Wake Up to American Jihadism

Jan. 29, 2010

Bruce Newsome: Most Jihadism is Local -Perhaps Inspired, but Rarely Supported, by Foreign Jihadis


(CBS)  Bruce Newsome, Ph.D., lectures on counter-terrorism at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Made, Not Born: Why Some Soldiers Are Better than Others (Praeger, 2007).

For years, Americans have assumed that home-grown Jihadi terrorism would be impossible. Yet in recent months the US government has admitted that it is riskier than previously realized.

This admission was triggered by disturbing recent trends. At least twenty Somali Americans have left the US to join a Jihadi group in Somalia within the last couple years. At least two of them have blown themselves up in Somalia this year. In September, federal prosecutors indicted an Afghan-born US resident (Najibullah Zazi) for conspiracy to set off a series of bombs in the US. In October, federal prosecutors indicted a Pakistani American (David Headley) for helping the Jihadi attack in Mumbai, India, in November 2008.

Could Americans really plot Jihadist mass-casualty terrorism against their fellow citizens inside US borders? Unfortunately, yes. Years before these cases, the more informed analysts of terrorism profiled the American Jihadist and warned against bad assumptions.

Americans have assumed that they are too politically free, economically mobile, and socially integrated to turn to terrorism. Yet only a few members of any demographic ever turn to terrorism and they do so for psychological and social reasons, despite their political, economic, and social freedoms.

Before the suicide bombings on the London transport system on 7 July 2005, Britons reassured themselves that a liberal democracy, committed to “multi-culturalism,” could not spawn British suicide bombers. Two British Muslims travelled to Israel to blow themselves up in April 2003, more than two years before the 7/7 attacks in London. In between times, most in the British government assumed that radical Britons might kill foreign infidels but not fellow Britons at home in Britain.

Americans are caught in the same in-between moment: a few Americans already have blown themselves up overseas; others have planned to do so within American borders.

Many American commentators blamed European Jihadism on Europe’s poor integration of its Muslim residents, but its integration problem was more challenging. Europe contains at least 12 million Muslims – the United States contains probably less than one-quarter of that number. Most American Muslims are African-Americans with many preceding American generations and no foreign relations. Most European Muslims are first generation immigrants, whose parents naturalized, with close relatives abroad in contested territories.

First generation immigrants are more likely to engage in crimes of all sorts, including terrorism, probably because they feel trapped between two cultures (their parents’ countries of birth and residence). Almost all European Jihadis are first generation immigrants. US Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, in November, was another first generation immigrant.

Democratic citizens can turn to terrorism even after effective integration. Other than first generation immigrants, converts to Islam are most over-represented in European Jihadi terrorists. Converts are rare in the wider population, yet about one-fifth of successful or attempted British suicide bombers are converts, including Richard Reid (the “shoe-bomber” arrested in December 2001), Germaine Lindsay (one of the four bombers of London on 7/7), two of the eight men convicted in August 2006 of plotting to bomb airliners with liquid explosives, and Nicky Reilly, who unsuccessfully attempted to blow himself up in a British shopping mall in May 2008.

Probably most converts are genuinely thoughtful about the transition, but some are seeking a holy solution to their troubled pasts – typically crime, alcohol or drug abuse, poverty, family abandonment, or adjustment issues. Like first generation immigrants, troubled converts are caught between a sense of alienation and the heady promise of salvation. Often naïve about their new religion, they are vulnerable to self-interested radicals. One American precedent is José Padilla, a US citizen who converted to Islam after several trips to jail for violent gang-related activities. He was arrested in May 2002 and eventually convicted (in August 2007) of a terrorist conspiracy. In January 2009, Bryant Vinas, another Hispanic American convert to Islam, pled guilty to receiving Jihadi training in Pakistan the year before.

The switch from non-terrorist to terrorist is more spontaneous (and less dependent on foreigners) than most Americans assume. Most European Jihadis were European citzens with no criminal records. (British intelligence agents had noted concerns about some of the British suicide bombers but prioritized other targets.) Their extremism was belated – they lived integrated lives before suddenly turning to radicalism.

The potential terrorist is usually emotionally troubled in some way. The immediate trigger for the switch could be personal, such as a failed marriage or business.

Social contagion is necessary: the potential terrorist is developed through interactions with other radicals. Their initial meeting might be accidental; they might develop together, mutually. Radicals are rarely brainwashed by terrorist talent-spotters.

Finally, the terrorist is politically aggrieved. Terrorism is political violence. However tangential the grievance, usually the grievance contains something real.

Since Jihadism is mostly spontaneous and local, a strategy of intervention overseas and stricter border controls diverts the government’s attention away from domestic issues, while alienating vulnerable groups. After 9/11, governments portrayed a global Jihadi conspiracy in order to more easily build international support for their reactions. Yet most Jihadism is local -perhaps inspired, but rarely supported, by foreign Jihadis.

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