By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives will investigate radicalization in the American-Muslim community, sparking outrage that the probe is a witchhunt akin to the 1950s anti-Communist campaign.
With al Qaeda and its affiliates openly trying to recruit Americans and Muslims inside the United States for attacks, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King called congressional hearings on the subject "absolutely essential".
"I am facing reality, my critics are not," King said on MSNBC. "Al Qaeda is changing its tactics, they realize that it's very difficult to attack from the outside, they're recruiting from within."
King, who will lead a hearing on Thursday, has questioned the cooperation by Muslim Americans with U.S. law enforcement authorities and accused mosques of being a breeding ground for radicalization.
His office did not respond to a request for comment.
"I think there's positive to come from this if people are open to hearing what comes out of the hearings, and not just a soundbite or two," said Juan Carlos Zarate, a Bush administration terrorism adviser who is now at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Critics say the hearings smack of the effort in the 1950s by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, who presided over congressional hearings to expose and ostracize Communists and their sympathizers in the United States.
Muslim and civil rights advocates have condemned King's assertions, countering that Muslims in the United States are being unfairly targeted and pointing to tips they have provided to authorities in the past.
"This hearing does not represent the mainstream view," said imam Shamsi Ali, who organized a protest against the probe in New York.
"I don't see any reason for that perception about Muslims not cooperating," he said, noting a Muslim vendor alerted authorities to the failed Times Square car bombing in 2010.
That incident, coupled with an alleged bomb plot uncovered last month involving a 20-year-old Saudi student studying in Texas, are among several plots that have boosted concerns by U.S. officials that al Qaeda and its affiliates are determined to strike inside the United States any way they can.
"I think the administration realizes they have to take on this issue of domestic violent extremism," Zarate said, noting the administration has been a little slow to do so. "They've got to take it on because it is of increasing concern and more importantly it's becoming a divisive issue."
MUSLIM LEADERS 'PART OF THE SOLUTION'
To that end, the White House on Sunday sent deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough to reassure Muslim-American leaders, telling them they are "not part of the problem, you're part of the solution" in the fight against terrorism.
Some Muslim leaders have said maintaining the trust of their community is essential to foil plots, and the hearings could jeopardize that as well as feed a view from outside the United States that the country is anti-Muslim. The FBI has also been criticized for sending undercover agents into mosques.
"It could be more damaging at a time there is so much concern about bigotry," said Sayyid Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America, referring to contentious efforts to block new mosques from being built and a fierce debate over a Florida minister's threat to burn a Koran.
A key concern is the use of the Internet and YouTube videos to recruit Americans, including by the Somali militant group al Shabaab and by Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Muslim cleric who left the country after the 9/11 attacks and has become a leader of the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.
U.S. officials have said Al-Awlaki communicated with U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S.-born Muslim, who is accused of killing 13 and wounding 32 during a shooting rampage at the U.S. Army base in Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009.
Set to testify before King's panel will be the first Muslim American to serve in the House of Representatives, Democratic Representative Keith Ellison. Republican Representative Frank Wolf, who has seen young Islamists in his district go overseas to fight U.S. forces, will also testify.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Stern in Chicago; Editing by John Whitesides)