Fortunately, no innocent people died in the militant Islamic terror attack Sunday night in Garland, Texas, where an anti-Islamist organization was holding a Mohammed cartoon-drawing contest. The two wannabe Jihadists, armed with assault rifles and body armor, proved no match for an off-duty Texas traffic cop, who shot them dead with his pistol. But had the "homegrown" terrorists been more numerous, better trained, or better armed, the attack might have proved as deadly as that on Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine where 12 people were murdered in January. Mitchell Silber, the former director of counterterrorism research for the New York Police Department and now with K2 Intelligence, a consulting group, called the Garland strike the "first ISIS-inspired terror attack on U.S. soil."
On Tuesday, ISIS embraced the assailants in a statement on its radio station for the Garland attack, calling them "soldiers of the caliphate," and expressing hope that they would be granted "the highest rank of paradise" for their attack. "In another message posted on JustPasteit, an anonymous message board, the group claimed credit for the assault and warned Pamela Geller, the head of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which sponsored the cartoon contest, that it would not rest until she was dead. Boasting that it has "71 trained soldiers in 15 different states," among them Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Michigan, and California, "ready at our word to attack," ISIS vowed to send "all our Lions to achieve her slaughter." The attack in Garland, the message states, was "only the beginning of our efforts to establish a wiliyah (authority or governance) in the heart of our enemy."
While the authenticity of this message has not been independently confirmed, ISIS has frequently used that message board to publish propaganda. And terrorism analysts and law enforcement officials alike take seriously its warning that the Garland attack is only the start of a sustained effort to create havoc and fear through such strikes. According to a report published in April by the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism and other forms of religious, racial, and ethnic discrimination, this year has seen a dramatic spike in such attacks and plots by individuals inspired by ISIS and other militant Islamic groups. Since the beginning of the year, the report notes, 31 people in 11 U.S. states have been linked to "plots, conspiracies and other activity on behalf of foreign terrorist groups motivated by Islamic extremist ideologies." The pace of arrests—unprecedented, notes the ADL report—is a "stark reminder of the varied extremist threats we face in this country," warned Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. While most of the attacks and more serious plots were hatched in other countries—most notably in Canada, France, and Denmark—"the U.S. is far from immune from the global reach of Islamic extremism," he said.
Oren Segal, director of the ADL's Center on Extremism, said that the "alarming" number of mostly young people drawn to jihadist causes demonstrates the "impact foreign terrorist groups have on this generation of homegrown extremists," mainly through terrorist propaganda or communication on social media. ISIS, the report says, is the largest inspirer, accounting for 29 of the 31 individuals. Terrorism may well be a family enterprise, the ADL report suggests. Nine of the 31 have family members who have also been implicated in militant Islamic activity. Just over half are believed to have traveled or planned to travel to join terror groups abroad. Eleven of the 31 were engaged in domestic terrorist plots. Five of those arrested were female, which brings the number of women linked to Islamic militancy since the start of last year to a total of 14. At least seven of those arrested were converts to Islam—a trend first identified in a controversial 2007 report coauthored by Silber and published by the NYPD.
Considerable debate is underway about what is prompting the dramatic rise in such plots and attacks. Silber says that greater decentralization is an important factor. ISIS has issued a standing order to attack Western targets, "as in Nike's old tag line: 'Just do it!' " he said. Unlike al-Qaida, whose chief of external operations had to approve a plot in advance, aspiring jihadis can interpret mere "contact with ISIS and its supporters through Twitter and other social media as an order to mobilize." At least one of the attackers in Texas had a history with terrorist groups and causes: Elton Simpson, who lived in Arizona, was indicted in 2010 for lying to the FBI about having discussed travel to Somalia, which he denied. In 2011, he was found guilty and received three years of probation.
The explosion of social media concerns terrorism and law-enforcement terrorism experts alike. "If the current rate of arrests continues," Segal said, "the number of Islamic-extremist-related terror arrests in 2015 will exceed that of any previous year." The best defense against such radicalization, he and others say, is an informed community.
But educating Americans about the danger increasingly posed by homegrown radicals may not be easy. Some analysts have spent almost as much time denouncing the anti-Islamist group that sponsored the event in Texas as they have the two dead attackers. The Southern Poverty Law Center called Geller, a free-speech advocate who has been highly critical of Islam, an "anti-Muslim propagandist." The ADL, too, has branded Geller's group an organization that spreads "virulent anti-Muslim bigotry and conspiracy theories." Many of the group's critics have suggested that Geller's event provoked the attack by offering $10,000 to the person who drew the best caricature of Mohammed, an offense to many pious Muslims who believe that the Koran forbids depictions of their prophet. While spokesmen for both the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center stress that such provocative action in no way justifies a resort to violence, both have criticized conduct by Geller as offensive to Muslims.
Geller is having none of it. Continuing to portray herself as an advocate for free speech, she denies that she is anti-Muslim, but rather "anti-jihadi" and "anti-Sharia," a reference to Islamic law. She also defends her controversial contest in Garland, saying that it is precisely the kind of event protected by the First Amendment. "Inoffensive speech doesn't require legal protection," she says. "Offensive speech does."