Rep. Peter T. King’s series of hearings on the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorists in 2011 had Democratic lawmakers and Muslim-American groups screaming “witch hunt” and “Islamophobia,” but the rising body count in attacks by radicalized Muslims who turn on their own countrymen has all but silenced the critics as a House committee takes up the issue again Wednesday.
“Quite honestly, I’ve been vindicated,” Mr. King said Tuesday. “Everything that I said at those hearings has been proven right.”
Mr. King made homegrown terrorism among Muslims a special focus when he took over as chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security in 2011 as part of the GOP’s new majority in the House. His hearings specifically questioned whether Muslim-Americans were doing enough to combat radicalization, sparking a feverish debate over whether he was targeting Muslims in particular.
A coalition of 51 civil activists groups, including civil liberties and Muslim-American organizations, petitioned the committee to cancel the hearings, which were also opposed by most of the committee’s Democratic members.
But in the years since, bloodshed from the Boston Marathon bombing to the approximately 150 Americans who have tired to join the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have boosted Mr. King’s case that the phenomena of homegrown jihadis is serious.
“I think people realize now that this is a real threat. It is not something we make up,” Mr. King told The Washington Times in an interview in his congressional office. “And while the overwhelming majority of Muslims are good people, the fact is that there are a significant number in this country that do support terrorism, and not enough of the leaders cooperate with law enforcement.”
Mr. King has since reached his term limit as committee chairman and turned his gavel over to Rep. Michael T. McCaul, a Texas Republican who called Wednesday’s hearing “Countering Violent Islamist Extremism: The Urgent Threat of Foreign Fighters and Homegrown Terror.”
“We’ve already seen returning fighters conduct attacks in places like Paris and Belgium, and I want to make sure we are doing everything possible to keep that terror from reaching our shores,” Mr. McCaul said. “This hearing will help my committee continue its investigation into this issue and into the threat from homegrown violent extremism.”
His committee staff compiled from public sources a list of 18 U.S. citizens or residents who joined or attempted to join the Islamic State group, and 18 others who tried to or succeeded in joining other violent Islamic groups. The list includes three Chicago teens and three Denver teens who were radicalized and recruited online and were arrested after attempting to travel to Syria to join Islamic State fighters. It also includes Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, a Californian who died in August while fighting with the Islamic State group near Aleppo, according to The Associated Press.
Intelligence agencies will tell the committee that as many as 150 Americans have tried, and some have succeeded, in reaching the Syrian war zone, according to prepared testimony.
Some of the American jihadis were arrested en route, some died in the area, and a small number are still fighting with the extremists.
The committee did not report any objections to holding the hearings.
“To date Chairman McCaul’s approach has been much more balanced than Rep. King’s stigmatizing of the entire American Muslim community,” said Corey Saylor, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, which led opposition to the King hearings.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and ranking member on the committee, said the subject matter was different from the 2011 hearings because it deals with Americans traveling overseas to join the Islamic State, which is known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL.
Mr. Thompson was an outspoken detractor of Mr. King’s hearings on homegrown threats.
“The prevalence of both organized terrorist groups and radicalized individuals increases the challenges for governance and stability here at home and throughout the international community,” Mr. Thompson said. “As the terrorist threat evolves, Congress must ensure that the programs to prevent terrorist travel have proper oversight and the necessary information sharing agreements with our international partners are in place.”
Mr. King insisted the subject matter was identical. He said his critics were looking for differences between his hearings and Mr. McCaul’s to avoid admitting events had proved them wrong.
“The fact that a person would leave here and go overseas to fight with ISIS means that these were radical Muslims living in this country. The fact that you would have that significant a number willing to leave the U.S. to go to Syria to fight shows that these were people living amongst us who wanted to fight on behalf of radical Islam,” he said. “So that proves the point that I was making then. It just proves it in a different way.”
The issue of radicalized American Muslims may no longer be taboo on Capitol Hill, but how to address the threat brewing inside Islam continues to vex the White House, which refuses to identify the terrorist movement as Islamic.
In his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last week, President Obama equated modern terrorist atrocities to acts by Christians in the past.
“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” he said, adding that “slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”