DHS Chief: 'Vilifying Muslims' Risks 'Driving Them to a Place' Terror Groups Want

WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the Washington Ideas Forum this week that he's "very concerned" about the "prospect of terrorist-inspired plots because of terrorist organizations' effective use of the Internet, where somebody could self-radicalize at home, in their garage, in their basement, online without us knowing about it."

Johnson said "the prospect of a homegrown violent extremist self-radicalized, you know, one or two individuals, who could commit an act of violence in a public place or a public gathering" is "the thing that keeps me up at night."

"We have, since 9/11, gone a long way in addressing the vulnerabilities that existed then," he noted. "The way I put it is our government has become pretty good at detecting threats to the homeland from overseas, plotting terrorist-directed plots at their earliest stages."

The DHS chief said that requires "a whole of government approach" with a strong "role for the public -- public vigilance, public awareness and, something that I've been very focused on in my time as secretary, building bridges to communities, particularly American-Muslim communities, to encourage them to help us in our efforts."

Johnson was asked about his recent speech to the Islamic Society of North America, in which he said, "It is frustrating to listen to those who foment fear, suspicion and intolerance, who don't know the mistakes of history, and are in the midst of repeating them."

"I had nobody particular in mind," the secretary insisted to the Ideas Forum.

"The other thing I said in that speech was something that I have done from time to time, which is you have an opportunity to look at a room full of American Muslims. And you tend to view the group solely through a security lens, a Homeland Security lens," he continued. "And we spent a lot of time talking to young American Muslims about what they should not become. And I decided in that address, which was to thousands of American Muslims, it's the largest gathering every year of American Muslims, to talk about what you can become in this great country."

Johnson emphasized that "those of us who are students of history can learn from it."

"And those of us who don't know the mistakes of history are going to repeat them. And I do worry about a lot of the rhetoric, which has the effect of vilifying -- vilifying American Muslim communities here, which drives them in the exact opposite direction of where we want them to go in this country," he said. "I'm not referring to anything presidential candidates say. But I have before called it out when I hear it."

Johnson was asked about the TIME magainze op-ed earlier this month of Matt Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who wrote that "this year, ISIS isn’t simply a passive observer of American politics," but is rooting for Donald Trump.

"I think we should be concerned about rhetoric that have the effect of isolating the American Muslim communities here, vilifying Muslims and driving them to a place that our enemies would like them to be to make them more susceptible to the recruitment effort," Johnson said.

Otherwise, the DHS chief said, "I'm not going to comment on what the candidates say specifically because I'm not supposed to."

Johnson acknowledged "sometimes that gets hard."

"I will say that when we hear rhetoric that is inflammatory, that strikes fear, that vilifies American Muslim communities, that is counter to our to our homeland security, national security efforts in the environment we're in, where we have to be concerned about homegrown violent extremists, that some of whom may find the appeals of the Islamic State to be something that they are drawn to," he added. "And so when we vilify American Muslims and we say you're different from all the rest of us, that's exactly what terrorist organizations want them to hear."