The Fairytale of the Poor and Angry Terrorists (AICGS Advisor)

By Alexander Ritzmann. This essay appeared in the May 25, 2007, AICGS Advisor.

The recently foiled attacks on the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey by Islamist terrorists shook up a popular fairytale repeated by many in the United States: that Islamist terrorists (jihadis) are supposedly poor and angry. Many of Europe’s Muslims are socio-economically lower class. Some are also angry, and so „homegrown terrorism“ is in fact a European problem. In contrast, because Muslims in the U.S. are more prosperous and better integrated, Americans have nothing to fear.

The good news first: Muslims in the U.S. are generally better integrated, well educated and have a higher per capita income than the average American. The vast majority of these Muslims are law-abiding, peaceful and dedicated to building a good life for themselves and their children.

The bad news from Europe comes from studies analyzing the backgrounds of global and European jihadis which conclude that there is no pattern of a „socio-economically marginalized angry Muslim.“ On the contrary, after examining 172 global Salafi jihadis, Marc Sageman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., concludes that the stereotype of a terrorist as poor, angry and fanatically religious is a myth. In his book „Understanding Terror Networks“ (2004), he shows that the jihadi terrorists were generally middle-class, educated young men from caring and religious families who grew up with strong positive values of religion, spirituality, and concern for their communities.

In addition, Edwin Bakker of the Clingendael Institute in Holland produced a study titled „Jihadi Terrorists in Europe“ (December 2006) which analyzed the socio-economic data of seventy-two jihadis in Europe and showed that almost 50 percent were upper or middle class. For example, the 9/11 Hamburg cell students were provided with stipends. Similarly, three of the four 7/7 London bombers were middle class and the terrorists who bombed the trains in Madrid in 2004 had various socio-economical backgrounds. Finally, the 2006 „suitcase bombers“ in Germany were engineering students with good job prospects.

Certainly, there are many jobless or alienated immigrant youth in Europe. Some, like those in France, have started riots, burning their own neighborhoods. But as the empirical data show, they are unlikely to be involved in sophisticated terrorist attacks.

New evidence recently presented in Great Britain reveals that the London 7/7 suicide bombers as well as the related „fertilizer bomb“ group, whose members were sentenced two weeks ago, had ties to Al Qaeda. The terrorists from Madrid had a similar profile. Wills left by suicide bombers and testimonials made during trials show that many European jihadis, related to Al Qaeda or not, see themselves as soldiers defending Islam against the West.

They have adopted the Salafi ideology and identify with the destiny of fellow Muslims, mostly in Muslim countries. They are not fighting for better living conditions in Great Britain, Spain or Germany but want to take revenge on those they see as responsible for what they consider as attacks against the global Muslim nation, or Umma. Or they want to join the Fatah, the offensive side of jihad, to reestablish the Caliphate, an ultra-religious super state in the Middle East, as well as in parts of Spain, France and Eastern Europe.

In comparison to Europe, the U.S. has a much more integrated Muslim population, which is undoubtedly a security asset. Nevertheless, the theory that the U.S. is facing a significantly lower threat level of „home grown terrorism“ is difficult to support. Robert Leiken and Steven Brook from the Nixon Center in Washington D.C., conclude in their 2006 study „The Quantitative Analysis of Terrorism and Immigration“ that the U.S. has served as a host country to 93 (25 percent of an analyzed sample) of 373 jihadis worldwide. Forty-two of those were U.S. citizens.

For example, the so-called Lackawanna group in upstate New York included six men sentenced for providing material support to Al Qaeda in 2001. They are U.S. citizens of Yemeni background and were all-American teenagers who played soccer together and enjoyed going to parties. In 2005, California federal authorities announced indictments against the head of an Islamist prison gang and three Los Angeles men suspected to be involved in a terrorist plot to attack synagogues, National Guard facilities and Los Angeles International Airport. A 24-year-old man was sentenced to thirty years in prison in 2006 for hatching an unsuccessful plot to blow up a Manhattan subway station. In June 2006, the FBI arrested seven U.S. citizens in Miami in connection with a plot to attack Chicago’s Sears Tower and other buildings in the U.S. In April 2007, Christopher Paul, 43, a U.S. citizen and resident of Columbus, Ohio, was arrested for joining Al Qaeda and training jihadis in Europe.

And on May 8 the FBI arrested six men who were allegedly planning to storm Fort Dix with heavy weapons with the goal of killing as many soldiers and personnel as possible. The arrested were operating small businesses or worked in the service sector.

Those who disagree with the implications of these findings argue that the thwarted plots in the U.S. seem less dangerous than those in Europe and that the U.S. homegrown terrorists tend to be far more bungling, far less competent. Or as Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., puts it: „The fact is that most of those arrested (in the past) are small fry and wannabes.“

It is important to realize that most foiled plots in Europe were as unprofessional and unlikely to be successful as those in the U.S. Motivation to kill and the operational capability to do so fortunately do not often go together.

However, due to the different law enforcement practices in the U.S. and Europe, many European domestic intelligence agencies like the British MI5 or the German Verfassungsschutz can gather more information before suspects finally get arrested. According to an interviewed intelligence official, the U.S. federal government’s strategy of aggressively intervening early in any suspected terrorism plot, no matter how small, has sometimes resulted in prosecutions that failed to live up to their initial billing. The Fort Dix group seems to be an exception as it had been under surveillance for about fifteen months. They were, however, arrested before they could buy the desired AK-47s, M-16s and other weapons. Court documents showed that one defendant, Mohammed Ibrahim Shnewer, also spoke of using rocket-propelled grenades to kill at least 100 soldiers. What would have been the assessment of this group after they had gathered the weapons or even, after they had attacked Fort Dix?

And what motivated them? Eljvir Duka, another defendant, was recorded as saying: „In the end, when it comes to defending your religion, when someone… attacks your religion, your way of life, then you go jihad.“ It seems that the Fort Dix gang had quite a similar motivation as the 7/7 London bombers and other European jihadis.

A May 22 Pew poll of Muslim Americans found that 36 percent of U.S. Muslims are very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in the United States. On the other hand, 13 percent of U.S. Muslims say that suicide bombings can be justified to defend Islam. And according to the poll, 5 percent of American Muslims have a favorable view of Al Qaeda.

Furthermore, WorldNetDaily reported that according to the FBI, Al Qaeda is aggressively recruiting black Americans for suicide operations within the U.S. A speech released on May 5 by Osama bin Laden’s deputy confirmed that African-Americans are the number one recruiting target for the next generation of attacks.

So even if 95 percent of Muslims in the U.S. are American patriots, this leaves thousands of sympathizers, supporters and potential jihadis in the country. And as we have seen in Europe, sometimes operational groups of five to twenty-five people are enough to strike effectively.

The conclusion for Americans and Europeans of all faiths and ethnicities, including the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the U.S. and Europe who will never be involved in terrorism, is troubling: for reasons shown above, Islamist terrorists are dedicated to attacking liberal democracies. And as the studies and recent events show, many of them are European or U.S. citizens or legal residents.

The American people deserve a policy based on facts not fairytales. Focusing on building fences and keeping foreigners out is an inadequate response, especially when the enemy is already within U.S. borders. U.S. policymakers should learn what it is that propels young men from New York, London, Madrid and Los Angeles to choose to be terrorists. A good start would be to accept that clinging to myths about the socio-economic root causes of terrorism is irresponsible. Because turning a blind eye on the real motivations of home-grown terrorists could turn the U.S. fairytale in a nightmare.

Alexander Ritzmann was a DAAD/AICGS Fellow in April-May 2007. He is also a senior research fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels, Belgium.


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