WASHINGTON — A few days ago, Canadian police arrested two Muslim men for plotting an attack on a passenger train. The crucial player in the story was an imam in Toronto. The imam wasn’t a conspirator. He was an informant. According to a local attorney, the imam had noticed one of the men trying "to approach young Muslims" with extremist propaganda. Through the attorney, the imam alerted the authorities. They investigated the extremist and foiled the plot.
This happens a lot. After all, the best place to pick up early warning signs of Islamic terror attacks is in Muslim communities. That’s where jihadists do their recruiting. And Muslim parents don’t want their kids to be lured into jihadist violence, any more than you’d want your kids ensnared by a cult or gang. The people who are initially threatened by terrorists, and who are best positioned to catch them before they strike, are Muslims. We need their help. And we’re getting it.
The New America Foundation, in conjunction with Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Policy, keeps a running tally of post-9/11 cases in which Muslims have tipped off the government to terror plots. So does the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The MPAC list includes more than 20 cases. The NAF list has more than 40. Look through the cases, and you’ll see every kind of story. The wife who catches her husband shopping for military gear. The father who tells the Department of Homeland Security that his son is becoming dangerously radical. The mosque leaders who report a worshipper’s threatening behavior to the FBI.
The informers take risks. "I cannot give you my name because I fear for my life," one writes. But they come forward, again and again and again and again. They even contact the FBI when the suspicious character is its own planted impostor.
And these are just the known cases. There are others you’ll never hear about, because the source or the government wants them kept secret, or because, in the end, no arrest was necessary.
The Canadian case offers a rare peek into this world, since officials involved in that arrest authorized Muslim leaders to talk to the press about their role. The director of religious affairs for the Islamic Foundation of Toronto says there’s "informed surveillance" in the community. The lawyer for the tipster imam has often helped local Muslims contact the authorities.
In Ottawa, another imam says he’d do the same thing: "It is the religious duty of a Muslim to report anything that might be dangerous... It’s mentioned in the Qur’an."
Canada has managed its relations with Muslims better than the United States has. For years after 9/11, the FBI sent informants into mosques disguised as converts or worshippers. Unlike the Canadians, U.S. law enforcement agencies used community-outreach operations to directly collect intelligence. They deceived and angered community leaders. Imams don’t like spies and impostors in their mosques any more than you’d like spies and impostors in your church. But relations seem to be improving. The FBI has cleaned up its training materials, which used to stereotype Muslims. It has encouraged Muslims to join the bureau. At a ceremony earlier this month, FBI Director Robert Mueller issued community leadership awards to organizations that divert young Muslims from radicalization and teach government agencies about Muslim life and homegrown terrorism.
Detection and intervention work best when they originate not from external surveillance, but from people close to the troubled individuals. That’s especially true of self-radicalizers such as the Boston bombers, who appear to have taken their inspiration and instructions from the Internet. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was blessed with a strict, level-headed uncle who confronted the young man about his slide into extremism. Tsarnaev was also reined in by elders at his mosque who demanded that he cease his harsh and strident outbursts. But he was cursed with weak parents who blinded themselves to his derangement, embraced his conspiracy theories, and ignored warnings about his radicalization, even from the FBI.
If you’re close to such a person, you have to intervene. You might be able to steer him away from danger just by talking to him. Or you might have to bring in law enforcement. These are judgment calls. We don’t want a surveillance society, but we do want a society in which people look out for one another.
In the Canadian case, a Toronto man approached a local Muslim leader a few years ago. The man worried that his son, like Tsarnaev, was becoming intolerant and hostile in his faith. The Muslim leader asked to speak to the son, but the father never followed up. The son went on to become one of the Toronto plotters. He was stopped only when the imam, a different man, alerted the government.
If you’re not a Muslim, your job is to make it easier for people in that community to do their part. Don’t go around spouting that Muslims are terrorists, or that blacks are criminals, or that gays are promiscuous. Stop thinking of these communities as the problem, and start thinking of them as the solution. Do you think black parents like losing their kids to drug dealers? Do you think gays are happy about all the young men slain by HIV? Do you think Muslims want their sons brainwashed and turned into killers?
For every jihadist who wants war, there’s an imam who wants peace. For every Tamerlan Tsarnaev, there’s a Ruslan Tsarni. These good people can stop terrorism. You need their help. And they need yours.
William Saletan (@saletan) covers science, technology and politics for Slate.