May 10th, 2010
02:30 PM ET

Security Brief: Analysis: Exploring middle class jihadists

Afghan native Najibullah Zazi confessed to plotting to use weapons of mass destruction in a suicide bomb attack on the New York subway.

They are middle-class, some (by their home country's standards) even well-off. They are often college educated. They are settled in the United States or elsewhere in the West, far from the chaos or sectarian strife of their homelands; they are supposedly "assimilated." But somehow they cast off a life of comfort and drift toward extreme views before embracing political violence inspired by a sense of grievance or alienation.

It is a pattern seen time and again as terrorist plots have been uncovered in the United States. Afghan native Najibullah Zazi; Pakistani-American David Headley; Bryant Neal Vinas, the U.S.-born son of Latino immigrants; and Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with trying to bring down an airliner over Detroit, Michigan, on December 25.

Zazi, who confessed to plotting to use weapons of mass destruction in a suicide bomb attack on the New York subway, was not well-off. But his family was well-established in the United States. His uncle in Denver, Colorado (with whom he lived for part of 2009), owns a spacious house in a pleasant suburb. Zazi attended High School in Flushing, New York, and although religious showed no signs of Islamist militancy as a student. He played billiards and basketball and later ran a coffee-cart business in Wall Street. His patrons described him as likeable, with a ready smile.

Vinas also had a comfortable middle-class upbringing in Long Island and was a baseball fanatic. Neighbors and friends describe him as a courteous, respectful student. Rita Desroches, a neighbor whose son was a good friend of Vinas', describes him as a "very sweet little guy. He could come here any time any minute. Just walk in. He was always welcome."

Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian who is accused of trying to blow up a U.S. airliner, had a privileged upbringing. He attended one of West Africa's best schools: the British School in Lome. His father is a prominent banker in Nigeria; the family had an expensive apartment in London, England, where Abdulmutallab studied mechanical engineering. He traveled widely - to the United States and the Persian Gulf.  He has pleaded not guilty to charges including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.

Headley was born in Pakistan to a distinguished Pakistani diplomat and his American socialite wife. He had a privileged upbringing, attending an elite Pakistani military school and moving easily between the worlds of East and West. But his parents separated when he was a teenager, and he came to live in the U.S. with his mother. He dabbled in the drug trade, working as a courier of heroin from Pakistan to the U.S. until being apprehended in 1998. But even as he ran afoul of the law, there was no sign of Islamist militancy.

The investigation into Times Square suspect Faisal Shahzad's background reveals a similar story. His father is a retired senior Air Force officer in Pakistan, and the family home is in a comfortable suburb of Peshawar. For a while they lived in a two-story villa in Karachi when Shahzad's father was a senior official in the country's aviation authority. Shahzad was well-educated and attended colleges in Pakistan and Bridgeport University in Connecticut. His wife received a degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and published several books. They purchased a new house in Shelton, Connecticut, and he commuted to work in New York's financial district. He was not a high earner or high performer, according to former employers, but he had a respectable, steady job and two children.

Even Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooting suspect, would hardly be the "stereotypical" jihadist. He was a career soldier, born in Virginia, and a qualified (though apparently not very accomplished) psychiatrist.

Counterterrorism officials and experts on radicalization say that although there are differences in the backgrounds of these men, there are also striking similarities. In some way, they are affected by a change in their personal lives, grievances fed by a sense of injustice, a search for identity or belonging, a sense of alienation from their social environment. Often they are gullible and impressionable.

Vinas - the subject of a series this week on CNN - was traumatized by his parents' separation. CNN Terrorism Contributor Paul Cruickshank, who has spoken with his mother and sister at length, says: "There were tears and temper tantrums. He started quarreling with his sister, being disrespectful to his mother. He refused to accept his parents' separation."

Vinas, according to family and friends, was continually searching for a sense of identity and purpose in his life. After spending a few weeks in the U.S. Army and realizing that a military career was not for him, Vinas was searching for meaning in his life. He found it when he met the brother of a friend who was a Muslim. Vinas asked questions about Islam, and the brother gave him a Quran. Attending a mosque and embracing Islam with the passion of a convert gave him a sense of identity, and he began to believe the grievances of radical Muslims he encountered about U.S. policy overseas and especially in Afghanistan. He ended up booking himself on a flight to Lahore, Pakistan - his aim to join the jihad against U.S. forces over the border.

Carvin Desroches, one of Vinas' best friends growing up, says Vinas was the last of his friends he would have expected would do such a thing. Vinas' mother and sister say that if this happened to their son, they fear it will happen to another American family.

New York Police Department Intelligence Analysis chief Mitch Silber says Vinas "is almost a poster child for the process, the unremarkable nature of the people who might go through this process and frankly the potential to link up to al Qaeda and the danger that presents."

There appears to be no single moment when Zazi was radicalized and no obvious influence on him. But as with Shahzad, he ran into financial difficulties. One customer at his coffee cart told The New York Times that Zazi rebuked her one day. "He told me I could not be happy. He said: 'You people cannot be happy with your money.' "

Zazi filed for bankruptcy in March 2009 with credit card debts of more than $50,000. A few months later, he and two former school-friends left for Pakistan, where Zazi has admitted he received explosives training.

Headley's motivations remain obscure. He appears to have linked up with Pakistani militants while involved with drug trafficking. His dual nationality and ability to move in elite circles were a potent combination with an appetite for adventure and risk. But there were few signs of Islamic militancy, even when he confessed his role in planning the Mumbai attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba and the plot to bomb the Danish newspaper that had published cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

Both Hasan and Abdulmutallab were conflicted over their relationships with women. Hasan's failure to find a wife who would wear a veil haunted him, but at the same time he is said to have visited a strip club near Fort Hood, Texas. Abdulmutallab agonized in his blog entries over finding a "modest" wife. And Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American preacher whose views on jihad have influenced so many "home-grown" jihadists, was twice arrested in California for soliciting prostitutes.

Both Hasan and Abdulmutallab appear to have been alienated from their "decadent" surroundings and regarded Western society as morally "flawed."

But the alarming feature for intelligence officials in all these cases is that they defy the likely profile of a terrorist. There is no obvious red flag. These are people who appear to be "ordinary" members of society. They are U.S. citizens or resident aliens (who can therefore move in and out of the country with ease.) They do not belong to readily identifiable radical groups and have not spent their childhoods in radical madrassas.

Many of the home-grown jihadists became loners; family members have no hunch of what they are doing. (This has also been the case with young Somali-Americans who have suddenly disappeared from homes in Seattle, Washington, or Minneapolis, Minnesota, to fight a holy war in the Horn of Africa.). They are often influenced by radicalizers who stress that their family is less important than their duty to Allah. Hasan communicated with al-Awlaki; Abdulmutallab may have done so, too. (It is remarkable how many of the conspirators in the U.S. and UK have been influenced by al-Awlaki's religious justifications for jihad.)

These individuals are the opposite of the hardened fighters of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and the Pakistani Taliban, who have grown up in poverty amid a collective sense of oppression. For example, Hezbollah was born among downtrodden Shiites in the slums of southern Beirut, Lebanon. The Pakistani Taliban, now allegedly linked to Shahzad's attempt, overwhelmingly comprises poorly educated and often illiterate young men from rural parts of northern Pakistan.

If the assertion by senior U.S. officials is correct, and Shahzad did link up with the Pakistani Taliban, the young madrassa-educated militants were teaching the bilingual MBA graduate how to bring terror to New York.

soundoff (283 Responses)
  1. Jim

    Many go through troubled times like these fellows, but 99.9% don't become terrorists. Why, cuz they don't come to embrace an ideology that encourages violence. These people have no one to blame but themselves. They chose their life, they chose their friends, they chose their religion, they chose to allow others to tell them how to believe and how to act. NO MAN–religious or otherwise–should have power over another. If God is real, and I believe he/she is, then let God himself be revealed, as God needs no man to be a conduit between himself and his creation. For every person who claims they know the will of God as it pertains to another, that is a false and prideful person. Let each of us seek God as he reveals himself to us. If those claiming to be the most religious would stop preaching the hate filled, judgment filled, guilt filled, and violent filled message, 90% of the world's violence would come to and end, forever!! This planet's history of religious leaders that led followers to war is long and shameful. What we need are religious and political leaders who long for peace, understanding and tolerance. Any idiot can commit his or her follows to violence (which is the base nature of man). The world needs to abandon religious leaders.

    May 10, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Haslina

    or,
    we could learn to be better neighbors, to love one another, to give out a smile to those you don't know to make aquaintence with the lonely, to make better communities, to make sure no one who is lonely, doesn't feel like they have an option or that no one cares. I hardly think all americans are that uncaring.. Radical feelings, hatred, and the thought of doing wrong to your neighbor only become plausible when you don't think they are worth as much as you or your beliefs, but if they care for you, it makes the attack more difficult, more awkward, and makes them think twice.

    May 10, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Indio

    What's behind Middle Class Jihadists?
    The Koran? Islam? Jihad? Bigotry? Hatred?

    May 10, 2010 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Henry Bowman

    What's behind middle class jihadists? ISLAM! They are all Muslims. The so called religion of peace is a poison that will destroy America if we are not vigilant. Islam, unlike Christianity, has not undergone any sort of reformation. So called mainstream Muslims regard their fanatical fundamentalist brothers as perhaps extreme, but not criminal. They refuse to speak out against the actions of the radical fringe and in failing to do so add to their legitimacy in the Muslim world. The western world must take note of this and act accordingly or face extinction. We are in a religious war, like it or not.

    May 10, 2010 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
  5. klb374

    I agree with all your comments. How true, how true.

    May 10, 2010 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bill Clark

    Islam in no way advocates violence. In fact 'Islam' as an Arabic word means peace. What has happened is that strong feelings towards America's flaws has led to some Muslims becoming radicalized. Instead of just increasing security we should reach out to the Muslim community and actually listen to their grievances and what they have to say. We have yet to make a decent attempt to reach out significantly to the Muslim community and this is why they probably think Americans are ignorant. Muslims do not want to kill everyone as many CNN commentators have previously falsely said. If you actually read the Quran and their Prophet Muhammad's teachings then you will see the punishment on a Muslim for terrorizing a secure population is extremely harsh. Most people unfortunately do not know about this. Please educate yourselves before posting.

    May 10, 2010 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pandalan

      Mr. Bill Clark, If you sir are an american, im happy to say that there is faith in the USA changing its views after all. Islam is NOT a religion of war and violence, we are forbidden to kill one another, yes the holy quran may talk about revenge and taking your right, but that does not mean killing innocent women and children, dear people of the world, its time you wake up from your media induced comma, jihadists and all those people carrying war in the of god are not Muslims, they use islam as a motive, as a reason, they use the name of islam as a way to attract young poor life-less youth, the teachers of terrorism are masters of brainwash. A lost person can belong to any group if that person is cared for and convinced over time. Using religion as a base for terrorism is the greatest trick to ever work.

      Islam is a holy religion, the quran orders us to respect each other, help your neighbour, assist other old ppl, there is not one verse in the holy quran that orders people to kill innocent people in coward suicide bombs.

      Its time the world educates itself, time to wake up, stop believing what those terrorist are saying, the more ppl believe islam is the reason to war the more the terrorist will join the cause, because they have an excuse.

      The way to the future is peace among the races and religions, the more cooperating and peace there is, the more likely that extremists of all sorts can be captured, meaning the more likely the human race can survive.

      May 23, 2010 at 6:24 am | Report abuse |
    • JJ4freedom

      Speaking of reading Bill maybe you should get the plank from your own eye first so so cna see the real truth of the real Muslim teaching for several hundred years.

      June 1, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Andrew Costello

    My personal feeling is that terrorism is just another form of crime. The same way some loser goes on a shooting spree to avoid taking responsibility for their lives, these guys just use a religion as a cover.
    But despite what intelligence officials say – there is a pattern. None of them want to take responsibility for their actions. They're all blaming someone else. The same way the poor blame the rich, terrorists blame America.
    it's all just a pathetic excuse by pathetic people.

    May 10, 2010 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
  8. loader

    There losers mommy didn't hug me enough, nobody will play with me wah wah wah

    May 10, 2010 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Clark1b

    easy .... everyone has fallen short of the glory of God and rebelled against His Law. One expression of that rebellion is the Jihadists ... other expressions are like Jim above who says God gives different revelation to each and every individual and thus God to Jim is simply a never consistent, arbitrary force that we can't count on for justice or mercy or trust His promises.

    May 10, 2010 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Richard Sciarappa

    What's behind middle class jihadists.....
    The Koran dummies!

    Are we so blind?

    May 10, 2010 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Cybersport

    A lot of bigotry on this board tonight

    May 10, 2010 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jordan

    @Bill Clark

    Yes..you are the all knowing all wise muslim apologist. Islam is a religion of peace and in no way incites violence?? seriously? Have you even read the Qur'an (oh and, by the way, the term Islam does not mean peace...as you wrongly stated in your apologistic post...it means submission, please review your sources-or lack thereof)

    Furthermore I will suffice with quoting just one verse out of the HUNDREDS that incite violence and hatred towards non-Muslims: Surah 9:29 (a surah is a chapter in the Qur'an) says, and I quote, "FIGHT those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing SUBMISSION, and feel themselves SUBDUED."

    Oh but of course...I'm taking it out of context *eyeroll*

    May 10, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Mike

    As someone of non-muslim faith who grew up in a Muslim country, I can attest to the fact that even westernized educated Muslims do not encourage debate about Islam but expect compliance. Muslims if you notice, generally do not question their religion.

    The fact that Christians are all over the map and many of us are non-practising is to them the weakness, but in reality the real strength of Judeo-christian faith is that even the faithful have their doubts.

    Notice that converts to Islam are very likely to become fanatics. Most of these western converts to Islam are naive about Islam and have never really lived or seen what Muslim socities are like.

    If you are a Westerner who wants to convert to Islam; then may I humbly suggest that you take a trip to 5 or 6 Muslim countries and see for yourself Islam in action. you have to live in these countries and these societies before you realize what a mess Islam is.

    May 10, 2010 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
  14. dawn

    They are following the tenents of their faith:

    "O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you,and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty" - Qur'an, Sura 9:123

    4 September 1972 – Munich Olympic Massacre.
    18 April 1983 – April 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut, Lebanon. 63 killed.
    26 February 1993 – World Trade Center bombing, New York City. 6 killed.
    13 March 1993 – 1993 Bombay bombings. Mumbai, India. The single-day attacks resulted in over 250 civilian fatalities and 700 injuries.
    24 December 1994 – Air France Flight 8969 hijacking in Algiers by 3 members of Armed Islamic Group and another terrorist. 7 killed including 4 hijackers.
    25 June 1996 – Khobar Towers bombing, 20 killed, 372 wounded.
    14 February 1998. The 1998 Coimbatore bombings occurred in the city of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India. 46 people were killed and over 200 were injured in 13 bomb attacks within a 12 km radius.
    7 August 1998 – 1998 United States embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. 224 dead. 4000+ injured.
    12 October 2000 – USS Cole bombing, 56 killed
    11 September 2001 – 4 planes hijacked and crashed into World Trade Center and The Pentagon by 19 hijackers. Nearly 3000 dead.
    13 December 2001 – Suicide attack on India's parliament in New Delhi. Aimed at eliminating the top leadership of India and causing anarchy in the country. Allegedly done by Pakistan-based Islamist terrorist organizations, Jaish-E-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba.
    3 March 2002 – Suicide bomb attack on a Passover Seder in a Hotel in Netanya, Israel. 29 dead, 133 injured
    9 March 2002 – Café suicide bombing in Jerusalem; 11 killed, 54 injured.
    7 May 2002 – Bombing in al-Arbaa, Algeria. 49 dead, 117 injured.
    24 September 2002 – Machine Gun attack on Hindu temple in Ahmedabad, India. 31 dead, 86 injured.
    12 October 2002 – Bombing in Bali nightclub. 202 killed, 300 injured.
    16 May 2004 – Casablanca Attacks – 4 simultaneous attacks in Casablanca killing 33 civilians (mostly Moroccans) carried by Salafaia Jihadia.
    11 March 2004 – Multiple bombings on trains near Madrid, Spain. 191 killed, 1460 injured. (alleged link to Al-Qaeda)
    3 September 2004 Approximately 344 civilians including 186 children, are killed during the Beslan school hostage crisis.
    2 November 2004 – Ritual murder of Theo van Gogh (film director) by Amsterdam-born jihadist Mohammed Bouyeri.
    4 February 2005 – Muslim militants attacked the Christian community in Demsa, Nigeria, killing 36 people, destroying property and displacing an additional 3000 people.
    7 July 2005 – Multiple bombings in London Underground. 53 killed by four suicide bombers. Nearly 700 injured.
    23 July 2005 – Bomb attacks at Sharm el-Sheikh, an Egyptian resort city, at least 64 people killed.
    29 October 2005 – 29 October 2005 Delhi bombings. Over 60 killed and over 180 injured in a series of three attacks in crowded markets and a bus, just 2 days before the Diwali festival.
    9 November 2005 – 2005 Amman bombings. Over 60 killed and 115 injured, in a series of coordinated suicide attacks on hotels in Amman, Jordan. Four attackers including a husband and wife team were involved.
    7 March 2006 – 2006 Varanasi bombings. An attack attributed to Lashkar-e-Toiba by Uttar Pradesh government officials, over 28 killed and over 100 injured, in a series of attacks in the Sankath Mochan Hanuman temple and Cantonment Railway Station in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi.[134] Uttar Pradesh government officials.
    11 July 2006. Mumbai, India. 11 July 2006 Mumbai train bombings were a series of seven bomb blasts that took place over a period of 11 minutes on the Suburban Railway in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). 209 people lost their lives and over 700 were injured in the attacks.
    26 July 2008. Ahmedabad, India. Islamic militants detonate at least 16 explosive devices in the heart of this industrial capital, leaving at least 49 dead and 160 injured. A Muslim group calling itself the Indian Mujahideen claims responsibility. Indian authorities believe that extremists with ties to Pakistan and/or Bangladesh are likely responsible and are intent on inciting communal violence. Investigation by Indian police led to the eventual arrest of a number of militants suspected of carrying out the blasts, most of whom belong to a well-known terrorist group, The Students Islamic Movement of India.
    26 November 2008. Mumbai, India. Muslim extremists kill at least 174 people and wound numerous others in a serious of coordinated attacks on India's largest city and financial capital. A group calling itself the Deccan Mujaheddin claims responsibility, however, the government of India suspects Islamic militants based in Pakistan are responsible.

    It's not about America, it's not about Iraq. It is about Allah.

    May 10, 2010 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. dawn

    Good post Mike.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:05 pm | Report abuse |
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