Portrait of an American Jihadist
Two New York women were arrested for conspiring with the Islamic State. They share many characteristics with other homegrown terrorist who turned against America.
Two cousins from Chicago, one a member of the U.S. National Guard. An Air Force veteran. Two friends in Queens. A teenager from Minnesota. Three immigrants from Central Asia. These people have seemingly little in common, except this: They allegedly turned against the United States by conspiring to fight for the Islamic State on American soil.
Yesterday in New York, Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui, onetime roommates and American citizens, became the latest would-be jihadists arrested by U.S. law enforcement. They stand accused of plotting a Boston Marathon-type attack, and Siddiqui was found with bomb-making materials when she was arrested, authorities say.
They now join a growing list of Americans or immigrants living in America arrested for conspiring with the Islamic State. The Justice Department did not return a request for comment on how many arrests related to the terror group have been made. But the Associated Press has tallied upwards of 20 cases of American citizens, or foreign nationals living in America, who have been nabbed for conspiring with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Experts tell Foreign Policy that there are likely many others out there — some that law enforcement are aware of, and some who are flying under the radar — that are working with the terrorist group.
The United States hasn’t suffered a homegrown attack like the ones experienced in Canada, France, and Australia at the hands of an extremists claiming allegiance to the Islamic State. But according to John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, it’s only a matter of time before wannabe jihadis earn their bloody stripes. “I have no doubt they will get lucky eventually,” he said.
These homegrown terrorist share similar traits. “Any American that wants to join a terror group is unhappy with their life and has responded to one or more forms of radicalization,” Jeff Lanza, a former FBI agent, told Foreign Policy.
This unhappiness is the seed that has the potential to grow into radicalization. The turn toward a more fundamental view of Islam usually starts in the early teens or 20s.
“Most are at a young age and don’t have a well formed strategy for future life,” Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist at the University of Maryland, told Foreign Policy. “They do not have a career, they don’t have any particular set of plans.”
Like other groups in the past, including Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany or the Irish Republican Army in Ireland, the Islamic State provides an opportunity to aspire to a higher calling. “There is this shared excitement of doing something illicit, something cool, something sexy. There’s an element of hiding in plain sight, the feeling that they’re in a community of insiders,” Horgan said.
Once a part of this community, it’s up to the Islamic State recruiter to prod them into action. Both Velentzas and Siddiqui were in touch with extremists abroad, according to prosecutors.
“At some point, the recruiter is going to emphasize the importance of not acting too late, before the FBI breaks down the door,” Horgan said, adding that the two women in New York suspected one of the undercover agents investigating them was a cop. Many recruiters do this by getting recruits to buy into narratives about Muslims suffering at the hands of the United States around the world, Kruglanski said, and then turn this empathy into a will to act.
Finally, the recruiter has to convince them that their death, in the event of a suicide attack, or the possibility of imprisonment, is worth it.
“All recruits share in common this idea that a better life awaits out there, that there are others out there who can share in this fantasy,” Horgan said.
“You can become famous overnight. You can become a hero,” added Kruglanski.
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