New report details al-Qaida membership in the US

New York seen as a terror group hub; majority of members under age 30, have US citizenship, well-educated, employed.

February 27, 2013 01:55
2 minute read.
World Trade Center on September 11, 2001

World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Sara K. Schwittek)


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WASHINGTON – More than half of all al-Qaida operatives and their affiliates in the United States who have committed terrorist offenses are US citizens and a third were born in America, according to a new report profiling the groups’ American adherents.

The 720-page, telephone book-sized volume produced by the Henry Jackson Society and presented at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Tuesday, carefully examines the 171 cases of al- Qaida members or those inspired by the organization who have been convicted in US courts or participated in suicide attacks against the US homeland between 1997 and 2011.

The study found that 95 percent of the terrorist offenses were committed by men, 57% of whom were under the age of 30. New York was seen as a hub for their activity, with more – 14% – residing there than elsewhere and with large number of those living elsewhere trafficking through.

Nearly a quarter of the operatives were converts to Islam, with over half of those born in the US having converted.

And those who converted, all of whom did so from Christianity as far as could be ascertained, were far more likely to have carried out offenses (as opposed to having participated only in training or incitement) than others.

The group researched were fairly well-educated and employed. More than half had attended some form of college, and a quarter had done some higher study. In addition, more than half, or 57%, were in school or had a job at the time they were charged or committed their attacks.

Report co-author Robin Simcox described the operatives as “US citizens who are mostly educated, mostly employed, who haven’t been marginalized by the system. They’ve mostly passed through the system.”

However, he and Michael Hayden, the former Central Intelligence Agency director who wrote the report’s forward, suggested that more personal experiences of social dislocation could be a major factor in who ended up being radicalized.

“I’m willing to accept the possibility that this has a lot more to do with the Crips and the Bloods than it does with the Koran,” Hayden said. “Maybe this is just one expression in a post-industrial society of how young people... deal with alienation.”

He continued, “That doesn’t dismiss it. That doesn’t make it unimportant. In fact it’s a particular form of embrace that makes the alienated [person] even more dangerous.”

Simcox said that there was a tremendous spike in the numbers of al-Qaida adherents in the US after the September 11 attacks, as these individuals were apparently drawn to the group’s ideology.

He suggested that alienated individuals might have been attracted to radical Islam at that point, rather than other outlets, because of the widespread attention to and dissemination of al-Qaida’s message, particularly through YouTube and other Internet vehicles.

Those who were later arrested often expressed their outrage with various American policies in the Middle East, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Simcox noted, but he said there was little indication terror activities were carried out in direct reaction to events overseas.

He added that, “In a lot of them you see foreign grievances being brought up [but] from the US’s point of view there’s only so really much you can do about that.” He concluded, “You have to try to make your best and soundest policies, and after that it might cause some levels of radicalization.”

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