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. Cheryl

    So what is the answer? Atttempt to profile these people who "might" become terrorists or throw the baby out with the bathwater?

    May 11, 2010 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
  2. Patriot in West (by God) Virginia


    i agree most muslimsare not launching a murderousjihad. Just donating $$$$$ to the cause.

    Turn the middle east into a sheet of glass, and let alluh sort em out

    May 11, 2010 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  3. Richie

    Thanks Dawn.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
  4. PEACE ON EARTH very comprehensive stufy on wars and genocides! Let us Christiand not forget that the world Wars were started by us and Hitler was a so called Christian.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |
  5. dawn

    Yeah, you can make a list of violent crimes committed in America. And the perp may or may not be a Christian; may or may not be practicing. Usually they are just sick F's. That is the difference between Muslims and the who rest of the world.
    There is no place in a Bible, be in of any religion that says go forth and kill your co-workers if you are having a bad day.. go forth and blow up a plane full of strangers because they do not believe as you do. Tolerance is the difference. Muslims have no tolerance and for that they are dangerous.

    Argue on, it does not matter. How Muslims behave shows the true religion.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
  6. jido

    Ok guys I stand corrected. Islam is not all it's hyped up to be. My apologies.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
  7. nukeem

    nuke em where it hurts

    May 11, 2010 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
  8. M

    Maybe its their religion, honestly was the one difference between a Hutaree militia member and a middle class Jihadist. The only difference would be one is a Christian and the other a Muslim. Other than that their two sides of the same coin. These are people who took, their religion way to seriously, and this is the result when believing in a violent book such as the Quran, and the Bible. Its their religion, not because they think they are defending their brothers who they never even met before.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
  9. Bill


    Nice attempt trying to equivocate with the "slavery" bit. You might want to go check the Quran and any number of Hadith sources again. When you do you might want to note that your prophet allowed slavery and actually had slaves. And since he is the the perfect human you must emulate him thus slavery is and always be legal in Islam. Its why it took the West to actually force the Islamic world to finally declare slavery illegal. That was in 1960 and even till this day the only states that openly practice slavery are Islamic ones!!! And don't try to say Islam treated slaves better–a slave is slave and do you honestly think the tens of millions Islam enslaved wanted to enslaved?

    Ah another nice attempt trying to foist the canard of Christian motivated violence as well. The fact remains Christianity clearly rejects violence best stated by "Love thy enemy", "thou shalt not kill", and "love thy neighbor." In addition the crusades, inquisition, and any war called in the name of Christianity actually has no scirptural or theological basis in Christianity. Furthermore you would be hard pressed to find any Christian leader calling for war, genocide, or the death of others for some type of transgression. For that fact Islam is the only religion that seems to breed Holy men willing to call for war and genocide(note: al Qaradawi speech last January when he called for the extermination of all jews)

    At the end of the day its the followers of your religion that own 60% of the named terrorist groups, over 80% of the seperatist movements, and uniquely is predisposed to violence for the smallest offense. Until you can rectify that we are going to keep brow beating you with the fact. We will never submit! However we will accept you and your religion but will your religion accept us. Sadly no unless we submit first which won't happen–thus the crux of the issue.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
  10. slozomby

    dawn – so your argument is all christians who commit atrocities in the name of jesus are just sick f's and all muslims who commit atrocities are terrorists?

    May 11, 2010 at 12:33 am | Report abuse |
  11. Jo

    @ cyclical
    RE:"@David: There is no excuse for what Muslim empires have done to oppress others. Muslim empires in the end of the day are not unlike any other empire: Roman empire under the Christians for example oppressed others as well. No excuse. But I would be wrong to say that the Roman Empire (or the Spanish inquisition, or the Crusades) oppressed BECAUSE of Christianity. And so likewise you should not make the same leap when it comes to your assertions."

    I urge you to read your history before you make these claims. Under Islamic rule in India, until as recently as 200 years ago, non Muslim people had to pay taxes, live in constant fear of their lives, and did not even enjoy much "tolerance." Here was a militarily powerful minority grinding down the majority IN THE NAME OF ISLAM. As someone who enjoys the friendship of many Muslims, I definitely do not condone attacks on individual Muslims, but please do not even try to make the claim that the religion, as it has been practiced for thousands of years, has been genocidal towards non-Muslims, and even Muslims of persuasions different from whoever is in the majority.

    If Islam really implies Peace, Muslims need to work very hard on accepting the idea of pluralism, and totally rejecting violence.

    Peace, Jo.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:35 am | Report abuse |
  12. slozomby

    jo – i guess 50 years ago anywhere south of new jersey doesnt count?
    those were good christian men and women.
    intolerance shows up in all races, religions and countries.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:40 am | Report abuse |
  13. jido

    Slozomby, they are both sick f's. One kills because he believes he'll get 72 virgins after he kills many innocent infidels, the other is a mentally challenged psychopath. They are both SxxM.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:40 am | Report abuse |
  14. Jason

    Islam like Christianity have their strengths and weaknesses. There are horrible quotes from both the Bible and the Qur'an, The terrorists like to follow certain lines like the one posted earlier, while at the same time ignoring a verse like this one: 18:74 (Asad) And so the two went on, till, when they met a young man, [the sage] slew him -(whereupon Moses] exclaimed: "Hast thou slain an innocent human being without [his having taken] another man's life? Indeed, thou hast done a terrible thing!"

    It all comes down to who's doing the interpretation for the terrorists. As with extremists of any faith, they choose to only read the verses that support their ideology, while ignoring the verses that condem their actions.

    Want to end terrorism? You can't do it by dropping bombs from fighter jets, UAV's etc. The only way to end terrorism is to let loose the counter terror units such as SEAL 6, SAS, JTF2, GSG9 etc, A double tap in the head of a terrorist, and their support lines including those who fund the terrorists will be more effective then dropping mk82's (500lbs bombs) or mk84's (2000 lbs bombs) on suspected terrorist buildings.

    Fight terror with a terror that they cannot see or hear till its too late.


    May 11, 2010 at 12:41 am | Report abuse |
  15. Khan

    To all: I am a Muslim and have questioned many things and dug deeper into my religion and the Bible (others to come). Quite simply the Quran says hurting 1 human being is tantamount to hurting all of humanity; and saving one human being is as if you have saved all of humanity. So then, despite how stupid anyone is, how can the same book possibly tell you to go ahead and murder people? Verses are taken out of context (eye rolling allowed) and used against Islam..I dont know which versions/translations you guys are reading or what drugs you take when you read it(I hardly know of people in the States who would actually even think of learning and studying the book a bit before forming opinions and judgments).I respect all people, regardless of faith or color or anything is shameful to see some of the posts here...some of the people here need to be lined up with the Taliban/Al Qaeda and carpet bombed. Idiots of the highest order.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:43 am | Report abuse |
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