Jihadist extremism in the United States (or Islamist extremism in the United States) refers to Islamic extremism occurring within the United States. Islamic extremism is adherence to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam (see Islamic fundamentalism), potentially including the promotion of violence to achieve political goals (see Jihadism). In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Islamic extremism became a prioritized national security concern of the United States government and a focus by many subsidiary security and law enforcement entities. Initially, the focus of concern was on foreign terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaeda, but in the 15 years since 9/11 the focus has shifted more towards Islamic extremism within the United States. The number of American citizens or long-term residents involved in extremist activity is small, but nevertheless is a national security concern.
Zeyno Baran, senior fellow and director of the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute, argues a more appropriate term is Islamist extremism to distinguish the religion from the political ideology that leads to extremism:
Islam, the religion, deals with piety, ethics, and beliefs, and can be compatible with secular liberal democracy and basic civil liberties. Islamists, however, believe Islam is the only basis for the legal and political system that governs the world's economic, social, and judicial mechanisms. Islamic law, or sharia, must shape all aspects of human society, from politics and education to history, science, the arts, and more. It is diametrically opposed to liberal democracy.
With the value placed on freedom of religion in the United States, religious extremism is a difficult and divisive topic. Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, testified before Congress that the United States is "polarized on its perceptions of Muslims and the radicalization that occurs within our communities... One camp refuses to believe any Muslim could be radicalized living in blind multiculturalism, apologetics, and denial, and the other camp believes all devout Muslims and the faith of Islam are radicalized..." In between the two polarities is a respect for the religion of Islam coupled with an awareness of the danger "of a dangerous internal theo-political domestic and global ideology that must be confronted – Islamism."
An important element to understanding Islamic extremism in the United States is the number of religious non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with either alleged or proven ties to Islamist groups abroad. These groups do not promote violence or terrorism, but propagate an extremist message that can lead others to violence. Zeyno Baran testified before the Senate Committee for Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that "over the course of four decades, Islamists have taken over the leadership in almost all Islam related areas in America." The result is that any American, Muslim or not, seeking information about Islam will be influenced by an extremist ideology, often unknowingly. An international Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded many of the Islamic organizations in the United States; the Brotherhood does not engage in terrorism directly, but is part of the "vanguard of a radical Islamist ideology" that can lead followers to violence. Also, the Saudi Arabian government has spent tens of billions promoting Wahhabism globally and some of that money has supported mosques and Islamic organizations in the United States.
"The single biggest change in terrorism over the past several year has been the wave of Americans joining the fight – not just as foot soldiers but as key members of Islamist groups and as operatives inside terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda." American citizens or longtime residents are "masterminds, propagandists, enablers, and media strategists" in foreign terror groups and working to spread extremist ideology in the West. This trend is worrisome because these American extremists "understand the United States better than the United States understands them."
There is a lack of understanding of how American Radical Jihadists are propagated. There is "no typical profile" of an American extremist and the "experiences and motivating factors vary widely." Janet Napolitano, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, stated that it is unclear if there has been an "increase in violent radicalization" or "a rise in the mobilization of previously radicalized individuals". Terrorist organizations seek Americans to radicalize and recruit because of a familiarity with the United States and the West. The evolving extremist threat makes it "more difficult for law enforcement or the intelligence community to detect and disrupt plots."
Some American extremists are actively recruited and trained by foreign terrorist organizations and others are known as "lone wolves" that radicalize on their own. The Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Hasan, is an American of Palestinian descent. He communicated via email with Anwar al-Awlaki, but had no direct ties to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda propaganda uses Hasan to promote the idea of "be al-Qaeda by not being al-Qaeda". Abdulhakim Muhammad, an American citizen, shot a military recruiter in Little Rock, Arkansas in June 2009 after spending time in Yemen; he was born Carlos Bledsoe and converted to Islam as a young adult. Faisal Shahzad is a naturalized American citizen from Pakistan and received bomb training from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan; his plot to detonate a bomb in New York's Times Square was discovered only after the bomb failed. Zachary Chesser converted to Islam after high school and began to spread extremism over the internet. He was arrested attempting to board a flight to Somalia to join the terrorist group al-Shabaab.
Since 2007, over 50 American citizens and permanent residents have been arrested or charged in connection with attempts to join terrorist groups abroad, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Shabaab. In 2013 alone, 9 Americans are known to have joined or attempted to join foreign terrorist organizations. Americans inside al-Qaeda provide insider's knowledge of the United States. Adam Gadahn was an American convert who joined al-Qaeda in the late 1990s. He released English-language propaganda videos, but Gadahn lacked charisma and his voice was replaced by Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki was an American of Yemeni descent, killed on September 30, 2011 by a U.S. missile strike in Yemen. Awlaki had religious credentials Gadahn lacks and a "gently persuasive" style; "tens of thousands, maybe millions, have watched [Awlaki's] lectures on the Internet." His perfect English and style broadened al-Qaeda's reach. Another key American in al-Qaeda's power structure was a man named Adnan Shukrijumah. Shukrijumah is believed to be the highest ranking American in al-Qaeda. He was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Trinidad, and moved to Florida as a teenager; he was a naturalized American citizen and left the United States in the spring of 2001. Shukrijumah was a mystery to authorities until he was identified by Najibullah Zazi after Zazi was arrested for a failed plot to bomb transportation targets around New York City. Zazi had traveled to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces, but Shukrijumah convinced Zazi to return to the United States and plan an attack here. In May 2014, Florida born convert Mohammed Abusalha conducted a deadly suicide bombing while fighting for Islamist extremists in Syria.
The United States has the world's largest prison population and "prisons have long been places where extremist ideology and calls to violence could find a willing ear, and conditions are often conducive to radicalization." Most inmates have little exposure to mainstream Islam and are vulnerable to extremist versions of the religion. Islamic extremism is facilitated by "an inadequate number of Muslim religious service providers," leading to a reliance on volunteers, contractors, or inmates to provide religious services. Testifying before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Donald Van Duyn said the following on Islamic extremism in U.S. prisons:
Prison radicalization primarily occurs through anti-US sermons provided by contract, volunteer, or staff Imams, radicalized inmates who gain religious influence, and extremist media. Ideologies that radicalized inmates appear most often to embrace or are influenced by the Salafi form of Sunni Islam (including revisionist versions commonly known as “prison Islam”) and an extremist view of Shia Islam similar to that of the Government of Iran and Lebanese Hizballah.
"Prison" or "Jailhouse Islam" is unique to prison and incorporates values of gang loyalty and violence into the religion. The prison system's limited resources prevent adequate monitoring of religious services to ensure an extremist message is not being spread and also hinders sufficient screening of inmates, volunteers, and contractors providing the services.
Members of a prison extremist group, called Jami'iy yat Ul-Isla Is Saheeh (JIS), from New Folsom State Prison in California hatched a plot to attack numerous local government and Jewish targets. In July 2005, members of JIS "were involved in almost a dozen armed gas station robberies in Los Angeles with the goal of financing terrorist operations." The plot was exposed and there is debate over whether the group is a sign of a wider problem. There is a "significant lack of social science research" on the issue of Islamic extremism in U.S. prisons and there is disagreement on the danger Islamic extremism in prisons poses to U.S. national security.
Statistics are not kept on the religious orientation of inmates in the U.S. prison system, limiting the ability to adequately judge the potential for Islamic extremism. A report published by the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General in 2004 on the issue of the Federal Bureau of Prisons' selection of Muslim chaplains, estimated that 6% of the federal inmate population seek Muslim Islamic services. Through prisoner self-reporting, the majority of Muslims in federal prison are Sunni or Nation of Islam followers. The federal prison population is only a small percentage of the total U.S. prison population, however, and cannot provide an overall representation of Muslims inmates in the United States.
Some mosques in the United States transmit extremist ideas. The North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), a group with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, "holds titles of approximately 300 properties [mosques and Islamic schools]". The organization's website states: "NAIT does not administer these institutions or interfere in their daily management, but is available to support and advise them regarding their operation in conformity with the Shari'ah." Other research on the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States claims NAIT influences a far larger number of Islamic institutions in the U.S.
There is no government policy on the establishment of mosques in the United States and no way to monitor activity. The value placed on religious freedom in the U.S. complicates the situation as mosques are places of worship that may be used to spread extremist ideology.
The internet can be used as a “facilitator—even an accelerant—for terrorist and criminal activity." The increase of online English-language extremist material in recent years is readily available with guidance to plan violent activity. “English-language web forums […] foster a sense of community and further indoctrinate new recruits”. The Internet has “become a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, and for terrorist recruiting, training, and planning. It is a means of social networking for like-minded extremists...including those who are not yet radicalized, but who may become so through the anonymity of cyberspace."
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) published an English-language online magazine called Inspire. The magazine is designed to appeal to Westerners. It is “[w]ritten in colloquial English, [with] jazzy headlines and articles that made it seem almost mainstream—except that they were all about terrorism.” Inspire “included tips for aspiring extremists on bomb-making, traveling overseas, email encryption, and a list of individuals to assassinate." The editor is believed to be Samir Khan, an American citizen, based on work he did before leaving the United States. The magazine appeared six months after Khan arrived in Yemen. There have been seven issues of Inspire. Khan died in the same missile attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and the future of the magazine is unknown.
Yousef al-Khattab and Younes Abdullah Mohammed, both converts to Islam, started a group called Revolution Muslim. The group was meant “to be both a radical Islamic organization and a movement” with goals that include “establishing Islamic law in the United States, destroying Israel and taking al-Qaeda’s messages to the masses.” A list of its members “reads like a who’s who of American homegrown terrorism suspects”; Samir Khan and Jihad Jane were regulars in the Revolution Muslim chat rooms. Revolution Muslim had a website and a YouTube account before it was shut down after a posting glorifying the stabbing of a British member of Parliament. The revolutionmuslim.com domain now redirects to a website called Islam Policy run by Younes Abdullah Mohammed. The danger of the website, and others that offer similar content, is the websites offer the chance to become further involved in violent extremism and connect to like-minded people in the U.S. and aboard.
Key to the trend of increasing Islamic extremism in the United States “has been the development of a US-specific narrative that motivates individuals to violence.” “This narrative—a blend of al-Qa‘ida inspiration, perceived victimization, and glorification of past plotting—has become increasingly accessible through the Internet, and English-language websites are tailored to address the unique concerns of US-based extremists.” “To disaffected, aggrieved, or troubled individuals, this narrative explains in a simple framework the ills around them and the geopolitical discord they see on their television sets and on the Internet.”  The narrative is easy to understand and grants “meaning and heroic outlet” for the discontented and alienated.
The President, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) are the most relevant elements of the U.S. government to the threat of American Islamic extremism and each has taken steps to address and counter the issue. Since 9/11 the government has worked to improve information sharing "within the government, and between federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement, as well as with the public." The "If You See Something, Say Something" campaign, instituted by DHS and local law enforcement, was created to raise public awareness of the potential dangers. In August 2011, the Office of the President released a strategy to counter violent extremism called Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States. The strategy takes a three-pronged approach of community engagement, better training, and counternarratives. The plan states: "We must actively and aggressively counter the range of ideologies violent extremists employ to radicalize and recruit individuals by challenging justifications for violence and by actively promoting the unifying and inclusive visions of our American ideals," challenging extremist propaganda through words and deeds. The goal is to "prevent violent extremists and their supporters from inspiring, radicalizing, financing, or recruiting individuals or groups in the United States to commit acts of violence."
There are Muslim Americans speaking out against Islamic extremist activities, although the most common complaint is Muslim leaders do not speak out forcefully against Radical Jihad. An important voice is Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, the president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. Dr. Jasser testified before a House hearing on Muslim radicalization in the U.S. in early 2010:
For me it is a very personal mission to leave my American Muslim children a legacy that their faith is based in the unalienable right to liberty and to teach them that the principles that founded America do not contradict their faith but strengthen it. Our founding principle is that I as a Muslim am able to best practice my faith in a society like the United States that guarantees the rights of every individual blind to faith with no governmental intermediary stepping between the individual and the creator to interpret the will of God. Because of this, our mission is to advocate for the principles of the Constitution of the United States of America, liberty and freedom and the separation of mosque and state. We believe that this mission from within the “House of Islam” is the only way to inoculate Muslim youth and young adults against radicalization. The “Liberty narrative” is the only effective counter to the “Islamist narrative."
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