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April 04, 2011

Speech before the University of the District of Columbia's Institute for Public Safety and Justice

(WASHINGTON) - Today, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Ranking Member of the Committee on Homeland Security, delivered the following prepared remarks before the University of the District of Columbia's Institute for Public Safety and Justice:

Radicalization, recruitment, and violent extremism are issues that my colleagues and I in Congress have dealt with for several years. The ideology of what actually drives an individual—of any race or ethnicity—to commit violent acts are very complex issues that both the Legislative and Executive Branches are still grappling to comprehend. I am sure many of you followed the Committee on Homeland Security's recent hearing on Radicalization and the American Muslim Community. I wholeheartedly disagreed with the premise of the hearing and requested Chairman King to broaden the hearing's scope.

You see, as a Member of Congress, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And from my understanding, the First Amendment of the Constitution protects the freedom of religion and freedom of speech. This hearing overstepped those bounds and made law abiding Americans unnecessarily uncomfortable. In addition to the hearing overstepping the bounds of the Constitution, an inquisition into the Muslim community ignored the facts that many public policy and law institutes previously reiterated. Violent extremism knows no race, religion, or ethnicity.

As Ranking Member and former Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, I take threats to our nation's safety very seriously. I firmly believe that an inquiry into extreme ideology and violent action should be a broad-based examination. I agree that homegrown terrorism and the jihadist threat deserve continuing attention; however, narrowly focusing our attention on a particular religious or ethnic group lacks clarity and common sense. Today's terrorists do not share a particular ethnic, educational or socioeconomic background.

Recently, when state law enforcement agencies were asked to identify terror groups in their states, Muslim extremist groups ranked 11th on a list of 18. Further, according to a study conducted by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, only 40 out of the 86 terrorist cases examined from 1999 to 2009 had links to al Qaeda. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 2010, the number of active hate groups in the United States topped 1,000 for the first time and the anti-government movement expanded dramatically for the second straight year. This study indicated that several factors—including resentment over the changing racial demographics of the country, frustration over the lagging economy, and the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories—contributed to the rise in the anti government movement. Law enforcement agencies identified neo-Nazis, environmental extremists and anti-tax groups as more prevalent than Muslim terrorist organizations.

The sophisticated explosive device found along a parade route in Washington on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an act of domestic terrorism clearly motivated by racist ideology, should prove that other groups are just as willing and able to carry out horrific attacks on Americans. In addition, terrorist groups are not our only threat. According to the Department of Homeland Security, lone wolves and small terrorist cells may be the single most dangerous threat we face. Attacks are just as likely to come from lone-wolf extremists - like James Wenneker von Brunn, the Holocaust Memorial Museum shooter, or Jared Lee Loughner, who is charged with the tragedy in Tucson, Ariz. - as they are from Muslim extremist groups. And what do von Brunn and Loughner have in common with Muslim extremists like Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, and Colleen LaRose, also known as Jihad Jane? All allegedly espoused radical views on the Internet through extremist websites, chat rooms and popular websites.

This starkly illustrates what should be common sense: The most effective means of identifying terrorists is through their behavior - not ethnicity, race or religion. While knowing these facts puts us at an advantage, just being aware is not enough. The nation's law enforcement resources are already stretched thin. We must ensure that we are using these resources to yield the best results. By focusing on one religious group, we send the inaccurate message that there is only one problem. Sending this inaccurate message also undermines the efforts of communication and collaboration that federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies have tirelessly tried to build since 9/11.

At the Committee's hearing last month, Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca testified that it is counterproductive to building trust when individuals or groups claim that Islam supports terrorism. Recent public policy group reports - such as the Brennan Center - indicated that devoting all of our assets to investigate only the Muslim community leaves a gaping hole in our security and can potentially increase the level of government mistrust within the Muslim community.

Furthermore, we must continue to realize that what we do on Capitol Hill not only has effects domestically, but also internationally. In scores of hearings and briefings, including last month's hearing, I have been told that one of al Qaeda's main recruiting tools is the notion that the powers of the West are aligned against the people of the Middle East. Radicals falsely accuse the United States of engaging in a modern-day crusade against Islam, which fuels al Qaeda and its affiliates.

This Anti-Muslim rhetoric can also potentially be harmful to U.S. military and diplomatic objectives and could place service members and citizens living and traveling abroad at risk. We must maximize our efforts to counter violent extremism, radicalization and recruitment in the United States, and not succumb to xenophobia and ethnic stereotyping. If we are going to move forward and protect this nation, we must recognize trends in terrorist activity. We cannot cripple ourselves by ignoring the fact that terrorist activity knows no race, ethnicity or religion.

Doing so would be a grave disservice to our nation - and would disrespect those who have sacrificed their lives as a result of terrorist activity. Additionally, as we study radicalization we must not forget the Constitution. Under the First Amendment, an individual's thought and speech are protected, including radical and extremist thought and speech. Under the Fourth Amendment and subsequent jurisprudence, Americans also enjoy significant privacy rights. It is the intersection of these protections with intelligence and law enforcement efforts to detect, deter, and prevent terrorist attacks that serves as the foundation for ongoing, robust, public debate as to how both goals—protection of both rights and terrorism prevention—can be achieved.

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Media Contact: Adam Comis at (202) 225-9978