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. jido

    Christrians who believe that christians do not kill in the name of God, read this:

    President George Bush has claimed he was told by God to invade Iraq and attack Osama bin Laden's stronghold of Afghanistan as part of a divine mission to bring peace to the Middle East, security for Israel, and a state for the Palestinians.

    independent co uk

    May 10, 2010 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
  2. WhyDoYouCare

    Quinn, for bigotry...just look at these comments. Really.
    Or the burqa banning in France, or the spire banning or, American foreign policy for oil, or, or....
    And all Muslims are certainly not 'launch[ing] a murderous jihad'
    That's just plain false.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Louie

    As bad as terrorism is, thanks to the muslims, the billions upon billions spent around the globe for extra security not to mention the mayhem at each and every airport when checking in, is also thanks to islam. Yes, that's also a form of terrorism heaped upon the world on an ongoing basis, thanks to the korani's.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  4. WhyDoYouCare

    @dawn, I'm glad you're in the head of every Muslim immigrant everywhere. Downright godlike of you, really.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
  5. obama

    the only reason for all this is killing of innocents by Americans in middle east for OIL ....and this all didn't started after 9/11 it was going on before that since oil was found there, only thing is that now it is getting lot of media coverage since 9/11. Moreover these countries used to be lot developed and open minded (you can go ad see pics from 1950s – 1970s).its only after west attacked them and installed dictators(who were puppets in hands of US and Britain) , that there situation deteriorated....For example alqiada in Afghanistan was created for there war against USSR , they knew that they are religious extremist , even then they helped them get control of the Afghanistan ..there by toppling the democratic government there.Similarly america and Britain attacked the democratic government in Iraq in 1950's because they refused to sell oil(which belonged to Iraq and US had no right on it ) to US on the terms of US.There are lot of these types of dictators and extremists being supported by US in South America and Africa to destabilize the governments there and hence get the contracts for american companies.Think for yourself if you got any brains whats going on......

    May 10, 2010 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
  6. cyclical

    @David: There is no excuse for what Muslim empires have done to oppress others. Muslim empires in the end of the day are not unlike any other empire: Roman empire under the Christians for example oppressed others as well. No excuse. But I would be wrong to say that the Roman Empire (or the Spanish inquisition, or the Crusades) oppressed BECAUSE of Christianity. And so likewise you should not make the same leap when it comes to your assertions.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Louie

    At the rate you muslims are going you'll force a WWIII between the West and Islam.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. WhyDoYouCare

    @louie...What the hell is a 'korani'? Just wondering, because I have this strange hunch you just made up that terminology, as with much of what you've said.

    And tighter security isn't a bad thing...and be less whiny, too. A hassle at the airport. Ohmygosh, we should compensate you for all your trouble.

    Frankly...get over it.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jido

    20,000 Americans convert to Islam every year per NBC (statistics do not include prison conversions, most people do not convert due marrying a muslim spouse).
    50 people convert to Islam in UK every day (per BBC).
    50-70 thousand French convert to Islam every year. (per french local tv, google it)
    Why don't you hear about them?? bcoz they are law abiding peaceful citizens of their countries.
    Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Mohamed Ali, Shakeel O Neal, David Chappell, Cat STevens are all converts to Islam, and they are all very peaceful.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
  10. slozomby

    barney please point to the chapter and verse where jesus said " the old testament doesnt apply"
    if it doesnt apply then why is it included in every copy of the bible ive ever seen.
    until then ponder this:

    leviticus 24:16
    And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the LORD, shall be put to death

    May 10, 2010 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
  11. WhyDoYouCare

    Actually, louie, if there were a WWIII, (which I very seriously doubt) it would start because the United States wants oil and scapegoated the oil-rich areas of the world so as to obtain the aforementioned oil.

    P.S.: it's not possible to have a war between a nation and an ideology/religion...it just doesn't work that way.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. WhyDoYouCare

    Good comments, jido and slozomby.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Louie

    Let's face it terrorists always KILL in the name of allah. If you want to kill yourselves I have no problem with that but once you spew your hatred and kill and maim other people than thar's where I draw the line.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:00 am | Report abuse |
  14. jido

    Mike I was born and raised in a muslim country, I moved to the west in my teens. I started to question my faith a lot, I was on the verge of becoming an atheist, but when I took the time to read the quran again along with its supporting notes, I became a real muslim.
    ISLAM IS ALL ABOUT PEACE, ITS BEAUTIFUL IF YOU DO IT RIGHT. QURAN AND PROPHET MOHD NEVER CONDONE VIOLENCE. FIGHTING IS ONLY ALLOWED TO FIGHT SEVERE OPPRESSION AGAINST AFRICAN SLAVES IN 7TH CENTURY ARABIA WHO WERE KILLED AND BODIES MUTILATED BY THEIR MASTERS (WHO HAPPEN TO BE NON BELIEVERS) LIKE US ARMY FREED JEWS FROM THE NAZIS TYPE OF FIGHTING.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:00 am | Report abuse |
  15. realjunius

    maybe the profiling should now start as soon as you miss one minimum payment. First they spent the money and then turned violent. There was a time when hanging on the gallows for such a crime would be appropriate. Maybe that should be revisited once again to create the "visual" for all wannabe murderers.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
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