In the eight years after September 11, and especially during the Bush administration's first term, Americans became all to accustomed to a diet of orange alerts, sensational terror arrests, and breathless press conferences announcing the thwarting of yet another serious plot. But months and years down the line, it often emerged that such plots may not have represented such grave threats after all: terrorism suspects were charged with less serious offenses or released altogether; plotters turned out to have little or no capacity to launch attacks; and, often, when juries did convict, it emerged that entire conspiracies were reliant on the helping hand of undercover law-enforcement agents.
But 10 days ago federal agents in Denver foiled an alleged plot on U.S. soil that, for the first time, appears to have posed a true and severe threat to the U.S. homeland. Najibullah Zazi, a permanent resident of Afghan nationality, pled not guilty Tuesday in his arraignment in Brooklyn to charges including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. He is believed to have trained to make bombs with Al Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan and to have initiated plans—apparently without assistance from undercover agents—with others in the United States to perpetrate a terrorist attack in New York City. The FBI, in other words, has just thwarted the most serious plot, by far, on U.S. soil in the last eight years.
And this is just the beginning. The threat from Al Qaeda to the U.S. homeland is arguably more acute now than at any time since September 11. This is not because Al Qaeda has become a stronger foe. (On the contrary, Osama bin Laden's terrorist network has actually been weakened in the last two years by intensified U.S. missile strikes against its leadership in FATA and a sharp backlash among Muslims worldwide against its violent excesses.) It is because a growing number of Americans have gone to FATA, the global hub of Al Qaeda's terrorist operations, to join the jihad in Afghanistan—something which was very rare until recently—and Al Qaeda, opportunistically, has recruited them for attacks on their country.
The number of American residents who had joined or trained with Al Qaeda between its founding in 1988 and the September 11 terrorist attacks numbered only in the single figures. They included Wadih El-Hage (bin Laden's private secretary), Ali Mohammed (an American Special Forces instructor of Egyptian origin), Christopher Paul (a man from Columbus, Ohio, who joined Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the early 1990s), Iyman Faris (another Columbus man of Kashmiri descent who trained in a Qaeda facility and, rather fancifully, planned to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge with gas cutters and a blowtorch in 2003), Adam Gadahn (a Californian Christian convert to Islam who has become one of Al Qaeda's spokespeople), and John Walker Lindh (the so-called American Taliban).
After September 11, even fewer American residents allegedly linked up with the terrorist group. They include Aafia Siddiqui, a female MIT graduate who will go on trial later this year in New York; her associate Majid Khan, a former Baltimore resident currently being held in Guantánamo Bay; and Mohammed Junaid Babar. His example is the most disturbing. A Pashtun trainee taxi driver from Queens, N.Y., Babar met with several Qaeda commanders in the Afghan-Pakistan border region between 2003 and 2004 and organized bomb-making lessons for himself and a band of British jihadists—including two of the 2005 London suicide bombers. He was arrested after his return to New York in 2004 and pleaded guilty to assisting Al Qaeda. Then, as a star witness in subsequent terrorism trials, he testified that he once contemplated how an attack could be launched on New York's Times Square.
Still, those examples were exceptions to the rule. Twenty years after Al Qaeda was founded, an average of about one American resident had joined its ranks every two years. Suddenly, though, in the spring of 2008, this slow trickle became a flood. In the past 18 months, at least a half dozen recruits may have trained with Al Qaeda in the FATA. The new trend got started that March, when a young American from Long Island, N.Y., scribbled his signature on a Qaeda recruitment form provided to him by his handlers in the FATA, becoming the first American citizen to formally join Al Qaeda's fighting ranks since the 9/11 attacks.
Bryant Neal Vinas, 26, a Latino Roman Catholic convert to Islam—and onetime U.S. Army recruit (he lasted only a few weeks in boot camp)—was an unlikely candidate for jihad. But after becoming radicalized by pro-Qaeda Web sites and hanging out with radical Islamists in the New York area, Vinas left for Pakistan in September 2007—determined to fight in Afghanistan against his onetime comrades. According to a summary of his FBI interrogation cited during a Belgian terror case, Vinas spent his first days in Pakistan with another New Yorker who helped him connect with militants leaving to fight in Afghanistan. (U.S. authorities have not commented on the identity or whereabouts of this New Yorker.)
Vinas volunteered to become a suicide bomber, but his Qaeda handlers had other ideas. Between March and July 2008, according to his FBI statement, he underwent three separate training courses in the tribal areas of Pakistan learning to blow up targets with military-grade plastic explosives like C4. Unlike the makeshift camp that Babar (the Queens taxi driver) threw together, Vinas's terrorist courses were meticulously organized. At their conclusion, instructors were submitted written evaluations of trainee performances.
In September 2008 Vinas helped Al Qaeda develop plans to attack the Long Island Rail Road, according to his federal indictment. The plot, which American officials learned about after Vinas was arrested in Pakistan in November 2008, prompted a Thanksgiving weekend terror alert in New York City. In January Vinas pleaded guilty to a number of terrorism charges, including providing material support to Al Qaeda.
Shortly after Vinas completed his terrorist training in August last year, Zazi—the Afghan arrested 11 days ago in Denver who had worked as a coffee vendor in New York's financial district—flew from the United States to Pakistan. According to a criminal complaint filed on Friday, Zazi was accompanied by unnamed others, raising the possibility that more Americans joined his bomb-making course. (U.S. officials won't talk about them or confirm that they are the three people who are said to have helped Zazi purchase bomb-making materials in the States.)
Then in October 2008 yet another American left for to FATA. Jude Kenan Mohammed, 21—a half-American, half-Pakistani resident of Raleigh, N.C.—left "to engage in violent jihad," according to a federal indictment released in July. Just after he arrived he was arrested by Pakistani officials, charged with weapons possession, and released on bail. This year, he failed to show up to his court hearing, suggesting he slipped into the tribal areas. The U.S. indictment says he was associated with a group of alleged terrorists in North Carolina, two of whom were charged last week with conspiring to murder military personnel at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.
Terrorist wannabes who receive hands-on training have, over the years, posed a far more serious threat than those merely downloading bomb-making instructions from the Internet. Internet recipes are risky because devices made from legal chemicals are almost always unstable—more likely to lead to a loss of a limb than of a building. Great Britain learned the importance of terrorist training the hard way: the July 7, 2005, attacks were carried out by homegrown radicals trained by professional terrorists.
Abdulla Ahmed Ali made the point at his own trial. Ali is the recently convicted ringleader of a Qaeda plot to blow up at least seven transatlantic airliners departing from Heathrow Airport in 2006—still the most ambitious terrorist conspiracy since September 11. He testified that he found online Web sites to be "wishy-washy" and stated that "the whole point of us learning how to do it from someone who's done it before—or someone would know about the thing—is obviously [that] it's quite dangerous dealing with these materials. We don't want to injure ourselves or anything." According to M.I.5, Britain's domestic-intelligence agency, about 75 percent of all jihadist-terrorist plots there over the years have been traced back to Pakistan.
Intelligence officials here didn't think they'd have the same problem. While the radicalization of Muslim communities across Europe has been well documented, there has been a widespread assumption that American Muslims were much more resistant to the Qaeda's ideology because they were better educated and integrated—a function of the high-skill status of many Muslim immigrants to the United States. American Muslims acquire university degrees at a higher rate than the American average. And, no less significantly, young American Muslims tend to understand the true tenets of their religion better than their British counterparts because of an abundance of well-trained, English-speaking imams in American mosques. (Many British imams come from rural Pakistan and speak little English.)
Yet while all these factors have constrained the emergence of Islamist extremism in the United States, a pro Al Qaeda radical fringe has nevertheless surfaced in recent years. A database of U.S. terrorism cases since September 11 maintained by the NYU Center on Law and Security (with which I am affiliated) records 61 convictions on terrorism or national-security charges of people publicly linked to Salafi-jihadi terrorist groups.
So what is going on? The best explanation for the emergence of this radical fringe in the United States is probably threefold. Firstly, strong freedom-of-expression statutes have allowed radical preachers to proselytize among young American Muslims. Several radicalized Americans, for example, have had connections to the American wing of Al Muhajiroun, a British pro–Al Qaeda organization whose alumni include Babar (the Pashtun taxi driver) and Syed Hashmi, a Brooklyn College graduate whose trial for supplying military gear to Al Qaeda will begin soon. (Al Muhajiroun was formally disbanded in 2004 but has continued its activities in the United States and Britain under a variety of guises.) The activities of radical clerics have worried American Muslims. A 2007 Pew Poll found that a majority of American Muslims were concerned about the potential rise of Islamic extremism in the United States; 36% were "very worried."
Secondly, the Bush Administration's war on terrorism—particularly its occupation of Iraq—provided radical preachers with easy ammunition to recruit young Muslims angered by their country's foreign policy. While the United States is now withdrawing its troops from Iraq, residual anger remains. (According to the same Pew poll, just 26 percent of American Muslims believed that the war on terrorism was a sincere effort to reduce international terrorism; 75 percent opposed the Iraq War.)
Finally, the American dream alone may not be enough to stop youngsters from being attracted into Al Qaeda's ranks. British cases have shown that, as often as not, it is university-educated, middle-class, Mercedes-driving youngsters that plot terrorist attacks.
It may be small consolation, but the NYU figures suggested that terrorism charges against American residents publicly linked to Salafi jihadi groups have actually slowed over the past few years. In the last three months, though, there has been a spike in terrorism cases. If the number of plotters grows—and those with hands-on skills acquired in Al Qaeda's FATA camps multiplies with them—that's ample reason for worry. Terrorism made in Pakistan seems to be coming home.