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. Johnny

    Folks, Islam is a truly pieceful religion. It wants to see the world in pieces.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:03 am | Report abuse |
  2. dawn

    A Muslim man was accused of beheading his wife in 2009, in Buffalo, N.Y. In recent years, Islamic terrorist groups have made a common practice of decapitating their political and religious enemies and broadcasting the acts in gory videos.

    Seen any Christian beheading videos lately?

    Two verses in the Quran refer to decapitation—both in the context of religious war. Sura 47, verse 4 reads: "Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks." However, this line has generally been interpreted by Islamic scholars to mean that when facing infidels on the battlefield, one must strike with a deadly force. The same is true in sura 8, verse 12, in which it's recalled that the Lord said to the angels at the Battle of Badr, "I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them."

    Seen any Christian beheading videos lately?

    Wanna talk Ron Pearlman???

    May 11, 2010 at 12:03 am | Report abuse |
  3. 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
    Posted by: jido

    May 11, 2010 at 12:04 am | Report abuse |
  4. richie

    Folks, Islam is a truly pieceful religion. It wants to see the world in pieces.

    Ha Ha, very cute.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
  5. HIRO

    DAWN
    A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO A US CHRISTIAN MAN BEHEADED HIS MOTHER AND WENT TO THE CHURCH.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
  6. IamAllShookUp

    I just visited this site. It's an eye-opener ...and I am feeling really disgusted!!!
    Thanks Stacy.

    http://rissc.jo/docs/bodycount_final.pdf

    May 11, 2010 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
  7. Bill

    Duh!! They are terrorists because their religion uniquely predispositions them towards violence to solve their issues. Any one who doubts this just read the Qura, a Hadith source(rec Bukhari) and the Sira. For when you do you'll realize their scripture spends over 50% of its time the non muslim, over 90% of it is negative, and the Sira itself spend 75% exclaiming the virtures of actual battle to spread and defend Islam. Wake up people these people will never rest until we submit to Islam because Islam mandates this of them. While Muslims at times have legit gripes with Israel, the Iraq war, or Western forgein policy these are and always will be only a pretext for them. It is so because the mandate in Islam will never go away that all must submit to Allah. It's why Islam golden rule is not "live and let live" but that "all must submit to Allah." Never forget the Quran clearly says unbelief is unacceptable, is in fact the greatest of evils, and it is up to every single Muslim to combat this. Islam means submission and only when the entire world submits will the peace Muslims talk about come into being. Until then it will be Jihad by the word, pen, dollar, and sword(when able) to transform the world into the utopia they envision. One only needs to look at History and when Islam had power to realize it is a ideology that knows no compromise. A prime example is the Ottaman Empire and the fact they were literally at war almost every year of its existence to expand the domain of Islam(google Ottaman wars WIKI.) The only way this aggression was ever stopped was always force–sound familiar? The very first way the US had was the Barbary wars in which the Barbary states decleared war on the US because we stopped paying them protection money to keep their pirates away from our ships–and you guessed it–we only stopped it through the use of military might(actual took two times because they broke the first treaty when they thought they could get away with it!!)

    If the above has not gotten you think just go and review any number of human rights reports for religious minorities in Islamic states. You will see it is Islamic states that uniquely make up the who's who list of the worlds worst human and religious rights abusers year after year after year. Digest it all then realize if the west loses the ideological war with Islam this will be the reality for maybe you and most certaintly your children. I don't know about you but I don't want to see this barbaric ideology ever take a foot hold anywhere in the west simply because it comes hand in hand with violence and oppression for those not Muslim.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
  8. HIRO

    RICHIE
    CHRISITANITY IS ABOUT LOVE AS DEMONSTRATED ON LITTLE ALTER BOYS BY VERY LOVING CHRISTIAN PRIESTS.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
  9. slozomby

    dawn- i can think of 1 where a "Christian" walked into an abortion clinic and shot a doctor.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
  10. 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 11, 2010 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
  11. slozomby

    correction he shot the man in church even

    May 11, 2010 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
  12. dawn

    Muslim man was accused of beheading his wife in 2009, in Buffalo, N.Y. In recent years, Islamic terrorist groups have made a common practice of decapitating their political and religious enemies and broadcasting the acts in gory videos.

    Seen any Christian beheading videos lately?

    Two verses in the Quran refer to decapitation—both in the context of religious war. Sura 47, verse 4 reads: "Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks." However, this line has generally been interpreted by Islamic scholars to mean that when facing infidels on the battlefield, one must strike with a deadly force. The same is true in sura 8, verse 12, in which it's recalled that the Lord said to the angels at the Battle of Badr, "I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them."

    Seen any Christian beheading videos lately?

    Wanna talk Ron Pearlman???

    May 11, 2010 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
  13. richie

    Bill, well said and written.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
  14. Thomas James

    What's behind middle class jihadists ? The CIA !

    May 11, 2010 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |
  15. slozomby

    Seen any Christian beheading videos lately?
    no video's but hows this:
    March 10, 1993: Dr. David Gunn of Pensacola, Florida was fatally shot during a protest. He had been the subject of wanted-style posters distributed by Operation Rescue in the summer of 1992. Michael F. Griffin was found guilty of Dr. Gunn's murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
    August 21, 1993 Dr. George Patterson, was shot and killed in Mobile, Alabama, but it is uncertain whether his death was the direct result of his profession or rather a robbery.[6] [7]
    July 29, 1994: Dr. John Britton and James Barrett, a clinic escort, were both shot to death outside of another facility in Pensacola. Rev. Paul Jennings Hill was charged with the killings. Hill received a death sentence and was executed September 3, 2003.
    December 30, 1994: Two receptionists, Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols, were killed in two clinic attacks in Brookline, Massachusetts. John Salvi, who prior to his arrest was distributing pamphlets from Human Life International,[8] was arrested and confessed to the killings. He died in prison and guards found his body under his bed with a plastic garbage bag tied around his head. Salvi had also confessed to a non-lethal attack in Norfolk, Virginia days before the Brookline killings.
    January 29, 1998: Robert Sanderson, an off-duty police officer who worked as a security guard at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, was killed when his workplace was bombed. Eric Robert Rudolph, who was also responsible for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing, was charged with the crime and received two life sentences as a result.
    October 23, 1998: Dr. Barnett Slepian was shot to death at his home in Amherst, New York. His was the last in a series of similar shootings against providers in Canada and northern New York state which were all likely committed by James Kopp. Kopp was convicted of Dr. Slepian's murder after finally being apprehended in France in 2001.
    May 31, 2009: Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed as he served as an usher at his church in Wichita, Kansas.[9]

    May 11, 2010 at 12:10 am | Report abuse |
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