Most of us have in our minds a general sense of what a jihadist is. And Faisal Shahzad, who, earlier this month, was charged with attempting to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, probably fits the bill. Since September 11, Americans have come to think of terrorism as a fundamentally foreign phenomenon that has somehow ensnared us. We have frequently been assured that the United States—unlike Europe—does not have a homegrown terrorism problem. Other than the fact that Shahzad is an American citizen, his profile conforms to this general pattern: He originally hailed from Pakistan. He was apparently working with the Pakistani Taliban. And he seems to have been furious at U.S. policies toward his native region of the world. Like the men who carried out September 11, Shahzad could not be described as a homegrown American terrorist.
And yet, Shahzad notwithstanding, there are reasons to think that this image of a jihadist is both outdated and incomplete. For one thing, the United States does have a homegrown terrorist problem: Of the 202 people charged in the United States with serious jihadist crimes since September 11, 131 have been American citizens—and, of those 131, over one-third are, unlike Shahzad, American-born. Moreover, of the 54 people charged in major terrorism cases since the beginning of last year, at least twelve (and perhaps as many as 20) were converts to Islam. If you read through the documents surrounding recent terrorism cases—the complaints, indictments, and so on—it becomes clear that the classic notion of a jihadist as someone dispatched by Al Qaeda or the Taliban from a far corner of the world to protest U.S. foreign policy by killing massive numbers of civilians no longer captures the full picture. On the contrary, the concept of jihad has come to encompass an array of agendas, affiliations, and tactics. Jihad has put down roots in America. And, at the same time, it is arguably being shaped by America as well.
One afternoon last October, a squad of law-enforcement officers surrounded a warehouse in Dearborn, Michigan. According to a criminal complaint that had been filed the previous day, the people holed up inside the building were seeking to “establish a separate, sovereign Islamic state ... within the borders of the United States, governed by Shariah law.” The group’s leader, Luqman Ameen Abdullah—a 53-year-old imam who had praised Osama bin Laden and the Taliban—refused to surrender. He shot a police dog and was killed in the ensuing skirmish. Days later, all ten of his co-conspirators were under arrest, their cache of firearms and swords confiscated.
As jihad-related developments went, the Dearborn arrests were not particularly noteworthy (in the end, the federal government did not even classify them as a terrorism case). Still, one detail about the episode stood out: Abdullah’s group was an offshoot of a larger organization founded by, of all people, H. Rap Brown. There was, to be sure, no reason to think that the onetime Black Panther (who is serving a life sentence in jail) had played any role in the group’s activities. But the fact that a cell of Muslim militants had taken inspiration from an American icon of black nationalism who later converted to Islam is not something to ignore either. It points to some of the ways in which jihadism has grown more complicated over the past decade, as it has become, in part, a homegrown U.S. phenomenon.
Like Abdullah, most of those arrested in the Dearborn case were not born in Muslim countries. They were not even born to Muslim families. Most were African American converts to Islam. They were hardly alone: American-born converts to Islam, white and black, have been showing up on the radar of law enforcement officials and federal prosecutors as terrorism suspects for years. Probably the most famous is California native John Walker Lindh, who was arrested in Afghanistan shortly after September 11 and who had converted to Islam when he was in his late teens. Earnest James Ujaama, who was convicted for attempting to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon, had converted in the 1990s, as had Randall Todd Royer, a member of a group that law enforcement calls the Virginia Jihad Network. Another American-born convert, a D.C. taxi driver named Mahmud Faruq Brent, was convicted of providing material support to the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. In Illinois, convert Derrick Shareef was arrested for plotting to use a hand grenade in a shopping mall. Russell Defreitas, a suspect in an alleged plot to blow up jet-fuel supply tanks at JFK Airport, was born in Guyana but had been living in the United States for roughly four decades. He, too, is a convert. So is Daniel Boyd, the alleged leader of agroup of Islamic radicals based in North Carolina; Colleen LaRose, a Pennsylvania resident charged with planning to murder a Swedish cartoonist; and James Cromitie, who has been accused of plotting to blow up a synagogue in the Bronx. Then there is Michael Finton, also known as Talib Islam, a strong-looking, red-haired 29-year-old who converted to Islam in prison and traveled to Saudi Arabia, according to the government. He was eventually arrested during a sting operation after allegedly parking a van that he thought was loaded with explosives at the Paul Findley Federal Building in Springfield, Illinois.
Of course, even as the ranks of jihadists have grown more varied, there are certain overarching continuities with the older, Al Qaeda-centric version of jihad. Many jihadists are still motivated by what they see as the unfair treatment of their Muslim brethren around the globe. “They smashing the Muslims all over the world,” Abdullah says in one of the FBI’s taped conversations. LaRose described herself as “desperate to do something somehow to help” her fellow Muslims. Brent said he was “pushed ... over the edge” by watching videos of Muslims suffering. Even for American converts, in other words, traditional Islamist concerns remain part of the picture.
At the same time, the motivations and ideas professed by jihadists have expanded in numerous directions. Ideological strains beyond Al Qaeda’s worldview seem to have influenced at least a handful. Lindh was apparently attracted to Islam by Malcolm X’s writings. Ujaama, in the course of defending himself, said, “My brother and I have listened to every revolutionist from Mao Tse Tung to Malcolm X.” Finton—who kept a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, the radical Vietnam-era book that included bomb-making recipes—“said he had been pretty much anti-authority his whole life, and that even before Islam he had hated the American government,” according to a government complaint.
Some would-be jihadists seem to have attempted to assimilate other violent episodes from U.S. history into their thinking. Abdullah believed that both the 1993 World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing were, in the words of a government complaint, “part of a plot to blame Muslims for violence.” And this is how Defreitas explained his alleged decision to pick JFK Airport as a target: “Anytime you hit Kennedy, it is the most hurtful thing to the United States. To hit John F. Kennedy, wow. They love John F. Kennedy like he’s the man. If you hit that, this whole country will be in mourning. It’s like you can kill the man twice.”
Then there are the curious cases of Ronald Allen Grecula and Gale Nettles, who both linked their violent plans to jihad even though there is no evidence that either man was ever a Muslim. Grecula, embittered at losing custody of his children, sought to sell explosives to Al Qaeda. Nettles, who had done a stint in prison for counterfeiting, plotted to blow up a Chicago courthouse, called himself “Ben Laden,” and asked to be introduced to someone associated with Hamas or Al Qaeda. Can these men be accurately described as jihadists? It is difficult to say. Still, it seems noteworthy that the concept of jihad held enough broad-based appeal for them to want to attach themselves to it.In the words of former FBI special agent Ali Soufan, “Many of the African Americans and other white Americans who join Al Qaeda have done so not because they specifically identify with Al Qaeda’s aims, but because they have their own grievances against the U.S. government and see in Al Qaeda an entity that appears to be successfully battling the U.S., and who they think can sponsor their battles.” Terrorism expert (and TNR contributing editor) Peter Bergen put it this way when he testified before Congress last year: “Decades ago the anger and disappointments of some of these men might have been funneled into revolutionary anti-American movements like the Weather Underground or Black Panthers. Today, military jihadism provides a similar outlet for the rage of young men.”
Not only have the types of people who identify as jihadists greatly diversified in recent years; so has their approach to terrorism. Traditionally, Al Qaeda-directed jihad revolved around dramatic acts of violence meant to cause mass loss of life: September 11; the London public transit bombings; the 2006 plot to blow up ten flights simultaneously. Jihadists still aspire to such dramatic attacks, but, in recent years, they have also trained their sights on less prominent targets, many of them government buildings. Shareef, convicted for targeting a mall, also reportedly told his FBI informant, “I’m thinking stuff like courthouses, city hall, government places, government facilities.” And Cromitie, charged with plotting to bomb a Bronx synagogue in spring 2009, allegedly planned to target an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York. Other targets of jihadists in recent years have included Fort Hood in Texas, Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, Fort Dix in New Jersey, Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia, and the FBI building in North Miami Beach.
In short, we are facing not one type of threat from jihadists but many. Some of these threats—like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who has been charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day—seem more like foreign policy problems. The attempted Times Square bombing appears to fall into this category as well. Others seem fundamentally domestic, as much in the tradition of the Oklahoma City bombing or the assassination of President McKinley as in the tradition of September 11 and other acts of international jihadism. Still others seem to combine elements of both. Needless to say, this range of threats offers a novel challenge to law-enforcement officials—who, if nothing else, need to find more creative ways to involve Muslim communities in anti-radicalization efforts.
Whatever the policy responses, however, one fact is obvious: It is no longer possible to think of jihad as a purely foreign phenomenon. 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.
Karen J. Greenberg is executive director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security and author ofThe Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days.