Experts worry the controversy surrounding an Islamic center near ground zero in Lower Manhattan is playing right into the hands of radical extremists.
The supercharged debate over the proposed center has attracted the attention of a quiet, underground audience — young Muslims who drift in and out of jihadi chat rooms and frequent radical Islamic sites on the Web. It has become the No. 1 topic of discussion in recent days and proof positive, according to some of the posted messages, that America is indeed at war with Islam.
"This, unfortunately, is playing right into their hands," said Evan F. Kohlmann, who tracks these kinds of websites and chat rooms for Flashpoint Global partners, a New York-based security firm. "Extremists are encouraging all this, with glee.
"It is their sense that by doing this that Americans are going to alienate American Muslims to the point where even relatively moderate Muslims are going to be pushed into joining extremist movements like al-Qaida. They couldn't be happier. . . ."
This year alone, the FBI has intercepted nearly a dozen young American Muslims who allegedly were on their way to terrorist training camps in Pakistan or Somalia. . . .
Intelligence officials tell NPR that what has struck them about the young Muslims they have intercepted this year is that every last one of them has claimed to be inspired by one man in particular: an Internet cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki. He's the American-born radical imam who has been linked to the Fort Hood shootings and the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. . . .
Earlier this summer, Awlaki made clear he was drawing a bead on disaffected American Muslims in particular. He released a 12-minute video that included, among other things, a direct appeal to them.
"To the Muslims in America, I have this to say: How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful co-existence with the nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters?" he began. "How can you have your loyalty to a government that is leading the war against Islam and Muslims?"
It is this last bit, about loyalty to a government leading the war against Islam, that finds some traction in the current debate over the Lower Manhattan mosque, says Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation. He's been tracking Awlaki for years and is concerned that the latest controversy over the Islamic center will end up making Awlaki look prescient.
"Over the past nine to 12 months, Anwar al-Awlaki has tried to promote this notion that the West, and particularly the United States, will turn on its Muslim citizens," Fishman said. "And some of the anti-Islamic tone that has been going around the country in connection with the mosque debate feeds into this notion that people like Anwar al-Awlaki can take advantage of."