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. Truth

    islam = International Suckers Liars Azzhole Moolah!!!!! They are DEVIL and very soon we will have to fight them ,unfortunately we have them in our streets our towns and very close to our lifes, they threaten us with what they read in the book called koran.




    May 11, 2010 at 12:46 am | Report abuse |
  2. Dr Dang

    "They are middle-class, some (by their home country's standards) even well-off. They are often college educated."

    They are also stupid 'cause they would have never picked a fight with the USA if they had any brains.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:48 am | Report abuse |
  3. Barney

    Nuking Muslims is not the answer. Half of Muslims are victims of the religion. Islam needs to be eradicated.
    Women are forced to wear the burqa in public, because, according to a Taliban spokesman, "the face of a woman is a source of corruption" for men not related to them. They were not allowed to work, they were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight, and until then were permitted only to study the Qur'an. Women seeking an education were forced to attend underground schools such as the Golden Needle Sewing School, where they and their teachers risk execution if caught. They are not allowed to be treated by male doctors unless accompanied by a male chaperone, which leads to illnesses remaining untreated. They face public flogging and execution for violations of the Muslim's laws. Islam allows and in some cases encourages marriage for girls under the age of 16. Amnesty International reported that 80 percent of Afghan marriages were considered to be by force. And not to be forgotten: female castration.

    Muslims are brutal to each other.

    Just the other week, women in short skirts were blamed for the freaking volcano eruption in Iceland........

    May 11, 2010 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |
  4. jido

    Khan, we have more than enough koran apologists on this forum, we don't need anymore. But since you mention, we know exactly what the koran stands for. Even the ones that haven't read this dumb book can tell you what it says by simply looking around the world today. Yes, thanks to the koran and its followers the world is worse off today then it ever was.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |
  5. obama

    where is my last comment

    May 11, 2010 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |
  6. louie

    Hey jido, islamists, muslims, koranists (ones addicted to the koran), call it what you want. It's all the same CxxP.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
  7. blogger

    The root cause of the problems is the fact that there is no secularism in Islamic countries. These jihadis have all grown up to hate other religions as fake, and theirs as the only true, real religion. This instils a lot of hate and contempt in them about "other" religions. Also, in Islamic countries, religion is not separate from state, so everything is run by religion. Thus, Islam is also a political movement not just a religious one.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:56 am | Report abuse |
  8. Khan


    These people are NOT Muslims. They usurp the rights of others, including women and children, and need to be dealt with....its that simple. Can you understand that? Also, calling the Quran dumb is childish and ignorant on your part. The world is worse off because of politics, consumerism and people like you and these murderers.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:57 am | Report abuse |
  9. Jason

    Khan, Wasalamu aleikam (an Arabic greeting I learned from a few of my Muslim friends that I served with). Quoting from you 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."

    They are quoting and taking the verses out of context exactly the same way that the terrorist and jihadists are doing to support terrorism. All you have to do is listen or read the statements from the terrorists and jihadist supporters.

    Pretenting that there is no problem within Islam through fundamentalism, is no better then pretending there is no problem when you house is on fire.


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

    whos apologizing for the koran? i just like to point out hypocrisy when i see it.
    all religions (with the possible exception of bhuddism) basically say we're right and everyone else is going to hell.
    all major religions (more than a million followers) have had genocide carried out in the name of thier lord in recent history ( the last 200 years)

    May 11, 2010 at 1:01 am | Report abuse |
  11. Bill

    For all those reading the following link which is Islamic propoganda:

    This is a clever technique used by Islamists to try to morally equiviocate violence with another religion. Some points to consider when reading it:

    1) No religion except Islam actually prescirbes violence to expand itself and most even frown on violence for defensive purposes. One has to read the Quran, a Hadith source, the Sira, and explore the tafsirs to get a feel for this. For when you do it will become quite apparent why Islam prescribes force in certain istances
    2) Islam is the only world religion that has a doctrine for war
    3) Labelling the conflicts as Christian or Buhhdist is a sham because none of those conflicts were motivated by that faith. In fact war contradicts the central message of Christianity, Buhhdism, and almost every other major world religion
    4) The conflict figures are off because they include almost nothing about the expansion of Islam, the toll of life due to Islamic slavery, and actually provided the low side of estimates. For example no death tolls are listed for much of the Ottaman wars, the Moors invasion of spain, the later Caliphtes endeavors spreading into India, nor the massive numbers of slave captured. If they had the numbers would be in excess of 200 million.
    5) The genocide figures are again off because they offer the low figures several times and clearly leave others in history of the list.

    At the end of the day the above really does not matter if your using this to morally balance this arguement amongst religions. It doesn't matter because Islam is the only religion that has a doctrine for war, condones offensive war to spread faith, and in modern times is so prone to violence for the smallest of infractions. It's why we will always waiting forever to find that ever ellusive Christian, Buhhdist, Sihk, or Hindu guy blowing himself to kill those of other faith. We will because Islam, unlike any other major world religion, is the only one actually condones violence to spread and protect ones faith.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:02 am | Report abuse |
  12. dawn

    Islam is a cancer on humanity and needs to be cut out.

    The number one victim of fundamentalist (this is more accurate than calling them radical) muslims are other muslims, especially woman, girls and young men.

    Fundamental Muslims are really frustrated right now. They have been trying to goad the west into starting WW III. Mohammed promised his followers one day there would be a holy war that would engulf the entire world. And that Allah would intervene and Islam would prevail over the West. Maybe it is about time that everybody on both sides of this issue took a moment to read up what on what the fight is really about. English versus of the Koran exist and are easy to find. Mohammed has ordered his followers to conquer the world. It does not get much simpler that this. If Islam is not stopped eventually the fundamentalists will pull off an attack spectacular enough to get their wish: WW III.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:02 am | Report abuse |
  13. Khan


    Well said. That is actually the biggest problem within...states use it to oppress and control people out of fear and ignorance (these people in power and authority have harmed Islam beyond belief). I am just so surprised and sad that some of the people here are just as vicious...minus the beard and suicide jacket and kooky version of Islam.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
  14. jido

    Kahn, putting your head in the sand and apologizing or believing that everything is hunky dory with you co-religionists whilst they're running loose killing and maiming innocent civilians makes you one of them.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
  15. jido

    One, two, three, four Islam is very sore.
    Five, six, seven, eight it only knows how to hate.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:08 am | Report abuse |
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