It hasn’t been long since Major Nidal Malik Hasan became the most recent jihadist to launch a terror attack on US soil. The unique thing about Major Hasan’s attack, in which he murdered 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas was that he was not only a US army officer, he was a US citizen who was born and raised in the United States. Prior to Major Hasan’s attack, terrorist attacks in the US were primarily carried out by foreign terrorists.
The weeks since the Fort Hood attack have brought the discovery of more American jihadists within the United States. A developing story involves the Somali-American communities in Seattle and Minneapolis. Over the past few years, numerous Somali-American men have disappeared from their homes without a trace. At least three of these men have been turned up dead in Somalia. One of these men, Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis, gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first American suicide bomber when he detonated a car packed with explosives in front of the Ethiopian embassy in Somaliland on October 29, 2008, killing 20 people.
The FBI believes that the Somali men are leaving the US to train as terrorists and wage jihad. Some, like Ahmed, ended up in Somalia with al-Shabaab (“the youth”), an al Qaeda affiliated group fighting the Ethiopian presence in Somalia. A second Somali-American is believed to have carried out a suicide bombing against African Union peacekeepers in Somalia on September 15, 200, killing twenty-one.
Another American, David Coleman Headley of Chicago, was recently arrested on charges that he was a spy for the Lashkar, a Pakistani terror group. Headley, whose original name is Daood Gilani, is of Pakistani descent and spent his early childhood in Pakistan. Along with Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Pakistani businessman, Headley is accused of helping to plan an attack on a Danish newspaper that published cartoons about Mohammed and helping to coordinate the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India that killed more than 160 people.
Finally a group of five American college students from Washington were arrested in Pakistan in early December 2009 as they tried to make contact with Pakistani terrorist groups. The families of the men became concerned after discovering a farewell video in which they stated the need to defend Muslims. A Pakistani report states they “were of the opinion that a jihad must be waged against the infidels for the atrocities committed by them against Muslims around the world” [cnn]. The men had previously tried to contact terror groups through internet sites such as Facebook and Youtube.
Together with Major Hasan, these discoveries show a disturbing trend. They show that American Muslims are increasingly vulnerable to radicalization. In the past, this sort of radicalization has been seen in the Muslim communities of Europe, but has been rare in the US.
The cases have several factors in common. First, the terrorists in all cases come from a Muslim background. All were American citizens. Some were native born, while others immigrated and became citizens later in life. Additionally, a common theme among many of the jihadists is that their friends viewed them as normal Americans and could not believe their association with terror groups.
It appears that the radicalization can be traced to local mosques and religious awakenings. It has been revealed that Major Hasan attended the same Virginia mosque as two of the 9/11 terrorists. Shirwa Ahmed and the other Somalis typically disappear after becoming involved in local mosques. David Headley became heavily involved in Islam after a series of drug arrests in the 1990s and moved to an area of Chicago known for Muslim immigrants. He attended a local mosque with Rana there. Finally, the Washington Five were all members of a youth program at a mosque in Alexandria, Virginia.
While not nearly all Muslim-Americans are at risk for radicalization, we do have to realize that out of the 1-2 million Muslims in America, there could well be thousands who are quietly becoming radicalized via radical internet websites or local mosques. In 2007, Pew Research polled Muslim Americans and found that five percent of American Muslims had a favorable view of al Qaeda. A further 27 percent responded that they did not know or refused to answer the question (Inside the Revolution, p. 144). Further, when asked if suicide bombings against civilian targets were ever justified, thirteen percent indicated that suicide bombings were justified “sometimes (7 percent), often (1 percent), or rarely but not never (5 percent).” An additional nine percent refused to answer the question. The numbers increase for Muslims between 18 and 29 years old. These younger Muslims also tend to be more radical and more religiously observant.
Estimates of the total Muslim population of the United States vary widely, but approximately 1.5 million seems to be an accepted figure [adherents.com]. This means that as many as 75,000 Muslim Americans have a favorable view of al Qaeda and a further 405,000 are unsure or refuse to answer. Additionally, some 195,000 Muslim Americans believe that suicide bombings against civilian targets are justifiable with an additional 135,000 refusing to answer. Other polls show that these percentages are even higher in other countries.
It would be very easy for homegrown terror cells to form and train via the internet and launch terror attacks on their fellow Americans. Timothy McVeigh, the original World Trade Center bombers, and the DC Sniper illustrate how easy it is to use common items for terrorist attacks. Stolen or legally purchased firearms or bombs created from common items with an internet instruction manual could wreak havoc in numerous cities and small towns around the country. Dozens of small-scale attacks scattered around the country would maximize terror.
The good news is that the silent majority of Americans of Muslim faith is beginning to show more support for the US government. In the case of the Washington Five, their families alerted the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization that has often been believed to be an apologist for terrorist groups. In this case, CAIR referred the families to the FBI.
Many, probably most, American Muslims do not share the radical desire for a worldwide Islamic caliphate. They have no desire to live under Sharia Law. They do not want to see suicide bombings and terror attacks become commonplace in the United States.
These arrests underscore the importance of establishing and maintaining close ties between the law enforcement community and the Muslim communities. Counter-terror and law enforcement must become aware of what is happening within the walls of mosques around the country. Likewise, steps should be taken to monitor or shut down websites that recruit and indoctrinate young Muslims into terror groups. The threat is real and cannot be ignored. Neither can the threat be countered without the help of loyal American Muslims.
Rosenberg, Joel C. Inside the Revolution. Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, IL. 2009