In the past year, exposure of significant jihadist recruitment inside the United States has left Americans worried that "homegrown terrorism" may become a serious threat. Eight years after the atrocities of September 11, 2001, media and government appear stunned by the upsurge of jihad incidents in the United States, including two lethal attacks. The Fort Hood massacre on November 5, for which an Army psychiatrist, Nidal Hasan, has been charged with 13 deaths, has been followed by two more cases.
On December 9, five college-age Muslims from northern Virginia were arrested in Pakistan. They were allegedly headed for terror training camps, and were detained along with Khalid Chaudhry, father of the apparent leader of the younger enthusiasts, Umer Farooq Chaudhry.
Then, on December 14, a filing by federal prosecutors charged that David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American businessman from Chicago whose birth name is Daood Gilani, was complicit in the terror assault that killed nearly 170 people in Bombay last year. Headley and an associate, Tahawwur Rana, had been arrested in October, accused of conspiring to blow up Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published the "Muhammad cartoons" in 2005.
A connection between the arrests in Pakistan and the Chicago investigation may be demonstrated. But these episodes are just part of a daunting list over the past year. Of almost 30 Islamist terror schemes uncovered on U.S. soil since 9/11, 10 came in 2009. They included:
- a plan to attack military aircraft and synagogues in New York (four men arrested in May),
- the fatal shooting of an Army recruiter and wounding of another in Little Rock in June,
- the North Carolina plot to wage jihad in various countries (eight men charged in July),
- a conspiracy to plant bombs in New York (prevented by apprehension of the accused, an Afghan national from Denver, in September),
- an attempted bombing at an Illinois courthouse, also in September,
- an intended assault on a shopping center in Massachusetts, foiled in October,
- and a firefight later that same month in Detroit between FBI agents and radicals bent on establishing an Islamist enclave ruled by sharia law in the United States.
Following the arrests of the six Virginians (counting the father) in Pakistan, American Islamist organizations with extensive records of radical advocacy affirmed their intense desire to assist the authorities in suppressing extremism. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) proudly announced on December 9 that it had been told by parents of the five youths that they were missing, and that CAIR had then informed the FBI and assisted the bureau in its handling of the matter.
Haris Tarin, an official of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), another prominent radical group, stood on the podium at the Washington press conference where CAIR's national executive director, Nihad Awad, made this claim. Tarin added, "Any radicalization that exists is a major problem that we must [address] head on." Mahdi Bray of the Muslim American Society (MAS), also included in the press conference, was less ameliorative, declaring that Muslim young people "are not to be characterized as terrorist suspects. . . . They are indeed America's brightest prospects."
The CAIR and MPAC statements have been interpreted by some observers as a turning point for these groups. But don't hold your breath. None of these blandishments are new. If the rhetoric of CAIR and MPAC suddenly seems more determined, it is most likely because they are profoundly frightened. A wave of panic swept the American Muslim community after the Fort Hood attack. These same groups have spent decades creating a milieu sympathetic to jihadists among American Sunni Muslims. CAIR has served as a front for Hamas; MPAC's executive director, Salam Al-Marayati, took to the airwaves in Los Angeles on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, to argue that Israel was a logical target for suspicion. It is difficult to imagine that they will now turn around and break with the ideology to which they have dedicated so much energy.
Why has jihadism in this country grown so much that a group of students might go to Pakistan intending war against the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan? The most convincing explanation links the demographics of American Islam to the shift of the main terror zone from Iraq to South Asia.
According to CAIR itself, the plurality of Muslims attending mosque services in America are South Asian by birth or ethnicity, and make up at least a third of all American Muslims. Most of these have Pakistani roots; some are Indian, others are Afghan or Bangladeshi. Ethnic Pakistani and Indian functionaries and activists are the backbone of radical Islam in the United States. To further the cause of Muslim extremism here and in Great Britain, Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia provide the money, and the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood furnishes the literature. But South Asians handle the organizational work.
Aside from the leaders of CAIR and MPAC, who are Arab in origin, and a handful of African Americans like Mahdi Bray of MAS, South Asians account for most of the Muslim radicals who have attained prominence here over the last few years. Muzammil Siddiqi, the former president of the Islamic Society of North America, was born in India. He is remembered for his avowal on October 28, 2000, at an anti-Israel "Jerusalem Day" rally in Washington: "America has to learn . . . if you remain on the side of injustice, the wrath of God will come." Sayyid M. Syeed, former secretary general of the same organization, was born in Kashmir. Agha Saeed, national chairman of the American Muslim Alliance, an Islamist political action committee, was born in Quetta, Pakistan, where bombings and assassinations have become common. The list may be extended much further.
Why should South Asian Muslims in America be any more susceptible than Arab or other Muslims to recruitment for armed combat? Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims living in America have had little incentive to contribute more than money to the terrorist cause. The recipients of their donations, Hamas and Hezbollah, have plenty of foot soldiers in their own neighborhood. Iraqi Muslims residing here were divided by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, with most of them supporting it, but even when they opposed the U.S.-led intervention, they also had scant motivation to go and fight in Iraq.
But once the U.S.-led coalition effectively won the war in Iraq, the top priority for global jihadism shifted to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan is much easier for prospective combatants to reach than Iraq was. And Pakistanis are different: While Arab jihadists are aggrieved at the rulers of their countries of origin, sentiment among Pakistanis in America reflects the involvement of Pakistan's rulers in jihadism. Just as pro-Taliban elements have captured leading positions in the Pakistani Army and intelligence service (ISI), Pakistani Sunni culture in America is saturated with radicalism.
Pakistani Muslim extremists, whether involved with the Taliban or not, and whether living in Pakistan or abroad, are filled with resentment of India over Kashmir, enraged at Washington for, so far, preventing the collapse of the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, and twisted by a perverse pride at Islamabad's possession of nuclear weapons. These attitudes are pervasive among Pakistani Sunnis in America and have empowered Pakistan-based jihadist movements with the United States.
One such element, the clandestine Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Righteous or LeT) operated the "North Virginia paintball jihad" network exposed in 2003, eleven of whose members were convicted of weapons and other offenses. LeT, an al Qaeda auxiliary, carried out the Bombay horrors last year. LeT guided the above-mentioned David Coleman Headley, who had legally changed his name to facilitate target-scouting visits to India. When the five Virginia youths and one parent now held in Pakistan attempted to sign up for terror training there, they approached groups allied with LeT.
The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) is another larger and public formation of South Asian radical Muslims. Of the Northern Virginians recently arrested in Pakistan, three shared a Pakistani background, one was culturally Eritrean, one Ethiopian, and one was Egyptian-American. The mosque they attended in Fairfax County is the "ICNA Islamic Center."
ICNA is a front for Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the most powerful Islamist movement in Pakistan. ICNA is organized in paramilitary fashion and imposes discipline and tasks on its members. Its top leader, Zahid Bukhari, is designated its "ameer" or "commander." Its goal, as stated on its website (icna.org/about-icna) is "the establishment of Islam in all spheres of life." Mission work, or dawah, "has always been the top priority of ICNA."
ICNA's extensive literature distribution efforts include the talks and writings of Abul Ala Maududi, founder of JI, on "the Islamic social order." Maududi was the most prominent theorist of radical Islam in modern South Asian history. ICNA outreach also includes a "Jihad FAQ" in which--dispensing with the usual evasions found in such materials--ICNA defines jihad as "collective armed self-defense, as well as retribution against tyranny, exploitation, and oppression." Furthermore, the same document distinguishes armed jihad from terrorism as follows: "Jihad, when the need arises, is declared openly, while terrorism is committed secretly." Regardless of the absurdity of the latter distinction, since 9/11 and other acts of Islamist terror are anything but secret, the five youths and one parent detained in Pakistan were allegedly on their way to fight American and other coalition soldiers in Afghanistan. Jihad, as ICNA defines it, was their motive.
It should be noted that ICNA also expressed a terse willingness to assist the U.S. authorities in the case of the six held in Pakistan but at the same time condemned the increase in U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan. The five young men and one father, in short, were products of a communal environment imported into America, based on a foreign ideology financed from abroad by bloodthirsty extremists.
Jihadism in America, then, is not really "homegrown." It is as alien to America as were the Soviet-controlled Communists and the pro-Nazi German American Bund. The only answer to it is a complete cutoff of financial and organizational links between such entities in the United States and their overseas masters, as well as other legal measures to end their subversive efforts.
Stephen Schwartz, a frequent contributor, is the author of The Two Faces of Islam and The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony.