Homegrown Jihadists

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report on "Homegrown Jihadists" by Peter Katel, September 3, 2010


For one young resident of Washington's Oakton, Va., suburbs, the door into jihadism was football. Shortly before the FBI arrested him in July, 20-year-old Zachary Adam Chesser wrote that he converted to Islam in 2008 while playing on a football team formed by a member of a Muslim missionary organization.

“By Allah Jihad is a part of this religion and by Allah it is obligatory,” Chesser wrote on an extremist Website shortly before his arrest for allegedly providing “material support” to a terrorist organization. He also acknowledged that in talks with FBI agents he had “praised the Baghdad Sniper who killed 37 U.S. soldiers,” and explained that FBI agents “were mad because the Baghdad Sniper killed Americans. I informed them that I was not rooting for the Americans and that the Baghdad Sniper was on the side I wanted to win.”[Footnote 1]

The agents also asked Chesser, who said he grew up in a household with two lawyers, about sports, apparently reflecting the view of terrorism experts that sports can be a jihad precursor. “A reliable predictor of whether or not someone joins the Jihad is being a member of an action-oriented group of friends,” Scott Atran, research director of ARTIS, a Phoenix-based social science research firm specializing in political violence, told the Senate's Emerging Threats Subcommittee in March. “It's surprising how many soccer buddies join together.”[Footnote 2]

Sports enthusiasm is far from a reliable predictor of extremism, of course. Indeed, no one can predict who will be drawn to jihadism powerfully enough to seek training or launch an attack. But one thing is clear, national security officials agree: Most of the estimated 2.5 million Muslims in the United States as well as the vast majority of the 1.6 billion-plus Muslims worldwide, reject jihadism.[Footnote 3]

Worldwide, Atran testified, the number of Muslims who move from jihadist sympathy to violence amounts to no more than a “few thousand.” In the United States, veteran terrorism analyst Brian Jenkins of the RAND Corporation think tank has counted 46 cases — involving 125 people — of recruitment to jihadist violence from Sept. 11, 2001, to the end of 2009.[Footnote 4]

A recent string of attacks and attempts — including the killing of 13 military personnel at Fort Hood last year and an attempted car bombing in Times Square three months ago — has experts intensifying the search for jihadists' distinguishing characteristics. But the clues are many and varied.

“No single pathway towards terrorism exists,” Kim Cragin, a senior policy analyst at RAND, told the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment last December.[Footnote 5]

Still, for Karen J. Greenberg, executive director of New York University's Center on Law and Security, one conclusion is inescapable: “It is no longer possible to think of jihad as a purely foreign phenomenon,” she wrote in The New Republic in May. “American jihad ranges the full spectrum from lone nuts cloaking a general appetite for violence in jihadist rhetoric to more sophisticated would-be terrorists who have actually trained abroad. In all these cases, it is a threat we ought not to ignore.”[Footnote 6]

A series of widely varied episodes that began last year seems to reflect a mix of “lone wolf” attackers and small-group conspirators, both from immigrant and longtime citizen backgrounds:

* On June 1, 2009, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (Carlos Bledsoe), a Muslim convert claiming to be retaliating for U.S. military aggression against Muslims, allegedly shot and killed a U.S. Army private and wounded another outside a military recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark. He is awaiting trial.[Footnote 7]

* Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan residing in the United States, was arrested on Sept. 19, 2009, for preparing to bomb the New York subway system. In pleading guilty this year, he said he'd been trained in Afghanistan and ordered to make the suicide attack. At least one other man was directly involved and has pleaded guilty.[Footnote 8]

* An American who converted to Islam in prison and a Jordanian immigrant were arrested by the FBI on Sept. 24, 2009, in two separate cases in which each one allegedly tried to detonate a building with fake explosives provided by undercover agents. Talib Islam (Michael Finton) is awaiting trial; Hosan Maher Husein Smadi pleaded guilty.[Footnote 9]

*Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly killed 13 fellow service personnel at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5. Hasan, a psychiatrist from a Palestinian immigrant family, is awaiting trial in a military court.[Footnote 10]

* David C. Headley, an American citizen with a Pakistani father, pleaded guilty on March 18 to a series of crimes outside the U.S. growing out of a long-term affiliation with Pakistani jihadist groups and Al Qaeda, including six months of training in combat and surveillance.[Footnote 11]

* Faisal Shahzad, 30, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square on May 1. Upon pleading guilty, he admitted receiving bomb-making training in Pakistan. “I consider myself a Mujahid, a Muslim soldier. The U.S. and NATO forces have attacked the Muslim lands,” he said. “It's a war … I am part of that.”[Footnote 12]

If the recent incidents have anything in common, it's that they all differ significantly from the intricately orchestrated Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, which were carried out entirely by Arabs, some of whom had studied in Europe. “Al Qaeda and affiliated movements,” Cragin said, “have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to different recruiting environments, adjusting both message and method of recruitment.”[Footnote 13]

Terrorism experts are also making adjustments. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, many had argued that young American Muslims are less drawn to jihadism than their counterparts in Western Europe, with its ghettoized populations of second- and third-generation Muslim immigrant families and its history of intolerance toward newcomers. But in light of the latest attacks and attempts, that view is less widely held.

To be sure, American Muslims do tend to be more affluent and more integrated in a country with a long history of religious and social pluralism. “Far more Muslims in three of the four Western European nations surveyed said they considered themselves first as Muslims, rather than citizens of their countries,” a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center concluded. Nevertheless, about one-quarter of U.S. Muslims said they had experienced discrimination, and most said their lives had gotten more difficult since 9/11.[Footnote 14]

Difficulties aside, some experts have long pointed to the existence of a jihadist current within a generally well-off, well-integrated population as evidence that socioeconomic advantages don't prevent jihadism. “I see very little connection between status in life and proclivity to resort to violence,” says Daniel Pipes, a conservative commentator on Islam and the Middle East and director of the Middle East Forum, a think tank for promoting U.S. interests. “I believe it's ideological, and unpredictable.”

Others venture some forecasting, based on an upsurge of anti-Muslim sentiment this summer sparked by a proposal to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque near the former World Trade Center site in New York. As the furor has intensified, some politicians and activists have gone from attacking the project near “ground zero” to denouncing the religion as a whole. In effect, some experts argue, the attacks are providing supporting evidence for a key tenet of jihadism: that America is at war with Islam.

“The jihadi and Glenn Beck need each other,” says counterterrorism consultant Marc Sageman, a sociologist, psychiatrist and former CIA operative in Pakistan.

Beck, a radio talk-show host and Fox News TV commentator — and one of the more prominent opponents of the mosque projects — said in August: “You tell me you want to build an ‘Allah tells me to blow up America mosque’ — yeah, I got a problem with that.”[Footnote 15]

Such talk, and projects such as a Florida preacher's plan to hold an “International Burn a Koran Day” on Sept. 11, are generating rhetorical violence in Muslim online chatrooms. “By Allah, the wars are heated and you Americans are the ones who … enflamed it,” says one posting reported by The Wall Street Journal. “By Allah you will be the first to taste its flames.”[Footnote 16]

Other Muslims have objected to the cultural center project precisely because it provided an arena for denouncing their faith. And from the jihadist side, amped-up rhetoric didn't begin with the cultural center project.

Chesser, the former Virginia high-school football enthusiast now in custody, rose to the attention of law enforcement and eventually the public through virulent Web postings that he signed as an individual — most notoriously a declaration that the creators of the “South Park” TV show were likely to be killed for planning to include a caricature of the Prophet Muhammed in an episode. (The Comedy Central network censored the offending episode.)[Footnote 17]

Chesser was arrested after allegedly trying to travel to Somalia to join al-Shabab (“the youth”), an Al Qaeda-allied militia that controls part of Somalia. At least three other Americans have also been arrested recently for allegedly making the same attempt.

The three had spoken of their jihadist plans to men who turned out to be informants or undercover law enforcement agents. Chesser himself knowingly spoke to FBI agents about his beliefs. No trained operative would let down his guard or trust outsiders — actions that arguably rank the men strictly as amateurs.

Jarret Brachman, a counterterrorism consultant formerly with the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, hypothesizes that Chesser was trying to emulate Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi. The Jordanian jihadist killed seven CIA operatives, including a top agent, in a suicide operation in Afghanistan after luring them into a meeting.[Footnote 18]

Balawi's attack was a popular topic on Websites to which Chesser contributed, Brachman says, adding, “I think that was his model.”

The Issues:
* Does ideology — rather than discrimination, alienation or foreign policy — drive domestic jihadism?
* Are domestic jihadis competent enough to mount serious threats?
* Are U.S. Muslim communities doing enough to counter jihadist influence?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Homegrown Jihadists" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF

[1] “Breaking: Zach Chesser Indicted for Material Support of Terrorism,” Jawa Report (blog), July 22, 2010, contains archived Web posting by Chesser; Tara Bahrampour, “Terror suspect took his desire to belong to the extreme,” The Washington Post, July 25, 2010, p. C1.
[2] “Efforts to Counter Violent Extremism,” Senate Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities,” committee testimony (written), March 10, 2010,
[3] “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” Pew Research Center, May 22, 2007, p. 9; “Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents,” Adherents.com, updated Aug. 9, 2007,.
[4] “Efforts to Combat Violent Extremism,” op. cit.; “House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment,” CQ Congressional Transcripts, May 26, 2010.
[5] “Extremist Thought and Actions,” House Homeland Security Committee, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment, Dec. 15, 2009.
[6] Karen J. Greenberg, “Homegrown: The Rise of American jihad,” The New Republic, May 21, 2010. For background, see Sarah Glazer, “Radical Islam in Europe,” CQ Global Researcher, November 2007, pp. 265–294.
[7] John Lynch, “A GI-slaying case intensifies,” Arkansas Democrat, Aug. 5, 2010.
[8] Tina Susman and Richard A. Serrano, “Guilty plea in terror attack,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 23, 2010, p. A1; “Guilty plea in New York subway bombing plot,” The Associated Press (Los Angeles Times), April 24, 2010, p. A16.
[9] Mike Robinson, “Men accused of unrelated bomb plots in Ill., Texas,” The Associated Press, Sept. 25, 2009; “Jordanian pleads guilty in Dallas skyscraper bombing plot,” Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, May 27, 2010.
[10] Dana Priest, “Fort Hood suspect warned of threats within the ranks,” The Washington Post, Nov. 10, 2009, p. A1.
[11] Jane Perlez, “American Terror Suspect Traveled Unimpeded,” The New York Times, March 26, 2010, p. 1; United States of America v. David Coleman Headley, No. 09 CR 830-3, Plea Agreement,” March 18, 2010,.
[12] Quoted in Patricia Hurtado, “Times Square Bomb Suspect Shahzad Pleads Guilty,” Bloomberg, June 22, 2010,.
[13] “Extremist Thought and Actions,” op. cit.
[14] “Muslim Americans …,” op. cit., pp. 3–4.
[15] “Becks suggests mosque near Ground Zero is an ‘Allah tells me to blow up America mosque,’” Media Matters for America, Aug. 3, 2010.
[16] Jonathan Weisman, “Protests, Rhetoric Feeding Jihadists' Fire,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 23, 2010, .
[17] Dave Itzkoff, “‘South Park’ Episode Altered After Muslim Group's Warning,” The New York Times, April 22, 2010, republished on Revolution Muslim, (original posting no longer available there) .