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. WhyDoYouCare

    ...Why, yes, that has been taken out of context, I'm glad you can at least admit it, Jordan. That's the first step.

    I like how Muslims are always terrorists, but that crazy Christian militia group? Who called them terrorists? That's what I thought.

    Honestly, stressed/insane people have been doing stuff like this forever. Like school shootings? The culprit, according to alarmist news sources (perhaps like CNN in this article?) was video games, so we should ban all video games.

    Whether it be religion or video games, people always have an excuse for acting out if their lives are bad. I don't think it's actually anything to do with the religion–it's just another excuse for people acting out.

    Also, to the bigots out there...this country was founded on principles of religious freedom. Remember that.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:06 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Zebra

    You commentators can say all you want against Islam and Muslims and how violent they are, how bad the religion is etc etc. but I am sure no one here will look in the reasons for Muslims to be so angry. May be there is something wrong with American foreign policy, or may be we (Americans) did something wrong to them (Muslims)? You have to accept it, there is a slight chance that America can be wrong not just Muslims.

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

    Actually it's nothing really to do with the religion of Islam... all these act's of violence are political.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:14 pm | Report abuse |
  4. dawn

    If you follow world news you would know that America is not the only country that is 'under attack' by Muslims.

    So Zebra, are you saying that all the countries did something wrong to the Muslims??

    Can you not even accept the possibility that it is the Muslim faith?

    May 10, 2010 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
  5. cyclical

    What's behind middle class jihadists? Drones over Pakistan. Troops in Saudi Arabia. The destruction of Iraq, American support for the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, etc. Need I go on? Yes, radical ideology does play a role. But jihadist leaders would never get recruits if there was no pretext to play on. Modern-day jihadism started with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. America: look at your foreign policies.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:20 pm | Report abuse |
  6. WhyDoYouCare


    I like how you refer to 'Muslims' like all Muslims get in huge meetings and decide 'Okay, every single one of us hates Americans and we want to blow the crap out of stuff. YEAH! Let's do that!" And then every man, woman, and child votes on it, and if it passes, we go ahead.

    ....No, it doesn't happen like that. You cannot label large groups of people based on the actions of a few. It doesn't make sense.

    So, if you were Christian, would you like me to apply things that were said about that Christian militia group to you?

    That's what I thought.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:21 pm | Report abuse |
  7. WhyDoYouCare

    Good posts, Zebra and Cyclical.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. chintu

    every single terrorist incident have muslims behind it doing it on the name of god. what kind of religion is it?have we ever heard of any christian,jew,hindu,buddhist killing innocents on name of religion?

    May 10, 2010 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
  9. cyclical

    @dawn: The Islamic faith cannot tolerate oppression subjugated on Muslims. We have a built-in self-defence mechanism. Yes, this can be exploited by misguided radicals to promote terrorism and thus oppress others, which is clearly condemed by the Quran. But in the last 200 years, Muslims have been oppressed by Eurpose, India, Serbia, Russia, China and others.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
  10. dawn

    The “Islamic threat” now is very real.
    However, it is precisely the trauma caused by the events of 70 years ago that is clouding our judgement this time, since any talk at all about the threat posed by Muslim immigration or about preserving our own culture is being dismissed as “the same rhetoric as the Nazis used against the Jews.” Americans and Europeans have been taught to be so scared of our own shadows that we are incapable of seeing that darkness can come from the outside, too. This is brought on by massive Muslim immigration to America and Europe and Multicultural stupidity.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
  11. quinn

    Religious fundamentalist extremists come from all classes and backgrounds, I would think. One thing about them however: they have a twisted and sick way of interpreting spirituality and religion, because they think they are pleasing God through murder and mayhem.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. WhyDoYouCare

    ...Actually, yeah, Chintu.

    Do your research next time, and instead of only considering the incidents you personally hear about, remember (need I say it again?) the Christian militia group, um, all of what's going on in Ireland–as for Jewish people, the Gaza Massacre should suffice as an example.

    So...yeah. I have heard of that, Chintu. Just because you haven't....well, that just makes you uninformed.

    Again, good post cyclical.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:27 pm | Report abuse |
  13. reality

    Religion is dangerous , evolutionary bagage...
    There is no god.....
    Believe it....
    You will sleep better and be better to your fellow man

    May 10, 2010 at 11:27 pm | Report abuse |
  14. dawn

    Then the time of the arrogance, excuses, and whiny demands is past.
    It's time for Muslims to take responsibility and end the violence.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. cyclical

    @dawn: Cry all you want. America and Europse was built on the backs of Eastern slavery and colonialism. You wiped out native Americans. Now that you have the "good life", you're now crying when the East wants to taste it too. Very selfish.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |
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