Faisal Shahzad does not look like a scary man. Perhaps it’s the Ryan Seacrest-esque picture of him that the media loves to flash. Described by his former teachers as “unremarkable,” Faisal Shahzad is not the bogeyman our nation expects to topple skyscrapers. Yet still, on May 1 Shahzad, an American citizen, attempted to detonate a car bomb in Time Square. Today, the one-time “what-if” scenario of homegrown terrorists is reality — from Colorado to New York, the enemy is here.

What is most upsetting is just how “unremarkable” they really are. Shahzad struggled his way through college, graduating with a 2.78 GPA. Bryant Vinas, another made-in-America extremist, was discharged from the army, supposedly because of his asthma. Our country’s greatest fear is not the street corner radical who preaches war against America; instead, we should fear the quiet man in the restaurant or the apartment tenant next-door. These unremarkable John Does are the greatest threat to our country and have proven they can plan an operational attack. It is now the job of policymakers to understand who these made-in-America jihadis are and how we can fight them.

Organizations like al Qaeda prey on the vulnerable. Terror groups target those without a well-defined sense of who they are. They feed off the malleable — those without any determined sense of identity who can be molded to fit the group. Such was the case with Bryant Vinas, who was charged with conspiracy to murder American nationals as well as providing material support to al Qaeda. Vinas became active in the Catholic Church before leaving to join the army. When he was discharged he traveled to Cuba to become a boxer. Once this failed, he traveled home and converted to Islam. From there, he was an easy target. Vinas traveled the globe to define himself. He eventually found his definition in al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda promised they would bring terror to our shores — they delivered. Colleen LaRose (better known as “Jihad Jane”) showed us that these made-in-America jihadis don’t even have to be Muslim. Faisal Shahzad’s out-of-the-blue car bomb attempt showed just how “Al Qaeda is adapting its methods in ways that oftentimes make it difficult to detect,” says Leon Panetta, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. With top counterterrorism officials warning us that the enemy is at the gates, it’s becoming hard to believe that another 9/11 is not around the corner.

But men like Maajid Nawaz show us how the threat of violent extremism can be fought at home. A former member of Hib ut-Tahrir, Nawaz was de-radicalized during his time in an Egyptian prison. Nawaz, director of the Quilliam Foundation, now travels the world to counter the “narrative” that al Qaeda uses to instigate violence within vulnerable individuals. The only way to proactively attack extremism at home is to employ programs like Nawaz’s; we must counter the radical narrative that al Qaeda has used to infiltrate our cities. Ultimately, the vulnerable individuals like Shahzad and Vinas will pledge allegiance to whatever group yells the loudest. Steps must be taken now to ensure that for every boisterous radical looking to recruit members, a countermovement exists to create dissent.

The University of Michigan, long held as one of the nation’s most activist universities, must become a beacon for such dissent. From the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War, the University has a history of confronting societal wrongs with the full force of its academic prowess. So, too, must we confront the minority cells that seek to contort Islam. It must become a priority of student groups like the Muslim Student Association, Islamic Education Society and Islamic Relations Council to educate students about the true teachings of Islam. Legitimate student organizations must become more vocal as misinformed fringe organizations continue to recruit in the United States.

Though quaint towns like Medford, New York feared terror after 9/11, the real threats always seemed to happen far from home. Bryant Vinas was a wakeup call for Medford. So, too, was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a stark reminder to the state of Michigan: terror can happen anyplace at anytime — even at home.

Tyler Jones can be reached at tylerlj@umich.edu.

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