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. slozomby

    Chrassi Anna – perhaps before you all caps at me you should actually read my posts.
    you might have missed the part were i said genocide was bad....
    however it has little to do with the random hate being spewn onto this forum in the name of religion.
    if you want to have a discussion about atrocities carried out in the name of property/land/general greed i'll be more than happy to do that. but lets keep this topic where it is.
    side a > muslims suck
    side b > racists suck
    side c > cant we all get along.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:48 am | Report abuse |
  2. Hahaha

    Hey "Patriot in West (by God) Virginia" Muhammad is dead so I can't ask him but you are alive. So tell everyone what happened when your priest took you to back of your church. Did he give you his candy.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:48 am | Report abuse |
  3. Daud

    Christianity promotes love and peace. With Slavery, 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 2:49 am | Report abuse |
  4. mojoman

    MUSLIM GUY: Who say you are believeing in the true god. The last time I checked the Hindus said the same. And the Christians. And the Jews. And everybody elese who has a god. So how do you know your god is the right one? Maybe your god doesn't exist and it's you who will burn in hell because you are worshiping the wrong one. How can you even dare to think all the non-muslims are wrong and only muslims are right. That is exactly that kind of thinking that makes everybody hate backward islam.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:51 am | Report abuse |
  5. Christianity loves little boys

    Christianity's history proves alone what kind of religion it is. Let's just say when it spread in Europe, it ended its Roman empire, great philosophical schools, and entered it in its dark ages. Europe only escaped the dark ages when it got rid of Christianity in gov't and empowered secular leaders.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:51 am | Report abuse |
  6. Patriot in West (by God) Virginia

    Islam promotes love and peace, With slavery , genocide of it's own people, nuclear bombs oops(not smart enough), molesting women children: see post #189

    May 11, 2010 at 2:54 am | Report abuse |
  7. slozomby

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

    Posted by: Hahaha"

    compared to the slavery(still ongoing), genocide of different factions of the same religion (still ongoing), bombs intentionally detonated with no military value(still ongoing), and strapping bombs to little children(still ongoing). islam is truely the religion of peace. .... did ya see what i did there?

    i've said it before and i'll repeat myself now. all races, religions, and nationalities have committed atrocities.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:55 am | Report abuse |
  8. Janemun

    Christianity is about love, devotion and passion, Especially when it comes to little boys.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:55 am | Report abuse |
  9. Caliche

    A lot of good quality comments on this blog. Consensus seems to be in my opinion, that the Quran proscribes bad stuff. Muslims who focus on the bad stuff commit evil acts. Just like Christians would if we followed the Old Testament (stone our kids to death when they “curse” us. Or stone a person to death because he collected fire wood on the Sabbath.) So, we have Jesus and the New Testament that exempts us from that stuff (crap) but Islam STILL has old ass crap in the Quran. So….. what to do? Some, most say we fight, war kill, destroy. A no brainer for them (most of you). But the problem is that the ultimate goal cannot be accomplished. Going to war with Islam is like riding ourselves of the common housefly. Or fire ants. We can kill some sure. We will never be able to irradiate them all. Never it can’t be done. Forget about it. This is fact. But Muslims are not ants or flies. If we did try to kill them off unjustly, first of all we would have to discern which ones to kill off. Only the violent ones right? Of course, only the violent ones. But here is where the problem lies. The more we kill, the more become violent. The more we kill the more there are. IT WON’T WORK. So let’s do what will work. Wait and be just. Communism fell in the USSR because it don’t work. We talked tough, built up defenses, spied, fought a war in Vietnam…we were active. But we did not let our Type-A get to us to the point of just letting loose all out war. We waited and they threw in the towel. Islamic extremism is the same thing. It is an immature solution to immature ideals. We should continue to talk tough, finish off these two wars, investigate home grown bad guys, but all along we have to maintain our respectability and honor. Take the high road. Why? Many reasons but for this blog I want to focus on the most relevant. We maintain the high road because we will win the argument. Afghanistan and Iraq, are just battles. All kinetic operations are just battles. The war is an argument. Who is right? Who is wrong? We will win eventually because we are right. Growing up as a culture is inevitable. Muslims are behind but we were there once. They will grow up. They will see the light. The war is a heated argument. It’s hard to put your tail between your legs and digress as an individual. Don’t expect that to happen. Their descendents change the mind of the culture. The individuals will not suffer the loss of face.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:55 am | Report abuse |
  10. Patriot in West (by God) Virginia

    all you camal jockey come on to West Virginia, we'll have a little party, I'll supply the candy.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:57 am | Report abuse |
  11. mojoman

    The koran endorses slavery: Koran 24:32, 16:75, 4:24.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:58 am | Report abuse |
  12. slozomby

    The koran endorses slavery: Koran 24:32, 16:75, 4:24.

    Posted by: mojoman

    so does the bible.

    please drive through

    May 11, 2010 at 3:00 am | Report abuse |
  13. Peace

    I can't believe you guys are fighting it out. You Bible thumprs bashing the Quran are givign every reason to terrorists to do more attacks. I would wish you retards all go to an island and spread your hate there. America is a tolerant country, and it isn't a Christian nation. Get that straight. Either get along with each other, or get out. This country was for people who wanted to get along with each other.

    Obama/Biden 2012

    May 11, 2010 at 3:00 am | Report abuse |
  14. Hahaha

    "all you camal jockey come on to West Virginia, we'll have a little party, I'll supply the candy."

    Hey "Patriot in West (by God) Virginia", it seems you stole candies from your priest.

    May 11, 2010 at 3:00 am | Report abuse |
  15. Janemun

    Christianity is about love, devotion and passion, Especially when it comes to little boys.

    May 11, 2010 at 3:01 am | Report abuse |
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