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. A just n fair american

    Bill u are a moron ...the crusades were fought in the name of religion. All the wars fought by buddhits in India were religious wars...read your history man!

    May 11, 2010 at 3:16 am | Report abuse |
  2. Patriot in West (by God) Virginia

    Hahaha

    Come on down to WV, we'll have a party in your honor. HillBilly style

    May 11, 2010 at 3:20 am | Report abuse |
  3. Hahaha

    Christianity promotes love and peace. With Holocaust, Slavery of Africans, Genocide of native Americans, use of nuclear bombs on civilian population, molesting little children as its achievements, it truly is a religion of peace.

    May 11, 2010 at 3:21 am | Report abuse |
  4. PEACE ON EARTH

    It's hard enough to make pece between Christians and muslims...but why on earth are Christians at each other's throats?

    May 11, 2010 at 3:23 am | Report abuse |
  5. Hahaha

    Hey Patriot in West (by God) Virginia

    "Come on down to WV, we'll have a party in your honor. HillBilly style"

    I told u I don't like inbred, white trash.

    May 11, 2010 at 3:26 am | Report abuse |
  6. Abraham Lincoln

    Any ideology that claims it holds the only truthful worldview is going to breed violence eventually. That's the nature of religion, there's no room for more than 1 to be correct and very few religions don't advocate the conversion of non-believers. As a result, we have multiple religious philosophies, all claiming to be the one true faith, pushing their followers to convert as many people as possible. Inevitable, this will cause violence as most people nowadays are unlikely to change their beliefs from those they've been indoctrinated with since childhood.

    So sure, Islam can be a violent religion. So can Christianity. So can all of them. Just because one religion has a higher rate of violence than others doesn't mean it's any worse. All religions are equally at fault for polarizing people into an "us vs. them" mentality.

    May 11, 2010 at 3:26 am | Report abuse |
  7. habehba

    All Muslims are terrorists and the only way to be completely safe is to kill them all.

    May 11, 2010 at 3:30 am | Report abuse |
  8. Patriot in West (by God) Virginia

    Hahaha

    and muslims strap explosive on their little children

    May 11, 2010 at 3:30 am | Report abuse |
  9. slozomby

    Blah blah this does not need analysis, these guys are intelligent adults who had enough of your planes without pilots killing innocent civilians in their homeland (FYI 14 people have just been killed in this fashion hours ago according to Al Jazeera). For some reason you think that innocent lives in the US are more valuable than innocent lives in Afghanistan, when you stop thinking this way you will have peace.

    Posted by: Sam

    so let me understand your logic here. since the evil us empire is using robot drones to kill innocent afghan/iraqi civilians, it is then ok for the terrorists to also kill innocent afghan/iraqi civilians......
    yeah that makes sense.

    or perhaps they are upset that as soon as they drove the soviets out the us stopped sending food/medical/military supplies thier way.

    did the us have anyone in afghanistan between 1981, when the soviets were driven out, and the day we started bombing after 9/11? the answer is no.

    we didnt care that they wanted to live like it was the 7th century. we didnt care that they were a theocracy, we didnt care if they lived or died. it was only after they launched attacks on this country for daring to be in a completely different country that we started paying any attention to afghanistan. tell you the truth we still dont care about afghanistan. the only reason we're there is to prevent those shmucks from doing it again. if one of the so called leaders over there stepped up to the plate and took control of that country we'ld be more than happy to get the hell out of it.

    May 11, 2010 at 3:33 am | Report abuse |
  10. Hahaha

    All Christians are child molesters ask "Patriot in West (by God) Virginia" what happened in his church when he was young. His priest promised him a candy at the back of church.

    May 11, 2010 at 3:38 am | Report abuse |
  11. Hahaha

    Hey "Patriot in West (by God) Virginia"
    I heard your family tree have no fork.

    May 11, 2010 at 3:41 am | Report abuse |
  12. Daud

    Christianity is about love, devotion and passion, especially when it comes to little boys.
    Very Funny

    May 11, 2010 at 3:45 am | Report abuse |
  13. Sam

    @slozomby

    I never claimed the killing of innocents is justified, i clearly equated American and Afghani/Iraqi/any lives. But when the US military OKs strikes which could potentially kill civilians, they make enemies, and it does not take a lot of enemies to cause problems these days. If there are 5,000,000 Muslims in the US, probably 4,999,910 of them don't believe in "street justice", otherwise the US is in big trouble. What I am trying to say is that it does not take a lot of terrorists to make damage, so don't give them a reason to act that way.

    You sound like Carl Rove when you make the connection between Afghanistan and 9/11, everyone knows it was Al Qaeda who attacked, and Taliban provided protection to them, and the Afghani people paid the price with their innocent blood.

    May 11, 2010 at 4:10 am | Report abuse |
  14. noreligiontoo

    it seems to me the world is better off without any religions. So far, region kills.

    May 11, 2010 at 4:20 am | Report abuse |
  15. noreligionstoo

    it seems to me the world is better off without any religions. So far, region kills.

    May 11, 2010 at 4:22 am | Report abuse |
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