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. frankwright

    NOT AT ALL "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"!!

    Hamas and Hezbollah also inflict mass murder and suicide bombings very similarly ONLY because of their Islamic fundamentalism that seeks Muslim global control, using force if necessary, with 'rewards in the afterlife'.

    There are many peoples all over the world who experience great poverty and oppression but that do NOT resort to the mass murder of passersby and suicide bombings. In the areas that we do see some terror, as we had with, say, the IRA, that was benign by comparison since it had far more rational objectives and targets and the idea was to wreak havoc (usually sending out warning leaflets in advance) not wanton murder with twisted 'mystical' underpinnings.

    May 11, 2010 at 5:57 am | Report abuse |
  2. Ross

    I think religion and culture have been fused together in many societies – therefore leading people to believe some laws are religious when in actual fact they are cultural. With the high tech of this world are we really going to believe there is an old man called God instructing us? Religions came about to bring law and order at a time when there was none. Something like today. Therefore the reason many are reverting back to 15th century dogmas. It gives them a security in an insecure environment.
    People need to feel they belong. Some buy all the latest luxury goods and some flock together in idealogy. It gives them comfort. Better to try and understand the reasoning. Poverty and exploitation have brought about special fervor for religions. If we criticize Islam should we not also criticize Christianity for disallowing a preservative which would stop all these orphaned children in Brazil. All religions basically preach the same thing but it is the human who distorts its it to suit himself.
    Culturally a Moslem man is not used to the freedom of the Western world and therefore tries to have his females dress modestly – not to tempt or so he thinks! It is the man in the Moslem community who should learn not to be tempted!! To have self control and stop thinking all women are out to tempt him.

    May 11, 2010 at 7:12 am | Report abuse |
  3. it is about US support to Israel - occupation of a Muslim holy land

    I am surprised that many are far from the truth and others are trying to relate and blame to Islam as a religion to what is called terror.
    the formula is simple and direct one = US(and other western countries) continues to support Israel to continue occupying a majority Muslim country (Palestine).
    Jerusalem is Holy to Muslims around the world as you all know;

    the result of the formula, majority Muslims will try to resist and fight occupation and aggression and try to have the US play a fair and democratic role towards Palestine.

    I think the same second the US stops support to Israel many many things will change.

    May 11, 2010 at 8:03 am | Report abuse |
  4. msunique1970

    Why is it so hard for people to just get along and live their lives without so much arguing back and forth and hatred? Quit being so bitter and be happy you are alive!!!

    May 11, 2010 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
  5. willowspring

    @Zebra, 5/10/10-11:11PM It is not American Policy that causes Muslims to try to oppress and destroy others. Look at history and you will find this has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years, way before America became America. Peace may be advocated in the Koran, but it also does advocate violence. What do you think Shariah law is? Anyone that does not submit to Islam is an infidel and must be killed. Don't even try to say it is America's fault. It is in their book, a direct order to murder!

    May 11, 2010 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jhonny

    Islam stinks. Muslim stinks. The koran sucks.

    May 11, 2010 at 11:08 am | Report abuse |
  7. abena

    Rather than point fingers at the jihadists only, how about America look at what its doing and how foreign policy in the Middle East is radicalizing people. The Iraq war – a terrible, terrible mistake- (among others) is what has made it easier for a militant to convert a mainstream muslim. This radicalization will go on for generations to come. Look at it this way, Iraq used to be a place where ordinary citizens could walk down the street without fear of being a victim of a suicide bomber, for instance. Now Iraq in the name of 'freedom' denies its citizens that basic right. Families have been torn apart, living in other lands as refugees, men feeling more impotent because they are unemployed and unable to take care of their families, having to rely on the handouts of their host nations. Suprised that they may be bitter? You will be bitter if you are placed in that position. Unsure where your next meal is going to come from and entertaining the notion IF the war comes to an end, you have to rebuild your life, FROM SCRATCH! RATHER than point fingers at the jihadists only, why don't we also reexamine our foreign policy and how it is destroying lives. You don't hear about Muslim terrorists attacking Germany, Belgium, Italy etc, other western and wealthy nations. Think about it.

    May 11, 2010 at 11:54 am | Report abuse |
  8. frankwright

    – abena, yes, Iraq is problematic, if not tragic, but the US and the Coalition forces got rid of a ruthless dictator who murdered tens of thousands, who was working to acquire nukes and who had a records of firing scores of scud missiles at neighboring countries.
    Radical Muslims feel they have a religious imperative to bring Muslim rule to the world by force, if necessary – and of course it is necessary because rational Westerners don't exactly accept their militant "prophet".
    These Muslim fundamentalist would be mass murdering regardless of any US actions or policy in Iraq or anywhere else, these are just pretenses.
    And radical Muslims DO perpetrate mass murder in wealthy Western nations – just look up Muslim terror in London, Madrid and Denmark (in addition to Mumbai, Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Bali, Luxor, NYC...).

    May 11, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Kerri

    I think it's pure insanity. The people who become so obsessed with hate that they kill others. I don't think it matters where they come from, what religion or how much money they have. They are mentally ill people, who aren't getting treatment.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Kerri

    @ cyclical,
    And the East sold the slaves in the first place!!!
    Oh please. No country in the East ever had slaves? There has been slavery for as long as there has been a planet called Earth. Speaking of slaves, what about all those women and children being sold into slavery by their own families in Asia, or what's happening in Darfur? How can someone like you expect citizens of America to look in the mirror when the rest of the world never seems to be willing to do the same?!!!

    May 11, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jason

    jihadists have attacked other countries (Spain, England, Holland, Indonesia etc).

    Look at the attacks on Spain, which were used to influence their election, which in turn made Spain tuck tail and run out of Iraq. Even though they have experience with their own terrorist problem. Has Spain's act of cowardness solved the problem? No.

    Look at the attacks in England, and the silly jihadist protests there. The stupid MUSLIM jihadists want to turn Buckingham Palace into a mosque if they get their way in making England a "islamic" state.

    The stupid jihadists are TRYING to spread their twisted form of ISLAM around the world. They move to western countries to recruit terrorists, and to undermine western democracies. They refuse to change according to the country they live in, but if we were to move to the countries, where they came from we would be forced to convert and change to their ideologies.

    PLEASE don't be so naive.


    May 11, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jason

    Now ones who say that the muslims are against US policies, Sure the US doesn't always think things out for what's best. BUT why cause terrorism? Its not about being against US policies, because if that were true then the whole world would be commiting terrorism against the US.

    Muslim terrorism is more about the immaturity of those commiting terrorism and their narrow ideology of violence and intolerance using the Qur'an. Just as the same way Christian fundamentalists use the bible for thier bigotry and stupid ideas against science and evolution.


    May 11, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Brian

    I think that all this terrorism is our fault. If we started caring more about other people, and statring trying to help each other conquer our problems, maybe people won't feel the hatred for the world that a terrorist feels meaning the chances of them becoming a terroist will be very less likely. When you see somebody whose obviously having issues at home, school, work, or anywhere you shouldn't keep walking right past them because if no one tries to help them and they can't learn how to overcome their problems alone, they may blame their failure on others and and they may think its okay to hate people who don't care about them. We need to come together and help each other no matter how hard it may be. I know its not that easy but we have to try. Or we can just live in a world filled with pain, hate, and terrorism.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  14. CERO

    The problem with religion is religion. Religion requires people to follow the rules of the group in order to be considered or accepted as "one of them". Religions are not about faith in God, they are about adherence: grow a beard, keep your head covered, get a Muslim sounding name, pray 5 times a day facing Mecca (Islam); do not celebrate holidays, do fieldwork (Jehovah's Witnesses); wear curls at your temples, follow the old testiments (Judiasm), worship on Saturday, no jewerly or meat (Seven Day Adventist); trust the Pope, believe in Saints, put ash on your forhead, (Catholicism). I could go on, but the point is that when there are stringent rules that need to be followed in order to be considered a part of the religion, then radicallizing the rules make many feel as if they are more religious. The more [stringent] rules, the scarier the group.

    Faith in God does not require a submission to a religion. It is a personal thing between you and God. It is asking questions and seeking answers. It is the belief that God loves us and wants us to follow him in our daily lives. It is the understanding that through prayer God will speak to our hearts and lead us in the direction he wants us to go.

    Religions cause problems, especially when followed by those who seek validation from other. Question your religion and your religious leaders....if questioning is frowned upon, then you know your are in the wrong place.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jason

    Myself I used to try and defend Islam when sept 11th happened. As it was commited by a small part of the muslim population. But over the years I have lost my patience with muslims, when they refuse to stand up to the extremists. Instead they either blame others, or pretend that there is no extremist problem within islam.

    There is a huge problem in Islam, part of the problem is litteracy, Lowest rates in the world. Quite ironic since the 1st word that arch-angel gabrieal said to Mohammed was "READ" Mohammed was illiterate, but later learned how to read. WHY DOESN'T most muslim follow that example?

    Another problem within Islam is the intolerance towards other muslims. Suni and Shia will kill each other. All because the idiot Abu Bakir won control over muslims when Mohammed died. And ever since Muslims have been killing each other.

    The other problem related to the intolerance towards other muslims is that the whabi (the extreme version of islam that terrorists love) is being funded by the saudi government, in their funding of new whabi madrassas around the world. It time they learned to stop playing both sides.


    May 11, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
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