Airport plot reminds us terrorism is a local phenomenon

Learning of the "aha" moments in the aftermath of an alleged terror plot at New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport, I had to shake my head.

Many Americans appear genuinely surprised about the prospect of more grand-scale, "unthinkable" terrorism in the United States; that such violence apparently has a Caribbean connection (those charged have links to Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago); and that we should scrutinize more carefully our communities - here and abroad - to help spot terrorists before they unleash havoc.

When are we going to open our eyes wide to the full terrorism threat, and demand more of our news media, educational system, government and others to prepare us for a fuller array of unfortunate but real possibilities?

Al-Qaida, the international terrorist umbrella organization, has not stepped up the pace of its global propaganda - for instance, nearly doubling the annual output of provocative videos - merely to amuse itself.

Rather, the group is intent on radicalizing as many disaffected and impressionable Muslims as possible worldwide. It feeds them a distorted version of their religion that justifies murder and mayhem, and teaches them how to target perceived adversaries for maximum effect. Americans and their allies cannot afford to ignore such behavior or hesitate in countering it.

This issue takes me back to conversations with terrorism specialists in the early 1990s that raised the possibility of miscreants directing commercial aircraft into iconic U.S. structures. Such tactics made sense to me; after all, aviation-related disruption had figured prominently in the modern terrorism era. Beyond the spectacular impact, those kinds of attacks unnerve people on a broad scale and disrupt the economy.

Small wonder, then, that reporting on the supposed perpetrators connected to JFK has focused on their desire to deliver Armageddon to New York City and, in the process, symbolically "re-assassinate" a popular former president, demoralize Americans and bring the country to its knees.

Of course, as we saw clearly after 9/11, this nation is much more resilient than those who seek to undermine it will ever know.

As for the notion that extremists are suddenly operating near U.S. shores, think again. The creeping influence of al-Qaida, its affiliates and mimics has been evident for years. Particularly after the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, the nefarious presence of Islamic extremism steadily spread around the world, including the Caribbean.

Nearly a year ago, for example, the conservative Jamestown Foundation of Washington, D.C., issued a report with an article titled, "The Threat of Religious Radicalism in Guyana." That nation has one of the largest percentages of Muslims - about 10 percent of the overall population - in the Western Hemisphere. I have no reason to believe that most are not peaceful, productive members of society, but quite a few could follow an ill-intentioned piper.

Next, factor in the wider context. As the Jamestown report notes, "Guyana's porous borders and growing problem with violent crime remain a concern, especially as its security and intelligence capabilities are overwhelmed, thus presenting a potential opening for radical Islamists to gain a foothold." Combine Guyanese radicals with others from Trinidad and elsewhere, and the JFK scenario becomes frighteningly plausible.

Moreover, the situation reminds us quite dramatically that terrorism - despite the global reach and ambitions of many groups - really is a local phenomenon. Those who carry out this evil work have local roots and connections in their places of birth, as well as in the countries where they are citizens or long-term residents. Thus, communities bear a growing part of the responsibility to police their own jurisdictions more effectively.

Specifically, communities must expand their efforts to identify emerging players or wannabes in domestic terrorism, disrupt recruitment and pre-empt attacks. Also, a more substantial unity of effort between local and national law-enforcement partners - of the kind shown in the JFK case - is essential.

In the end, I would like to see fewer "aha" moments and greater collective recognition of the long, grueling task that lies ahead, that of confronting and outsmarting a relentless enemy that views no strategy or act as reprehensible.

John C. Bersia, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida. Readers may send him e-mail at johncbersia@msn.com.