The South Asia Channel

Homecoming: al Qaeda recruits a growing number of Americans

By Paul Cruickshank With a surge in the number of American residents joining al Qaeda, its menace to homeland security is now more acute than at any time since September 11. In the eight years since September 11, and especially during the Bush administration’s first term, Americans became all too accustomed to a diet of ...

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By Paul Cruickshank

With a surge in the number of American residents joining al Qaeda, its menace to homeland security is now more acute than at any time since September 11.

In the eight years since September 11, and especially during the Bush administration’s first term, Americans became all too accustomed to a diet of orange alerts, sensational terror arrests, and breathless press conferences announcing the thwarting of yet another serious plot. But months and years down the line, it often emerged that such plots may not have represented such grave threats after all: terrorism suspects were charged with less serious offenses or released altogether; plotters turned out to have little or no capacity to launch attacks; and, often, when juries did convict, it emerged that entire conspiracies were reliant on the helping hands of undercover law-enforcement agents.

But 11 days ago federal agents in Denver foiled an alleged plot on U.S. soil  that, for the first time, appears to have posed a true and severe threat to the U.S. homeland. Najibullah Zazi, a permanent resident of Afghan nationality pled not guilty yesterday in his arraignment in Brooklyn to charges including for conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. He is believed to have trained to make bombs with al Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan and to have initiated plans — apparently without assistance from undercover agents — with others in the United States to perpetrate a terrorist attack in New York City. The FBI, in other words, has just thwarted the most serious plot, by far, on U.S. soil in the last eight years.

And this is just the beginning. The threat from al Qaeda to the U.S. homeland is arguably more acute now than at any time since September 11. This is not because al Qaeda has become a stronger foe. (On the contrary, Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network has actually been weakened in the last two years by intensified U.S. missile strikes against its leadership in FATA and a sharp backlash among Muslims worldwide against its violent excesses.) It is because a growing number of Americans have gone to FATA, the global hub of al Qaeda’s terrorist operations, to join the jihad in Afghanistan — something which was very rare until recently — and al Qaeda, opportunistically, has recruited them for attacks on their country.

The number of American residents who had joined or trained with Al Qaeda between its founding in 1988 and the September 11 terrorist attacks numbered only in the single figures. They included Wadih El-Hage (bin Laden’s private secretary), Ali Mohammed (an American Special Forces instructor of Egyptian origin), Christopher Paul (a man from Columbus, Ohio, who joined Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the early 1990s), Iyman Faris (another Columbus man of Kashmiri descent who trained in a Qaeda facility and, rather fancifully, planned to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge with gas cutters and a blowtorch in 2003), Adam Gadahn (a Californian Christian convert to Islam who has become one of Al Qaeda’s spokespeople), and John Walker Lindh (the so-called American Taliban).

To read the rest of my piece about al Qaeda’s recruitment of Americans, visit Newsweek, where this was originally published.

Paul Cruickshank is a Fellow at the NYU Center on Law & Security.

SHIRLEY SHEPARD/AFP/Getty Images

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