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. Jeff Swint Smith

    Jim's posting at 3:14 pm on May 10 is superb. I wish that more people had the
    wisdom to realize what he does!

    May 11, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Denis Egan

    One of the early comments (this one by Bill Clark) mentioned that the word "Islam" in Arabic means peace. This is incorrect. "Salam" means peace. "Islam means "submission" to the will of God. Comments which which point to American injustice as the reason these jihadists become suicide bombers and killers miss the obvious point that this suicidal hatred against Jews and non-Muslims in general is encouraged by Muslim religious leaders across the world and justified in many passages in the Quran and early Islamic traditional writings in the Hadith. Ancient religious hatred is the driving force. This doesn't mean that you can't find peaceful Muslims trying to just get on in life. But look at the countries of the world with Islamic governments and you will find failed states, ruled very unjustly by "God's" (Allah's) representatives.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  3. azeema

    so should the Muslims who have no interest in becoming a terrorist confess to some other religion, so they are not scrutinized or considered potential threat!

    May 11, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jason


    Muslims who have no interest in terrorism should stand up against those who do. For example by signing onto the fatwa started by some Canadian mosques against terrorism.
    Instead of remaining silent, stand up, debate the jihadists, confront them with the Islam that Muslims in the west practice.


    May 11, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  5. NoMoreMosques

    Doesn't everyone know that ISLAM means peace by now. Khaffirs, Infidels learn what ISLAM has in store for you. The pitiful lack of silence amongst the haven't-yet-attempted-to-commit-a-terrorist-act Muslims has pushed American and non-Muslim-world opinion past the tipping point. We are ready to confront ISLAM here and abroad BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.

    May 11, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Moe


    I spent 45 minutes reading all these comments and learned nothing... Just people talking back and forward....

    So, Here is my 2cents on this whole Muslims are better or Christians are better or etc...

    We are all equal in the eyes of God (Allah) and have no inferiority in any way. Everyone will understand and be measured by their own level of understanding based on what they have done in this world.

    I once heard if today was the last day you were alive, what would you think of your deeds?

    Other subject is these actions that take innocent lives of people are not OK in any book or religion and people who do it COWER BEHIND ANY THING TO GET AWAY WITH IT... now in this case is religion and in other cases could be something else.

    Dont fight each other because that what they want us to do! Be united and fight together as ONE....


    May 11, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. PaJim

    To quote someone who believed in peace:

    "Imagine . . . no relilgion too". More people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other purpose. It is truly sad that human beings are so hung up on living forever in the hereafter that they destroy what they have right in front of them. If there is a Creator , It would not want it to be so.

    May 11, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
  8. j k

    this is the true arab

    May 11, 2010 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |

    I agree that USA actions are the trigger for a lot of this actions, Support of Israel, invasion of Irak, etc
    But Latin American countries have been struggling wit USA interventions since the beginning of the XIX century. NO only Mexico, but Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, etc, there have thousand of killings and a lot of fighting, but very few real terrorist stories, probably is have something to do with the fact that L.A .is mostly christian

    May 11, 2010 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
  10. GK

    Look I'm ending this. Our country should be standing next to eachother and not putting up with all of these attacks and all of this anger from other countries. We did what we did to get what we wanted. Good old fashion fight. We did not in anyway send some psychos to another country to hideout with a bible and try and blow themselves up in the name of God to make them feel better about what they're doing. I am an American and I love this country and if we did anything to offend another country big deal it's a dog eat dog world. But when one of the dog's isn't strong enough to stand toe to toe it just becomes cowardly and rediculous. All of you who want to stick up for these terrorist SOB's and try and give reason and excuses for what they are doing then get out of this country and go support them we don't need you. Out

    May 12, 2010 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
  11. Matt

    The US is the trigger for this.

    I'm in Ireland, a place which puts paid to your idiotic All terorists are muslims rant seeing as for Centuries Christian and Protestants have been slaughtering one another. Of course America doesn't have suicide bombers as a rule, why wouldthey need them when they can send a drone to kill a wedding party in the blink of an eye?

    If an Afghan guy whose wife your soldiers murdered had access to the technology and an actual miltary such as the Us has access to wouldn't he use that rather than extreme means? If the Us was invaded would you say Oh we're being liberated by a Brown Islamic force and roll over or would you fight back tooth and nail?

    Every US poster in here who has slammed every muslim as being an animal or made ridiculous and monstrous calls for genocide is a hypocrite, liar and absolutely dishonest to themselves.

    Christianity has caused more terror and murder worldwide since it's inception than Islam, just because it's your particular football team doesn't mean you should support it blindly. You're shameful and ignorant fools who don't deserve to be given the time of day that some of the Muslim guys in this thread have shown you and an advertisement for why the US is hollow at heart.

    You'll never be ashamed of yourselves and that's not something to be proud of, it's a byproduct of terrible education and indioctrination into a cult of blind patriotism and fear worship. I don't believe in any God, I don't agree with the Bible or the Koran and will be glad when we all find understanding in ourselves and each other but the horrors you yanks want murderers to commit in your name makes you animals.

    Scared, weak and absolutely beyond contempt animals.

    I look forward to a reply peppered with talk of bombs and invites to a kicking at the hands of simple minded oafs. To people talking sensibly, I'd say you're a credit to whatever you believe in, but I don't want to patronise people for being normal human beings.

    May 12, 2010 at 12:29 am | Report abuse |
  12. j k

    violence is muslem ... this is how the religeon began ... It was either accept islam or die: you could live as a slave of muslims in the first instance till you get converted. If, however you persist in not getting converted to islam then be prepared to lose your limb, your life, wife children and everything.... this is how is all began. Not in faith.Muhammad was a terrorist himself therefore terrorism cannot be separated from the true Islam. Islam means submission and it demands from its followers to submit their wills and thoughts to Muhammad and his imaginary Allah. Allah is a deity that despises reason, democracy, freedom of thought and freedom of expression

    May 12, 2010 at 12:56 am | Report abuse |
  13. Justbhappy

    Funny how Moslems get bent out of shape telling Americans that Islam is a peaceful religion. Why don't they spend their energy reminding these jihadists instead what Islam means. Educate your own people in your own religion. We can't hear what you are saying because your actions have spoken so loudly (kaboom).

    May 12, 2010 at 1:16 am | Report abuse |
  14. GK

    You wanna talk about drones Ireland? We wouldn't have to use them if we weren't fighting scared gorilla warfare cowards! We overcome and conquor. If you people do not like our country then stop asking for our help all the time and complaining when you get it. Stay on your side of the water and live your life and don't reap the benefits of our technology. Which means get off this website.

    May 12, 2010 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
  15. GK

    Oh and another thing. Yes christianity has caused wars. REAL WARS. Let's also face the fact. When did this all blow up to be a big deal and keep getting worse. When Muslims took our towers down. That is the truth get over it. Because of that we will do how we please until it stops and when your country needs help we will be the first boots on the ground doing so. I bet then you won't be on this post runnin lip.

    May 12, 2010 at 1:34 am | Report abuse |
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