Jihad Jane and ‘homegrown terrorism’

Earlier this week, federal authorities unsealed an indictment against the woman now being called "Jihad Jane." Colleen R. LaRose, a U.S. citizen and Pennsylvania resident, was charged with linking up with overseas terrorists via the Internet as part of a plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist. Officials also alleged that LaRose helped recruit other Americans ...

CHRISTINE CORNELL/AFP/Getty Images
CHRISTINE CORNELL/AFP/Getty Images
CHRISTINE CORNELL/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, federal authorities unsealed an indictment against the woman now being called "Jihad Jane." Colleen R. LaRose, a U.S. citizen and Pennsylvania resident, was charged with linking up with overseas terrorists via the Internet as part of a plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist. Officials also alleged that LaRose helped recruit other Americans to "wage violent jihad" in Europe and South Asia.

Though details about the case are still emerging, LaRose seems to be the latest example of a small but disturbing trend: the involvement of U.S. legal residents and citizens in global terrorist activities. 2009 saw a spike in Americans implicated in terrorism-related offenses. This development is important because U.S. legal residents and citizens are potentially lucrative assets for global terrorist groups. Possessing American passports, they can travel abroad with relative ease to receive terrorist training. And, as was the case with LaRose, Americans (and Europeans) often tend to defy the physical stereotypes and expectations of what a "typical" extremist looks like.   

One of the most high-profile cases has centered on Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan citizen and U.S. legal resident arrested for planning a massive attack on the New York City subway system in September. Zazi plead guilty in February to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, among other charges. He claimed that he had traveled to South Asia "to bring attention to what the United States military was doing to civilians" in Afghanistan. Instead, Zazi was redirected to an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, where he received explosives and weapons training. After returning to the United States, he began planning what some U.S. officials have called the most serious terrorist plot since 9/ 11.

Earlier this week, federal authorities unsealed an indictment against the woman now being called "Jihad Jane." Colleen R. LaRose, a U.S. citizen and Pennsylvania resident, was charged with linking up with overseas terrorists via the Internet as part of a plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist. Officials also alleged that LaRose helped recruit other Americans to "wage violent jihad" in Europe and South Asia.

Though details about the case are still emerging, LaRose seems to be the latest example of a small but disturbing trend: the involvement of U.S. legal residents and citizens in global terrorist activities. 2009 saw a spike in Americans implicated in terrorism-related offenses. This development is important because U.S. legal residents and citizens are potentially lucrative assets for global terrorist groups. Possessing American passports, they can travel abroad with relative ease to receive terrorist training. And, as was the case with LaRose, Americans (and Europeans) often tend to defy the physical stereotypes and expectations of what a "typical" extremist looks like.   

One of the most high-profile cases has centered on Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan citizen and U.S. legal resident arrested for planning a massive attack on the New York City subway system in September. Zazi plead guilty in February to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, among other charges. He claimed that he had traveled to South Asia "to bring attention to what the United States military was doing to civilians" in Afghanistan. Instead, Zazi was redirected to an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, where he received explosives and weapons training. After returning to the United States, he began planning what some U.S. officials have called the most serious terrorist plot since 9/ 11.

Zazi is just one of several U.S. legal residents and citizens implicated in extremist violence during the latter half of 2009. Among the others are David Coleman Headley, an alleged co-conspirator in the 2008 Mumbai attacks; U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings; up to two-dozen Somali residents of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, believed to have joined the Somali insurgent group, al-Shabaab; and five young men from Northern Virginia, accused of attempting to join the Taliban.  

Identifying a root cause for this trend is not a simple task. The standard, if sometimes problematic, explanations for extremism (as we’ve seen in Europe) — poverty, social marginalization, geographical segregation — do not do much to elucidate recent incidents in the United States. As a medical doctor, for instance, Hasan’s yearly income was around $90,000. The 5 young men from Northern Virginia lived in middle class, well-integrated neighborhoods. Even some of the Minnesotan Somalis, who most seem to conform to a "European model" of radicalization, attended college-Abdisalan Ali, for example, took pre-med courses at the University of Minnesota. Perhaps then, the most important analytical lesson to emerge from these events is that it’s best to avoid simple characterizations altogether. This principle applies to terrorism more generally, as the Feb. 18th attack on the Austin, Texas Internal Revenue Service building showed. Andrew Joseph Stack III, the perpetrator in that event, harbored anti-government views.

More important are two similarities among the recent cases that do, in fact, suggest some directives for U.S. policy toward homegrown extremism. First, nearly all of the suspects, including Jihad Jane, appeared to rely on some sort of transnational "intermediary" — like an extremist cleric or terrorist recruiter — to catalyze their radicalization. Such communication occurred both online and in-person. Second, many of these individuals seemed to draw on an al Qaeda-driven narrative — that the U.S. and West are at war with Islam — as justification for their alleged actions. Preventing homegrown extremism, then, requires in part that the government work to sever the links between intermediaries and recruits and also work to puncture al Qaeda’s "clash of civilizations" narrative.

To a certain extent, these efforts are already underway; federal-local partnerships, embodied in Joint Terrorism Task Forces and Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-sponsored "fusion centers," help uncover domestic plots. DHS, through its Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, has looked to increase official engagement with Muslim communities. This is an important initiative, because the family and friends of suspected criminals often are the best resources for law enforcement officials. The families of the "Northern Virginia Five," for example, alerted authorities when the young men went missing last November.

But the U.S. government must be more proactive in developing its approach to dealing with homegrown extremism. To date it lacks a comprehensive framework for addressing Internet radicalization, a key component to curbing the influence of intermediaries, especially those who rely on email, chat rooms, YouTube, Facebook, and other social media to attract would-be extremists.

On a broader level, policymakers need to think more aggressively about ways to counteract al-Qaeda’s "West vs. Islam" narrative. To its credit, the Obama administration has discarded phrases like "war on terror" that proved so divisive during the early, post-9/11 years. Ultimately, though, the United States needs to go further because al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups seize on more than just U.S. rhetoric in promoting their agendas; they also point to America’s military presence in Muslim countries as evidence for their preferred narratives. The United States, then, must consider how to balance the need to combat global terrorism with the drawbacks of large-scale, direct military intervention.

What do these recent incidents say about the future of homegrown extremism in the United States? It is important to remember that the threat, while serious, remains limited in scope. In addition to its current efforts, though, the United States must embrace new and innovative ways to mitigate domestic radicalization and reverse this disturbing trend.

Rick "Ozzie" Nelson is the program director, and Ben Bodurian the research assistant, of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies. This piece is adapted from their recent report entitled A Growing Terrorist Threat? Assessing "Homegrown" Extremism in the United States.

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