A spike in terrorism cases involving U.S. citizens is challenging long-held assumptions that Muslims in Europe are more susceptible to radicalization than their better-assimilated counterparts in the United States.
Four investigations disclosed in the past 12 months, including the arrests of five Northern Virginia men in Pakistan this week, underscore what the Obama administration asserts is a domestic threat emanating from Americans training overseas with al-Qaida and related terrorist groups in Pakistan.
“We have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror,” President Obama said this month in announcing plans to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
American Muslim organizations, jolted by the spate of cases, are abandoning their hesitation to speak out about the issue. While underlining that only a tiny minority has become radicalized, two major groups – the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Council on American-Islamic Relations – said this week that they would launch counter-radicalization programs aimed at young people.
Several U.S. and international terrorism analysts say that American Muslims, as a group, remain more prosperous, assimilated and moderate than those in Europe. But the analysts also note that immigration trends, the global spread of a militant Islamism and controversial actions by the United States and its allies since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks increase the chances that U.S. Muslims could carry out a domestic attack.
“The U.S. is experiencing what countries like the U.K. have gone through several years ago,” said Sajjan Gohel, director of international security at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a research organization in London. “The worry for the U.S. is there will be a similar blow-back of homegrown terrorism.”
Before 2004, Britons who engaged in terrorist training abroad looked for overseas targets such as Israel or South Asia, Gohel said. Over the next two years, as British troops fought alongside Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain was stunned by at least four bomb plots by Britons linked to al-Qaida – and the July 7, 2005, attack on the London transit system that killed 52 people.
“As we continue to get enmeshed in these conflicts, it’s naive to think our population is not going to be affected by the global rhetoric surrounding this,” said Christine Fair, a Georgetown University professor specializing in Pakistan.
Still, several analysts said the problem in the United States still appears to be an order of magnitude less than in Europe. For example, British domestic intelligence chiefs warned in 2006 and 2007 of 200 terrorist networks, at least 2,000 individuals who posed a direct security threat and perhaps 2,000 as-yet unknown would-be terrorists.
But just as British authorities identified disenchanted elements among its 800,000-strong Pakistani community, several Pakistani Americans have been detained this fall in cases linked to extremists in Pakistan. At least three of the five Virginia residents were in touch with a Taliban recruiter, according to Pakistani authorities. Other examples include David Headley, a U.S. citizen from Chicago who was accused this week of helping to plot the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Najibullah Zazi, 24, a Denver airport shuttle driver and U.S. permanent resident who was born in Afghanistan and reared in Pakistan, was charged in September of testing explosives for an attack, possibly in New York.
The cases of radicalization are not limited to Pakistani Americans. In January, Bryant Vinas, 26, a Hispanic American convert to Islam, pleaded guilty to receiving training from al-Qaida in Pakistan last year.
Daniel Boyd, a Caucasian Muslim convert who lives in North Carolina, was accused this summer of plotting to attack U.S. military personnel at Quantico, Va., and of leading a group of seven men to fight in the Middle East after Israel’s 2006 war with the radical group Hezbollah. And last month, U.S. authorities announced the latest of 14 indictments related to the alleged recruiting of more than 20 Somali American youths from Minnesota to join an Islamist insurgency in Somalia. U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces toppled an Islamist government in Somalia in 2006.
Somali Americans are among the youngest, poorest and newest immigrants to the United States, with 60 percent having arrived since 2000 and 51 percent living in poverty.
“We have to look very hard at those who arrived in the last 10 or 15 years,” said Charles Allen, a veteran CIA officer and chief intelligence officer for the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 until this year. “We’re having this problem with Somalis, and we’re having it with Pakistanis, and there will be other nations as well.”
U.S. authorities said the American Muslim community is central to countering extremism. In the Minnesota and Virginia cases, parents and community leaders sounded the alarm when the youths disappeared.
A 2007 study by the Pew Research Center found that most Muslim Americans are “decidedly American” in income, education and attitudes, rejecting extremism by larger margins than Muslim minorities in Europe.
Haris Tarin, the Washington director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said that imams and community leaders in the United States have undergone a profound “shift in attitude” about the extent of the problem.
“All of these cases definitely have raised a red flag in our community,” Tarin said in an interview. “How do we ensure young people … do not fall prey to this extremist ideology, especially on the Internet and cyberspace?”
To this end, his organization has produced a webcast, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations is developing an Internet portal aimed at American Muslims in which authorities debunk militant interpretations of the Koran, such as ones cited by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, charged in the shooting deaths of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, last month.
Not all private and government counterterrorism officials see a cause for concern. Cases so far have been unrelated, and many are limited to youths without the skills to carry out an attack.
“We just don’t have the same type of cases here” as in Europe, said Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer, noting that many Muslim Americans who go abroad want to “fight Americans abroad.”