WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials say they are taking steps to monitor and combat the possible spread of Islamic extremism and support for a violent holy war against the West among a "Pepsi jihad" generation of young Muslims in the United States.
At a hearing last week, officials from the CIA, FBI and the Department of Homeland Security told lawmakers that the United States had less of a problem with potential "homegrown" Islamic terrorists than Europe did, because of its history as a nation of immigrants.
"I think the American historical experience ... with bringing in various groups and giving them, frankly, more opportunity than they might have enjoyed elsewhere, has helped us immeasurably in this regard," CIA Director Michael Hayden told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last Thursday.
But despite that, Phillip Mudd from the FBI's National Security Branch, added that the ideology of extremist Islam -- and its attendant support for violent jihad against the West in general and the United States in particular -- was spreading even here.
"The commonality we have (with Europe) is people who are using the Internet or talking among friends who are part of what I would characterize as a Pepsi jihad ... It's become popular among youth, and we have this phenomenon in the United States."
Mudd said that the growth of Islamic extremism was a long-term problem for the United States, because of the way radical ideas could spread on the Internet.
"So that you have a kid in Georgia, a kid in California, a kid in Kansas, he may see the same images from Iraq, from Palestine, from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, that someone in Indonesia or Saudi Arabia sees, and he may be infected the same way with an ideology that says the use of violence against innocents is okay.
"Because of the magnitude of the problem," he concluded, "we're going to be at this for a long time."
Charlie Allen, the head of intelligence for the Department of Homeland Security, said the department had reorganized its intelligence analysts late last year and "created a branch focused exclusively on radicalization in the homeland (which) is studying the dynamics of individual and organizational radicalization."
He said the United States did not have "the alienation and the de facto segregation that we see in some places in Europe, but that there were nonetheless "pockets of extremism" in the country.
He said the branch would create state-by-state and regional assessments this year "of the means and mechanism through which radicalization manifests throughout the United States."
He added that another factor present in many of the successful so-called "homegrown" jihadi attacks in Europe -- the Madrid and London transit bombings being the classic example -- was a leader, funneling would-be jihadis to training facilities.
"Frequently, we see a charismatic leader ... who selects people for further education, perhaps overseas, particularly into South Asia."
The question of the role played by al-Qaida's central command in Pakistan in providing support and direction for so-called homegrown plots in Europe has vexed analysts since the Madrid rail bombings in March 2004.
"While the incidents might be homegrown and the recruitment base, if you will, can often be second-generation immigrants who have a Muslim background, we've always found some kind of linkage back to" al-Qaida central, said Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte.
Negroponte's words echo the conclusions of independent analysts, some of whom who have long argues that the threat of homegrown violent extremism is over-stated.
"It's ridiculous to think that the U.S. or any other military would do its training over the Internet," said analyst and author Peter Bergen, arguing al-Qaida was just as professional in its approach. "Radicalization is one thing, having operational cells with the capacity to launch attacks is something else entirely.
"That basically means people who have been through one of the (terrorist training) camps."
Bergen said that the homegrown plots uncovered in the United States so far appeared to lack that thread back to al-Qaida central, which was one reason why he said they had been "pretty pathetic ... not much of a threat."
The exception, he said, was the Islamic extremist cell which had sprung up in southern California jails last year. As hardened criminals, the individuals involved in that group, he said "had some hands-on experience."
Moreover, Mudd said that al-Qaida was also experiencing difficulties in trying to get people from their camps to the United States because of the success of watch-listing and other intelligence and security measures.
Despite the existence of a safe haven on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the group faced a "difficult operational environment to send people to the (U.S.) homeland, which is what I'm worried about," Mudd said.
As a result, Bergen said, al-Qaida had "started thinking about other ways to attack the United States -- from the outside," citing the foiled plot to hijack airliners from London and crash them into U.S. cities.
Bergen nonetheless said it made sense for officials to start looking at the radicalization issue, "just from a prophylactic point of view."
In prepared testimony, Allen also noted that the department had a unit dedicated to demographic analysis of immigrant communities in the United States, which might, wittingly or not, harbor networks of criminals or human smugglers which could be exploited by terrorists.
The unit will fuse intelligence and law enforcement reporting to "assess patterns in which migrant communities -- and likely associated extremists -- may or could travel to and establish themselves within the homeland."
The unite aims to "provide strategic warning of mass migration to the United States and likely exploitation by illicit actors."
One expert's view of the situation suggests that might be a useful approach.
Former senior Indian intelligence official B. Raman, pointed out that "most of the radicalized Pakistanis in the U.K. come essentially from three communities -- the Punjabis, the Mirpuris, (Punjabi-speaking Kashmiris from Pakistan-Administered Kashmir) and Pashtuns."
Mirpuris make up a majority -- quite large by some counts -- of Britain's Pakistani community, but "there has been very little migration of the Mirpuri community to the United States," according to Raman. Kashmiris who have migrated here tend to be Hindus, from the Indian-ruled part of the province "who were driven out by the jihadis."