and other attributes’ (Belt 2013). Further complicating insecurity is how advocates of violence also refer to the Muslim community in the ‘ideological desire to protect the Muslim community, which they believe is under attack by the West’ (Pregulman and Burke 2012, 2). Opposing voices represent competing notions of ‘Muslim community’, and what it means to belong.[21]

Assumptions of difference as danger damage individuals unrelated to violence even as both ‘scholars and law enforcement officials have noted that no workable general profile of domestic violent jihadists exists’ and that ‘generalising about the individuals involved is problematic’ (Bjelopera 2013, 2, 25):

From Qur’an burning in Florida to legislation banning the veil in France, a growing number of American and Europeans view Islam as subversive value system. This fear informs research as well, with a recent report from one Washington think-tank describing Islam as ‘threat masquerading as a religion’ and warning against ‘U.S. leadership failures in the face of Shari’ah’. Some of this paranoia reflects nativist impulses, to be sure (Swift n.d.).

We are ‘repeatedly warned about the growing alienation of American Muslims’ (Vidino 2007:12) but threat labels continue to be established through oblique configurations of conditional belonging, marginalising certain individuals from full inclusion. This marginalisation is observed in the use of identity qualifiers that in one context may be celebrated as ‘diversity’ but in the realm of counterterrorism mark a dangerous, foreign other: a Pakistani American named Farooque Ahmed, an American of Nicaraguan descent named Antonio Martinez, and ‘Pennsylvania-based Emerson Begholly’ (Giuliano 2011). Mohammad Abdulazeez, responsible for the Tennessee 2015 shootings, is described as ‘Kuwait-born…a naturalised US citizen who lived most of his life in Chattanooga’, instead of an ‘American from Chattanooga’ (Bertrand 2015).[22] Individuals are distanced from the self by focusing on qualifiers aligned with us/them discourses linked to discriminatory images of the Global South, ‘a territory peopled by “Others” that can be labelled as “uncivilised”, “traditional”, “irrational”, and “violent”, much as they were two centuries ago’ (Göl 2010:2). Discursive efforts to distance violence at home from the home can thus reinforce damaging and orientalist tropes of temporal and civilisational underdevelopment, the resultant insecurities of which affect those with no relation to violence.

Reconsidering ‘Homegrown’  

Homegrown terrorism has not generated much comparative literature and it seems that the debate of old and new terrorism has fused the concepts of international Islamist terrorism and homegrown terrorism into one. I, however, argue that homegrown terrorism is more similar to the other types of domestic terrorisms in Western Europe rather than its international Salafi counterpart. (Kaisa 2013, 165)

Given public imaginaries of ‘foreign fighters’ streaming to Syria and alarmist political discourse around the Mediterranean refugee crisis, communities that are already externalised from full belonging with the self in need of protection are increasingly seen as a target audience for counterterrorism. In the context of homegrown threats such targeting may prove problematic in a number of ways, and ‘mischaracterising and inflating the Muslim homegrown American threat could prove self-defeating to the country’s efforts to defend against it’ (2011, 45). As argued by Elibiary, ‘after facilitating more than 100 events of cooperation across our country between Muslim community members and the FBI in homegrown terrorism investigations, it is clear to me today that radicalisation is an individual or small group phenomenon that sometimes requires a community-based solution but is never a community-level problem’ (2013) [emphasis added].

Despite some well-intentioned community-based efforts, in addition to an awareness of how counterterrorism can be counterproductive, authorities are still ‘unable to conceive any coherent policy that would preemptively tackle the issue of radicalisation, preventing young American Muslims from embracing extremist ideas in the first place’ (Vidino 2007, 14). Some techniques even continue to exacerbate insecurity (Vidino 2007; Bjelopera 2013), the most recent iteration being a 29 October 2015 story on how an undercover NYPD officer converted to Islam in order to spy on Muslim students. The acute insecurity experienced by one individual is powerfully explained through what could be seen as an example of damaging, conditional belonging: ‘I grew up here. To have this happen because of your religion, or your political views, it’s scary. You feel alienated. And you don’t feel like this is your home’ (Stahl 2015).[23]

The above is indicative of how security practice produces experiences of insecurity, and while ‘Some may recoil at grouping right-wing, single-issue, and left-wing terrorists with militant jihadists…there are several benefits to promoting a more comprehensive assessment of the domestic terrorist threat’ (Brooks 2012), such a shift may help combat counterproductive threat construction. Stereotyping rather than intelligence has been ‘a key factor in the use of counter-terrorism powers’ and led to ‘Asian people’ as ‘being 11 times more likely to be stopped at UK borders’ (Travis 2013), and arguments slamming ‘political correctness’ are an insufficient and embarrassing rationale for not stopping ineffective and counterproductive discourse and practice. The need to critically examine how we label terrorism should be felt as a matter of urgency, not least when reading how ‘mothers and fathers, religious leaders and students, recent immigrants and American citizens by birth… spoke of their concerns, that their fellow Americans, and at times, their own government, may see them as a threat to American security, rather than a part of the American family’ (Brennan 2010), and knowing that ‘overestimating the threat could contribute to the adoption of counterproductive counterterrorism methods, especially those that threaten to alienate Muslim communities’ (Brooks 2011, 9).

Given that ‘we have not eliminated the sources of grievance at the United States that gave rise to Al Qaeda and could spawn other terrorist movements’ (Belt), and that we have a responsibility to uphold the highest standards of social justice and human rights, it is essential to interrogate how representations of the homegrown threat in security practice may instead be influencing insecurity. This chapter is a call to consider the idea of conditional (non)belonging to support further research in this context, with the hope that this may help us find ways to combat self-defeating security discourse and practice enabled by exclusionary assumptions of (non)belonging.

*The views expressed here do not represent National Defense University, the U.S. Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government entity.


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[1] “Discourse” here refers to language from official reports and websites as well as media and academic discussion. It is thus methodologically broad, but serves the intent of this introductory piece.

[2] This tension demands a much fuller response than given here.

[3] With many thanks to an anonymous reviewer on the liminal spaces of counterterrorism.

[4] For an important study of homegrown as the ‘orientalised insider’ see Chuang and Romer (2013).

[5] See Agathangelou and Ling, (2009); Barkawi and Laffey (2006); Chowdhry and Nair (2006); Hindess (2007); Jackson et al. (2011); Mignolo (2010); Persaud (2006); and Shapiro (1997).

[6] One article cites ‘Alienated Muslim youths are considered by scholars and policymakers alike to be the primary source of homegrown terrorism.’ (Horn 2007).

[7] On this see Hunter and Heinke (2011), Sageman (2008:148).

[8] This is not to negate positive references to immigrants (Mantri 2011).

[9] See Huysmans and Buonfino (2008) on immigration in this context.

[10] On radicalisation and grievance see McCauley and Moskalenko (2008) (radicalisation is a contested concept).

[11] On spatial imaginaries see Fisher (2014).

[12] On conceptualising terrorism see Schmid (2004).

[13] See also the DHS and FBI, Joint Intelligence Bulletin, ‘Use of Small Arms: Examining Lone Shooters and Small-Unit Tactics,’ 16 August 2011, 3.

[14] See also New America Foundation, ‘Deadly Attacks Since 9/11’, accessed 22 July 2015 via http://securitydata.newamerica.net/extremists/deadly-attacks.html.

[15] See FBI website ‘Domestic terrorism,’ http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/dt/.

[16] For example, a ‘Saudi man…running from the scene’ was under scrutiny in part due to ‘his nationality’ (Eligon and Cooper), and someone was ‘allowed to reenter the U.S. despite having a lapsed visa’ (Carney 2013a).

[17] On radicalisation focused on homegrown as jihadist-related see Gartenstein-Ross and Grossman (2009).

[18] As a counter example they state ‘Americans have been involved in terrorist activities’ (Kaisa, 2013, p. 159).

[19] It is not my intention to speak for anyone self-identifying with the Muslim community, and it must be noted that listening to individuals directly affected by intersections of threat construction and ideas of Muslim community should arguably be the core focus of future analysis.

[20] With thanks to an anonymous reviewer for recommending this speech.

[21] See Soderman (2014).

[22] Adding to the ambiguity of identification was how the FBI referred to it as ‘domestic terrorism’ and ‘homegrown violent extremist’ (Bacon, 2015).

[23] See AP ‘Probe into NYPD Intelligence Operations’ series available from http://www.ap.org/Index/AP-In-The-News/NYPD.

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