Theme: Radicalisation into violence affects some small
segments of the American Muslim population and recent events show
that a threat from homegrown terrorism of jihadist inspiration does exist in the US.
Summary: The wave of arrests and thwarted plots recently seen
in the US has severely undermined the long-held assumption that
American Muslims, unlike their European counterparts, are virtually
immune to radicalisation. In reality, as argued in this ARI, evidence
also existed before the autumn of 2009, highlighting how
radicalisation affected some small segments of the American Muslim
population exactly like it affects some fringe pockets of the Muslim
population of each European country. After putting forth this
argument, this paper analyses the five concurring reasons
traditionally used to explain the divergence between the levels of
radicalisation in Europe and the US: better economic conditions, lack
of urban ghettoes, lower presence of recruiting networks, different
demographics and a more inclusive sense of citizenship. While all
these characteristics still hold true, they no longer represent a
guarantee, as other factors such as perception of discrimination and
frustration at US foreign policies could lead to radicalisation.
Finally, the paper looks at the post-9/11 evolution of the homegrown
terrorist threat to the US homeland and examines possible future
Analysis: The American authorities and public have been
shocked by the tragic events of 5 November 2009, when Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly opened fire against fellow soldiers
inside the Fort Hood military base, killing 13 people and wounding 30
others. The shooting triggered a heated debate over Major Hasan’s
motives. Earlier analyses focused on personal and psychological
factors, such as his alleged distress towards his forthcoming
deployment to Iraq and the abuses he had reportedly suffered from
other soldiers. As the days went by, more and more evidence surfaced
pointing to Major Hasan’s radical Islamist sympathies.
Colleagues and acquaintances described many instances in which the
Virginia-born Army psychiatrist had expressed extremely negative
feelings towards the US and praised acts of violence against it.
Reports also indicated that the FBI had investigated Major Hasan’s
e-mail conversations with Anwar al Awlaqi, a US-born Yemeni-based
cleric known for his fiery rhetoric and links to two of the 9/11 hijackers.
Authorities have so far been reluctant to officially label the Fort
Hood shooting an act of terrorism and, at the time of writing, various investigations are exploring all angles of this tragic event.
While it might be premature, if ever possible, to identify the full
spectrum of motives behind Major Hasan’s actions, it is fair to
say that radical Islamist ideology had an influence on his worldview.
In any case, the Fort Hood shooting comes at the tail end of two
months that have challenged many of the assumptions on terrorism and
radicalisation in the US that have shaped the debate for more than a
decade. Since September 2009, in fact, a staggering series of arrests has taken place on US soil:
On 20 September, FBI agents arrested two Afghan immigrants in Colorado
and one in New York. According to the authorities, one of the men, Najibullah Zazi, had trained in an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan and, once back in
the US, had purchased large quantities of chemical substances in
various beauty supply stores. Zazi allegedly intended to mix the
substances and detonate them against targets throughout the New York
metropolitan area. The authorities described Zazi’s plot as
the most serious threat against the US homeland uncovered since 9/11.
24 September, a 19-year-old Jordanian immigrant was arrested for
having parked what he believed to be a car bomb in the car park of a
60-story skyscraper in downtown Dallas, Texas. Before driving the car to the site, Hosam Hamer Husein Smadi had made a video which he believed would have been sent to Osama bin Laden.
On the same day but in an unrelated plot, Michael C. Finton, a
29-year-old American-born convert to Islam, parked a car that he
also believed laden with explosives outside a federal courthouse in
Springfield, Illinois. In both the Finton and the Smadi cases, federal agents had
approached the two men after unearthing information about their
desire to commit acts of violence, led them to believe they were
affiliated to al-Qaeda and supplied them with explosives that the men wrongly believed to be active.
On 21 October, the authorities indicted two Boston-area natives, Tarek
Mehanna and Ahmad Abousamra, with various conspiracy charges. According to the indictment, the men, who had been extremely active in online jihadist forums, had been trying to join various
al-Qaeda affiliates since 2001 and had also planned attacks inside
the US (reportedly targeting a local shopping mall and various US government officials).
On 27 October, the authorities arrested two long-time Chicago residents
of Pakistani descent and charged them with conspiracy to provide
material support and/or to commit terrorist acts against overseas
targets. According to the charges the two men had been in close contact with
senior leaders of Pakistani jihadist groups Lashkar e Taiba and Harakat ul Jihad Islami and one of them, Daood Gilani,
had travelled to Denmark to conduct surveillance of the facilities of the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten for a possible attack
against it. On 7 December the authorities charged Gilani also with conducting surveillance of various targets in Mumbai in
the two years preceding the deadly November 2008 attack on the Indian city. According to the indictment, upon accepting the task
Gilani changed his name to David Headley and travelled at least five
times to Mumbai, confident that his new name and American passport
would not attract the attention of the Indian authorities. After
each trip he travelled to Pakistan, where he shared the pictures,
videotapes and notes he had taken with senior Lashkar e Taiba operatives.
On 28 October, the federal authorities in Detroit proceeded to arrest
11 members of Ummah, a group of mostly African-American
converts to Islam, on charges that ranged from mail
fraud to illegal possession and sale of firearms. Most suspects were
arrested without opposing resistance, but Luqman Ameen Abdullah
(alias Christopher Thomas), the group’s leader, fired at
agents and was subsequently killed. While the case cannot be
considered a full-fledged terrorism investigation, it nevertheless
involves a US-based radical Islamist network. Ummah, in fact,
is a group that, according to authorities, ‘seeks
to establish a separate Sharia-law governed state within the United
States’ and whose members have been involved in violent acts
in the past.
Finally, in early December, the Pakistani authorities arrested five American
Muslims in the city of Sargodha. The five, all US citizens in their
late teens and early 20s who had gone missing from their northern
Virginia homes a few days earlier, had reportedly been in touch via
the Internet with senior militants of various al-Qaeda-affiliated
organisations and allegedly intended to train with local outfits to
fight against US forces.
All these plots are very diverse in their origin, degree of sophistication and
characteristics of the individuals involved. Yet they all contribute
to paint the picture of the complex and rapidly changing reality of
terrorism of Islamist inspiration in the US. Moreover, they smash or,
at least, severely undermine an assumption that has been widely held
by policymakers and analysts over the last 15 years. The common
wisdom, in fact, has traditionally been that American Muslims, unlike
their European counterparts, were virtually immune to radicalisation.
Europeans, argued this narrative, have been unable to integrate their
immigrant Muslim population and radicalisation is the inevitable
by-product of the discrimination and socio-economic disparity
suffered by European Muslims. America, on the other hand, is more
open to its immigrants and has been able to integrate its Muslims, making them impervious to radicalisation.
The wave of arrests of the last months of 2009 has contributed to shedding
light on a reality that is significantly more nuanced, showing that
radicalisation affects some small segments of the American Muslim
population exactly like it affects some fringe pockets of the Muslim
population of each European country. Evidence supporting this view
has been available for a long time, as the cases of American Muslims
joining radical Islamist groups date back to the 1970s. According to data collected by the NYU Center on Law and Security, for example, more than 500 individuals have been convicted by the
American authorities for terrorism-related charges since 9/11. Most of them are US citizens or long-time US residents who underwent radicalisation inside the US. While making a numerically accurate
comparison is not easy, it is fair to say that the number of American
Muslims involved in violent activities is either equal or only
slightly lower than that of any European country with a comparable Muslim population.
Yet, despite this evidence, for a long time the American authorities and
commentators seemed unable to acknowledge the existence of
radicalisation among small segments of the American Muslim
population. In the FBI’s parlance, for example, until 2005, the
term ‘homegrown terrorism’ was still reserved for
domestic organisations such as anti-government militias, white
supremacists and eco-terrorist groups such as the Earth Liberation
Front. Such groups were termed ‘homegrown’ to distinguish
them from jihadist terrorist networks, even though some of the latter
possessed some of the very same characteristics (membership born and
raised in the US and a focus on US targets). Since the cause of the jihadists was perceived to be foreign, the US government did
not label them as ‘homegrown’, despite the typically homegrown characteristics of many of them.
The July 2005 attacks in London led the US authorities to look at the
homegrown issue with renewed attention. As an increasing number of
cells that clearly possessed homegrown characteristics were uncovered
throughout the country, the authorities began to re-assess the
definition of homegrown. By 2006 top FBI and DHS officials began to
openly speak of homegrown terrorism of jihadist inspiration
inside the US, even describing it as a threat ‘as dangerous as
groups like al-Qaeda, if not more so’. As a consequence of this reassessment, the US authorities began to ask themselves if the emergence of relatively large numbers of
radicalised second-generation Muslims that had been observed in
Europe could also take place in the US. This fear led to an increased
attention on the dynamics and causes of radicalisation among Muslims in both Europe and North America.
Comparing Radicalisation in Europe and America
Five concurring reasons have traditionally been used to explain the
divergence between the levels of radicalisation in Europe and the US.
The first one is related to the significantly better economic
conditions of American Muslims. While European Muslims generally
languish at the bottom of most rankings that measure economic
integration, American Muslims fare significantly better, and the
average American Muslim household’s income is equal to, if not
higher, than the average American’s. As the many cases of militants who came from privileged backgrounds have proved, economic integration is not always an antidote to
radicalisation, but it is undeniable that radical ideas find a
fertile environment among unemployed and disenfranchised youth. A
direct consequence of economic integration is the lack of Muslim
ghettoes in the US. Areas of large European cities with a high
concentration of poor Muslim immigrants have been ideological
sanctuaries where radicals could freely spread their message and
where radical Islam has become a sort of counterculture. The American
Muslim community’s economic conditions have prevented the formation of such enclaves in the US.
Geographic dispersion, immigration patterns and tougher immigration
policies have also prevented the formation of extensive recruiting
and propaganda networks as those that have sprung up in Europe. While
places such as Brooklyn’s al-Farooq mosque or Tucson’s
Islamic Center saw extensive jihadist activities in the 1990s, they
pale in comparison to recruiting headquarters such as London’s
Finsbury Park, Hamburg’s al-Quds mosque or Milan’s
Islamic Cultural Institute. Moreover, the fact that large segments of
the American Muslim population belong to ethnicities that have
traditionally espoused moderate interpretations of Islam has been
cited as another reason for America’s lower levels of radicalism. In fact, Muslims from the Iranian and Indian American
communities, which account for vast segments of America’s
Muslim population, have traditionally embraced moderate forms of
Islam and have been, to varying degrees, almost impervious to radicalisation.
Finally, commentators have often pointed out that America is a
country built on immigration, traditionally accepting immigrants of
all races and religions as citizens. European countries, on the other
hand, have been unable to develop a sense of citizenship not linked
to century-long identifying factors such as ethnicity and religious
affiliation. In a nutshell, it is easy to become American, while it
is very difficult for immigrants, particularly if they are not white
and Christian, to be accepted as full-fledged Germans, Frenchmen or
Spaniards. This sense of exclusion is traditionally cited as one of
the factors driving some European Muslims to radicalisation, while
the more inclusive nature of American society would prevent American Muslims from undergoing the same process.
While all these characteristics still hold true, they no longer
represent a guarantee. Factors such as perception of discrimination
and frustration at US foreign policies could lead to radicalisation,
irrespective of favourable economic conditions. Experts and community
leaders have repeatedly warned about the growing alienation
of American Muslims, particularly among those of the second
generation. These frustrations could produce what Steven Simon refers
to as ‘a rejectionist generation’, which could embrace
radical interpretations of Islam. The same conclusion has been reached by a widely publicised report released by the New York Police Department Intelligence
Division in 2007. ‘Despite the economic opportunities in the
United States’, reads the report, ‘the powerful
gravitational pull of individuals’ religious roots and identity
sometimes supersedes the assimilating nature of American society
which includes pursuit of a professional career, financial stability
and material comforts’.
The terrorist threat to the US homeland has evolved significantly over the last eight years. Until mid-2003 virtually all of the
terrorist conspiracies intended to strike against American soil had been planned, albeit with varying degrees of involvement, by Khalid
Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and al-Qaeda’s central leadership. The arrest of KSM and many of his top lieutenants, al-Qaeda’s loss
of the Afghan sanctuary and the significant improvement in homeland security measures triggered a shift that began to materialise in late
2003. With the exception of the 2006 Transatlantic Plot, a plot hatched by UK-based militants apparently directed by al-Qaeda members
in Pakistan to detonate liquid explosives on board several US-bound flights, every single attack against the American homeland thwarted
by US authorities since then appears to have been conceived by
individuals acting independently from al-Qaeda’s leadership.
The individuals involved in these plots have been an odd mix of
low-ranking al-Qaeda affiliates and jihad enthusiasts who had never had any contact with al-Qaeda or other established organisations. And
most of them have been characterised by the absolute operational independence of the planners. The result of this shift from
leader-led to homegrown has been a remarkable decrease in the sophistication of the operations planned, as most of the plotters
were amateurish if not embarrassingly clumsy, lacking the basic tradecraft and capabilities to operate undetected or mount any sort of sophisticated attack.
While this was true until a few months ago, there are indications that
things are changing. Recent investigations have shown that a small yet increasing number of American Muslims have been travelling to
Pakistan to acquire operational skills and establish contacts with various jihadist outfits. One well known case is that of Bryant Neal
Vinas, a 26 year-old Long Island native who was captured in Pakistan
and brought back to the US in November 2008. Vinas, who had allegedly participated in a rocket attack against a US military base in Afghanistan, decided to cooperate with American
interrogators and has since provided ‘an intelligence gold
mine’. Thanks to Vinas’ information the authorities have been able to
identify and arrest several American and European militants who had also trained with al-Qaeda and affiliated groups in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region.
While this ‘Pakistan connection’ is not new to the European
authorities, it is a disturbing new development for their American counterparts. To be sure, Americans had trained with various
Afghanistan/Pakistan-based jihadist outfits before and after 9/11. In 2003, for example, the US authorities dismantled the so-called
‘paintball jihad’ network in northern Virginia. The network was formed by a dozen young men from the Washington suburbs who had travelled to Pakistan immediately after 9/11, where
they trained with Lashkar-e-Taiba. But what seemed to be isolated cases are increasingly becoming the norm. Moreover, in the
case of Vinas and at least two of the cases from the fall of 2009 (the Najibullah Zazi/New York plot and the Chicago/Denmark plot)
authorities have noticed with apprehension that American militants returning from Pakistan were significantly better trained and
organised than the homegrown jihadists who had been operating in the US over the last few years. The ‘Pakistan connection’,
that operational link to organised outfits in the Afghanistan/Pakistan area that makes amateurish homegrown networks
graduate into more professional terrorist clusters, has been crucial in the development of jihadist networks in Europe over the last five
years and it now appears to have become a significant factor also in the US.
Given these dynamics, one of the scenarios that the US authorities take
into particular consideration is the case of a homegrown cluster that, thanks to the directions and skills obtained from al-Qaeda or
various al-Qaeda-affiliated networks in Afghanistan/Pakistan, manages to reach sufficient operational sophistication to carry out a
significant attack against the American homeland. And if traditionally authorities estimated that al-Qaeda’s leadership intended to strike inside the US only with a mass-casualty
attack that would at least rival the actions of 9/11, lately this assessment has been revised. Recent cases have shown that not only independent clusters but also American networks operating in cooperation with
Afghanistan/Pakistan-based groups are focusing on less grandiose plans, considering that even a less ambitious attack –on the
scale of the 2004 Madrid or 2005 London bombings– would be a success.
If Afghanistan/Pakistan is a major source of concerns, the authorities
have also been monitoring the possible impact of the Somali conflict
on American domestic security. Over the last few years, in fact, a
few dozen young American Muslims have travelled to Somalia to fight
and train alongside al-Shabaab, the local Islamist militia battling
the Somali government and African Union troops. Most of them have
been ethnic Somalis, sons of the large Somali diaspora community
present in Minneapolis, Seattle and other American cities. One of them, 27-year-old Minneapolis college student
Shirwa Ahmed, reportedly blew himself up in a suicide bombing in northern Somalia in October 2008. Another four Minneapolis residents have been reported killed in the African country since then. A few non-ethnic Somali Americans have
also reportedly joined al-Shabaab. While the New Jersey native of Egyptian descent Amir Mohamed Meshal and Massachusetts-born
convert Daniel Maldonado have been arrested after leaving Somalia, Alabama native Omar Hammami is still
very much active inside the country, starring in several English language al-Shabaab propaganda videos under the nom de guerre Abu Mansour al Amriki.
While there are no indications that al-Shabaab is planning an attack within
the US, its increased focus on global issues and public support for
al-Qaeda make the hypothesis not that far-fetched. Moreover, while
many of the foreign fighters joining al-Shabaab, whether from the US, Europe or other regions, are Somalis driven by some sort of
nationalist sentiment, others are aspiring jihadists whose interest in the African country is mostly tactical and temporary. It is safe
to assume that many of them, given the opportunity, would use the skills acquired in Somalia against other targets. Questioned by
American interrogators after his arrest, in fact, Daniel Maldonado described his experience in the African country with these
words: ‘I would be fighting the Somali militia, and that turned into fighting the Ethiopians, and if Americans came, I would fight
them too’. The fact that Maldonado was in close contact with the individuals
arrested in Boston in October 2009 provides additional evidence as to why the ‘Somalia connection’ is considered a serious threat.
Conclusion: Since 9/11 the American counterterrorism posture has been extraordinarily aggressive, both domestically and globally.
Extensive overseas military and intelligence gathering actions, the introduction of enhanced investigative powers, a significantly
improved inter-agency coordination and, in general, a constant high level of vigilance have allowed the authorities to keep the country
safe from terrorist attacks. While some civil libertarians might have a point in questioning some of the tools used to do so, the
achievement is nevertheless remarkable. At the same time, though, the US seems to be lacking a long-term strategy to confront the threat of
radicalisation on the domestic front. The authorities have in fact been unable to conceive a policy that would pre-emptively tackle the
issue of radicalisation, preventing young American Muslims from embracing extremist ideas in the first place.
Various intelligence and law enforcement agencies have reached out to the
academic community to better understand the social, political and psychological causes of radicalisation. But the limited understanding
of the issue, coupled with the overlap of jurisdiction between often competing federal, state and local authorities, has prevented the
implementation of a systematic, nationwide programme to combat radicalisation. Solutions are, to be sure, hard to find. Europeans,
who experienced the problem of radicalisation of segments of their own Muslim communities well before the US, are still struggling with
the same issue and are only now attempting to put in place coherent anti-radicalisation programmes, the success of which must still be
verified. Equally challenging have been the efforts, on both sides of the Atlantic, to find reliable and representative organisations
within various Muslim communities to be employed as partners in anti-radicalisation activities. Clearly, more attention and analysis
should be devoted to the issue. But the awareness that homegrown terrorism of jihadist inspiration does exist in the US is a necessary starting point. The
events of the fall of 2009 provided, if needed, additional evidence to suggest so.
Fellow at the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government,
Harvard University and a Peace Scholar at the US Institute of Peace