In the years following the September 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials were focused primarily on tracking down terrorists abroad. But in recent years their targets have been increasingly closer to home. At least 25 American citizens—both born and naturalized—have been charged with serious federal terrorism violations since the beginning of 2009, according to information compiled by federal authorities.
The list of 25 U.S. citizens who have been charged with such offenses in the last 18 months was compiled and provided to NEWSWEEK by a U.S. law-enforcement official, who requested not to be identified because it is not an official government publication and is not meant to be exhaustive. “These cases clearly suggest that an increasing number of U.S. citizens, both native-born Americans and naturalized citizens, appear to be getting involved in the terrorist cause. It’s not an encouraging trend,” said a Justice Department official who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information.
The official who provided the recent information said he did not have such statistics broken down by citizenship for terrorism prosecutions during the George W. Bush administration, and a search of government and academic sources did not turn up comparable figures. By one comparison, in the 18 months before Barack Obama took office, the Department of Justice prosecuted 35 terrorism cases against all suspects—both American citizens and foreign nationals—according to DOJ information released to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University (PDF).
Earlier this year the Justice Department published a comprehensive listing (PDF) of more than 400 federal-court convictions on terror charges since September 11, 2001, but it did not provide the citizenship of the defendants. Over the years the Justice Department has also issued periodic summaries of terror prosecutions, such as this one and this one, which do mention earlier, well-known cases involving U.S. citizens, including those of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, the “Lackawanna Six” (a group of men from the Buffalo, N.Y., area who were arrested in 2002 for training at a Qaeda camp in Afghanistan before 9/11), and a Virginia imam convicted in 2005 for encouraging others to go to Pakistan for jihadist training. But at the time these cases surfaced, they appeared relatively isolated and not part of the kind of extended pattern that the latest statistics appear to show.
Counterterrorism experts from the Bush era say that the new cases represent an increased involvement by Americans in militant jihadism that began before Obama took office but has accelerated since then. The experts attribute the alarming trend both to increasing alienation among young American Muslims and to more effective enforcement and intelligence collection activities by the FBI and other U.S. government agencies.
To be sure, there are many different kinds of people, motivations, and actions represented on this list, and not every example can be attributed solely to radicalization of American Muslims. Also, the criminal cases are all at various stages, with some having pleaded not guilty. Marc Sageman, an independent terrorism expert who worked for the CIA during the 1980s, notes that some of the recent cases on the list—such as the Newburgh, N.Y., plot and the case of the man who wanted to bomb an Illinois courthouse—are less significant than others because they were the products of FBI “sting” operations and thus constitute what Sageman considers to be “entrapment,” meaning a heavy government role in luring the suspects into what they thought was jihad. Also, said Sageman, a North Carolina case whose defendants are included on the list mainly involved plans to get involved in jihadist fighting overseas, not inside the U.S.
Still, the increase is troubling. The official who provided the list of 25 charged Americans emphasized that it was not necessarily comprehensive and features mainly high-profile cases involving serious charges. The list includes:
*Faisal Shahzad, the accused perpetrator of the recent failed Times Square car bombing.
*David Headley, a Chicago man who pleaded guilty to charges that included helping a Pakistan-based terror group gather intelligence for November 2008 terror attacks against commercial targets in Mumbai.
*Two American women, known as “Jihad Jane” and “Jihad Jamie,” who are facing charges in Philadelphia for their roles in an alleged Internet-based conspiracy to attack a Swedish artist who drew a cartoon lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.
Also on the list are Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin, naturalized Americans born in Afghanistan and Bosnia, respectively, who allegedly conspired with Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-born permanent resident of the U.S. in a plot to bomb the New York City subway system last September. Zazi, the alleged mastermind, is not listed as one of the 25 American citizens arrested for terrorism in the last 18 months. (Zazi and Ahmedzay have pleaded guilty in the subway bombing plot; charges against Medunjanin are still pending).
The 25 U.S. citizens on the list may be only a cross-section of a larger problem, however, officials say. The “Northern Virginia Five,” a group of Americans who are currently being detained by authorities in Pakistan, are not on the list, nor is Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army Psychiatrist accused—in the U.S. military-justice system—of killing 13 fellow soldiers in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, last November.
The official who provided the list noted that it does not include any of the estimated 20 Americans or U.S. residents who are alleged or reported to have traveled to Somalia to join Al Qaeda affiliates or other jihadist factions operating there. Also not on the list are a number of Americans who are believed to have gone to Yemen in recent years for suspected jihadist training. Most estimates by law-enforcement and intelligence officials put the number of Americans who may now be undergoing such training in Yemen at about a dozen, though this report (PDF) issued in January by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee suggested that “36 American ex-convicts arrived in Yemen in the past year, ostensibly to study Arabic”—a figure that other U.S. officials suggest is an overestimate.
Frances Fragos Townsend, White House counterterrorism adviser in the George W. Bush administration, says her recollection is that the involvement of American citizens or residents in terror plots actually began to grow while she still worked in government, with cases like that of the mainly Balkan expatriates (some of whom were illegal aliens) from Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs who plotted to shoot up soldiers at the Fort Dix Army training base, and a 2007 domestically hatched plot (with alleged connections to Trinidad and possibly Iran) to blow up fuel lines leading to New York’s JFK airport. She says the raw statistics charting American citizens’ involvement in serious terror plots is not just a “sudden spike” but rather a trend that has been tilting “precipitously up” for the last few years.
Sageman says there is still evidence of what he describes as a “very serious uptick” in American citizens’ interest and involvement in jihadist activities in recent years. He attributes this alarming trend to three factors. First, he says, now that memories of 9/11 have faded, American Muslims are feeling more alarmed by growing manifestations of Islamophobia among non–Muslim Americans, and this is frightening and alienating Muslim-American youth. Second, Sageman agrees that a very important factor in drawing Americans into jihad is the increasing availability of radical Islamic messages in English on the Internet, particularly from Anwar al-Awlaki, a fiery imam associated with Hasan and Christmas Day “underpants bomber” Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and Abdullah al-Faisal, a deeply anti-Western and anti-Semitic Jamaican-born imam who was imprisoned for a time in Britain on charges of incitement to murder. Before 2005, Sageman says, the main jihadist messages were available on the Web only in Arabic, but since that time, English-language militant Web sites, carrying messages from religiously credentialed figures like Awlaki, have proliferated.
Finally, Sageman says, some disillusioned young people have found themselves turning to violence when other, less violent forms of countercultural protest have proved ineffective. But as their estrangement from organized protest movements becomes deeper, Sageman says, such angry young people tend to withdraw into themselves or into very small groups, and pursue simple plots, rather than complex schemes like the 9/11 attacks. Eventually, Sageman hopes, unless the U.S. creates new grievances in the Muslim world through unwise foreign-policy moves, this proliferating but fragmented domestic jihadist trend might well burn itself out.
With Katie Paul
Correction (published May 24, 2010): Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan is a psychiatrist, not a psychologist, as previously reported.