International Security

American Suicide Terrorism


February 21, 2012 01:48 EDT
Insight into factors which radicalize and lead certain people to become suicide bombers.

America has not yet experienced a suicide bombing on home soil, but on 17 February 2012, the FBI arrested a Moroccan-born, long-time resident of the US, Amine el-Khalifi, while he was apparently intent on blowing himself up at the Capitol. The arrest led to revelations that his suicide bomb was a fake and that he was the subject of a sting operation since December 2010. Sting operations are controversial because nobody can be sure that the target would have acted the same without the sting. Most terrorists get to terrorism via some sort of socialization; in this case, the FBI was part of the socialization. Perhaps el-Khalifi would have attempted a suicide bombing without help and we were lucky that the FBI forced him to betray his intent, but we are left to wonder about the true risk that a hazard like el-Khalifi could turn into a threat like a suicide bomber.

Unfortunately, el-Khalifi follows a trend towards suicide terrorism by American residents, some of them citizens. In 2009, At least 20 Somali-Americans had left the US to join a Jihadi group in Somalia, of which at least two blew themselves up in Somalia. In September 2009, federal prosecutors indicted an Afghan-born US resident (Najibullah Zazi) for conspiracy to set off a series of bombs in the US. In October 2009, federal prosecutors indicted a Pakistani American (David Headley) for helping the Jihadi attack in Mumbai, India, in November 2008. US Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, after communicating with Jihadis in Yemen.

In 2009, the US government admitted its concerns about American Jihadism. 2010 was quiet, although now we know that the FBI was busy interacting with el-Khalifi and presumably dozens of other hazards.

Could Americans really plot Jihadist mass-casualty terrorism against their fellow citizens inside US borders?

For years, Americans have assumed that they are too politically free, economically mobile, and socially integrated to turn to terrorism. Yet only a few members of any demographic ever turn to terrorism and they do so for psychological and social reasons, despite their political, economic, and social freedoms. Jihadism cannot be eliminated anywhere. The US has cultural, institutional, and demographic advantages that argue against Jihadism at home, but Jihadism can succeed with few adherents and few warnings.

Before the suicide bombings on the London transport system on 7 July 2005, Britons reassured themselves that a liberal democracy, committed to “multi-culturalism,” could not spawn British suicide bombers. Two British Muslims travelled to Israel to blow themselves up in April 2003, more than two years before the 7/7 attacks in London. In between times, most in the British government assumed that radical Britons might kill foreign infidels but not fellow Britons at home in Britain.

Americans are caught in the same in-between moment: a few Americans already have blown themselves up overseas; others have planned to do so within American borders.

Though many American commentators blamed European Jihadism on Europe’s poor integration of its Muslim residents, its integration problem was more challenging. Europe contains at least 12 million Muslims – the US contains probably less than one-quarter of that number. Most American Muslims are African-Americans with many preceding American generations and no foreign relations. Most European Muslims are first generation immigrants, like Zazi and el-Khalifi, or second generation immigrants, like Headley and Hasan, at least one of whose parents had naturalized, with close relatives abroad in contested territories.

First or second generation immigrants are more likely to engage in crimes of all sorts, including terrorism, probably because they feel trapped between two cultures (of their parents’ countries of birth and of their own residence). Almost all European Jihadis are second generation immigrants. Almost all of the rest are troubled converts to Islam.

Democratic citizens can turn to terrorism even after effective integration. Converts are rare in the wider population, yet about one-fifth of successful or attempted British suicide bombers are converts, including Richard Reid (the “shoe-bomber” arrested in December 2001), Germaine Lindsay (one of the four bombers of London on 7/7), two of the eight men convicted in August 2006 of plotting to bomb airliners with liquid explosives, and Nicky Reilly, who unsuccessfully attempted to blow himself up in a British shopping mall in May 2008. One American precedent is José Padilla, a US citizen who converted to Islam after several trips to jail for violent gang-related activities. He was arrested in May 2002 and eventually convicted (in August 2007) of a terrorist conspiracy. In January 2009, Bryant Vinas, another Hispanic American convert to Islam, pled guilty to receiving Jihadi training in Pakistan the year before.

Probably most converts are genuinely thoughtful about the transition, but some are seeking a holy solution to their troubled pasts – typically crime, alcohol or drug abuse, poverty, family abandonment, or adjustment issues. Like first and second generation immigrants, troubled converts are caught between a sense of alienation and the heady promise of salvation. Often naïve about their new religion, they are vulnerable to self-interested radicals.  

The switch from non-terrorist to terrorist is more spontaneous (and less dependent on foreigners) than most Americans assume. Most European Jihadis were European citizens with no criminal records. (British intelligence agents had noted concerns about some of the British suicide bombers but prioritized other targets.) Their extremism was belated – they lived integrated lives before suddenly turning to radicalism.

The potential terrorist is usually emotionally troubled in some way. The immediate trigger for the switch could be personal, such as a failed marriage or business. Hasan’s radicalism followed romantic and professional disappointments. El-Khalifi reportedly had overstayed his first visa and struggled to make a success of himself legally.

Social contagion is necessary: the potential terrorist is developed through interactions with other radicals. Their initial meeting might be accidental; they might develop together, mutually. Radicals are rarely brainwashed by terrorist talent-spotters.

Finally, the terrorist is politically aggrieved. Terrorism is political violence. However tangential the grievance, usually the grievance contains something real.

Since Jihadism is mostly spontaneous and local, a strategy of intervention overseas and stricter border controls diverts the government’s attention away from domestic issues, while alienating vulnerable groups. After 9/11, governments portrayed a global Jihadi conspiracy in order to more easily build international support for their reactions. Yet most Jihadism is local – perhaps inspired, but rarely supported, by foreign Jihadis. The origins of the sting operation against el-Khalifi are still vague, but probably some concerned American, probably a Muslim American, escalated their concerns to some law enforcement authority. The truest defense against further Jihadism is a society that is intolerant of religious extremism and willing to engage authorities in its resolution.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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