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Responding to The Call: Al Qaeda's American Recruits

Posted: July 25, 2011

One of the most significant developments in domestic terrorism since the September, 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is the role that a growing number of American citizens and residents motivated by radical interpretations of Islam have played in criminal plots to attack Americans in the U.S. and abroad.


The past three years have been marked by an increase in the number of plots and conspiracies by homegrown Muslim extremists, as well as in the number of Americans attempting to travel abroad to train and fight with terrorist groups. The latter raises serious concerns about extremists using their American passports to return to the U.S. in order to carry out attacks on U.S. soil.


Indeed, the failed attempt to bomb Times Square in 2010, as well as the foiled plot to detonate homemade explosives on New York City subways in 2009, were conceived by Americans who received training from terrorist groups overseas before returning to the U.S. to carry out the attacks.


In addition to providing training, foreign terrorist organizations have appealed to Western audiences through English-language propaganda distributed on a variety of online platforms, including materials specifically designed to recruit followers and sanction violence.


Since 2007, approximately 30 U.S. residents have attempted to or successfully traveled to Somalia to join Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group, to receive weapons training alongside recruits from other countries. Several others have provided material support for the group through their recruitment and fundraising efforts. 



Many are believed to have been radicalized and recruited, in part, on the Internet. Omar Hammami, an Alabama native who has become the public face and voice of Al Shabaab, has appeared in several videos urging foreigners "to come and live the life of a mujahid."  In a March 2009 video, Hammami praised a killed fighter as a martyr and said, "We need more like him, so if you can encourage more of your children and more of your neighbors and anyone around you to send people like him to this jihad, it would be a great asset for us." 


A month later, two men who identified themselves as Abu Muslim and Abu Yaxye appeared in another video claiming to be "Somali youth" from the United States who joined Al Shabaab. "We came from the U.S. with a good life and a good education, but we came to fight alongside our brothers of Al Shabaab…to be killed for the sake of God," Abu Muslim said in the video.  Later in the video, Abu Yaxye added, "We are here to invite others to come and join us."


More recently, a 27-year-old recruit from Minneapolis, Farah Mohamad Beledi, was one of two suicide bombers who attacked a military base in the Somali capital Mogadishu on May 30, 2011, according to the FBI. A portion of the Al Shabaab audio statement claiming responsibility for the attack featured Beledi saying, "I have been a member of Al Shabaab for two years. I am from Minnesota, USA," and "I am so happy to turn my body into shrapnel for the infidels."


Beledi is the second confirmed American suicide bomber. The first, Shirwa Ahmed, carried out a suicide bombing on behalf of Al Shabaab at the Ethiopian Consulate and the presidential palace in Hargeisa killing 24 people in October 2009.  Federal investigators have also looked into reports that another American may have been involved in a suicide attack in Mogadishu in September 2009 that killed 21 people. The identity of that attacker has never been confirmed.


Prior to leaving Minnesota, several of the other men who trained with Al Shabaab reportedly listened to a sermon titled "Constants on the Path of Jihad" given by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric living in Yemen. Al-Awlaki targets English-speaking Muslim audiences with radical online lectures that encourage attacks against the West and non-Muslims. 


Al-Awlaki's widespread influence can be gauged by the number of extremists that have been found in possession of his materials or who have communicated with him. For example, Nidal Malik Hasan, who allegedly killed 13 people at the Fort Hood Army base in 2009, exchanged emails with al-Awlaki prior to the attack.


The shooting at Fort Hood demonstrates the particular danger posed by so-called "lone wolf" extremists who, though unaffiliated with terrorist groups, are influenced by their ideological goals. The shooting at Fort Hood followed a separate incident in June 2009 when Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad shot two uniformed American soldiers, killing one of them, at a military recruiting center in Arkansas. Some observers suggest Muhammad was radicalized in Yemen when he traveled there in September 2007, ostensibly to teach English.


Anwar al-Awlaki's mass appeal has also resulted in his taking a public role with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen and Saudi Arabia that has established links to Al Shabaab. Like Al Shabaab, AQAP has deliberately designed a portion of its propaganda to appeal to, engage and recruit sympathizers in the U.S.


Since July 2010, AQAP's media wing has released six issues of its online English-language magazine Inspire, which employs accessible Western references and colorful graphics in its calls to inflict mass casualties. AQAP, which has instructed readers to "fight jihad on U.S. soil," encourages participation in the production of the magazine, asking readers to contribute articles, quotes and images.


One recurring section in Inspire, entitled "Open Source Jihad," provides a resource manual for "Muslims to train at home instead of risking a dangerous travel abroad" and proposes several ways to wage "individual jihad" that inflicts mass casualties and economic losses. "We strongly encourage our brothers to fight jihad on U.S. soil," the author writes: "To kill a snake, strike its head." The October 2010 issue included a picture of the Chicago skyline, perhaps foreshadowing the terror plot against Chicago-area synagogues on October 29, for which AQAP claimed responsibility.


Federal authorities have identified Samir Khan, an American blogger who distributed terrorist propaganda material from the U.S. for several years before leaving for Yemen in October 2009, as the principal author of the magazine. The graphics, design and overall packaging of Inspire resemble those on Khan's various blogs and in Jihad Recollections, the self-described "first English Jihad magazine" in which Khan was a contributor.


Khan authored a feature story in the October 2010 issue of Inspire, entitled I Am Proud to be a Traitor to America. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I was Al Qaeda to the core," Khan wrote about his years spent in the U.S. distributing terror propaganda. He proceeded to deride American federal authorities for allowing him to persist in spreading Al Qaeda's ideology, and criticized the U.S. government and its military incursions in the Middle East and South Asia.  


The ability of foreign terrorist groups to motivate Americans to join their cause is not limited to the Internet or to Al Shabaab and AQAP, perhaps the two most effective terrorist groups producing propaganda targeting westerners. For example, David Coleman Headley, of Chicago, pleaded guilty to helping plan a number of terrorist attacks, including a series of coordinated attacks in November 2008 that killed more than 170 people in Mumbai. Headley conducted reconnaissance of a number of the targeted locations for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), the Pakistani-based Islamic terrorist organization. Several other American citizens have been charged with providing material support to LET.


The following is a sampling of ADL resources on the nature and magnitude of the threat:


Al Shabaab's American Recruits

Approximately 30 U.S. residents have attempted to or successfully traveled to Somalia to join Al Shabaab to receive weapons training alongside recruits from other countries. Several others have been charged with providing material support for the group for their recruitment and fundraising efforts. This report highlights the wave of Americans traveling to Somalia to fight with an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group as well as the Americans who finance and organize their recruitment.


Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

This report focuses on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), formed in January 2009 when the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian branches of Al Qaeda merged. AQAP's media outlet, al-Malahim, has published the English-language magazine Inspire, which has deliberately designed a portion of its propaganda to appeal to and recruit sympathizers in the U.S. See also: Inspire Issue 1, Inspire Issue 2, Inspire Issue 3, Inspire Issue 4, Inspire Issue 5, Inspire Issue 6


American Ideologues Reach Western Audiences with Online Terror Propaganda

American Muslim ideologues living abroad are increasingly using their online pulpits to reach and influence audiences in the U.S. with ideologies of extreme intolerance and violence. This report focuses on how their English-language propaganda is distributed on a variety of online platforms, and how it is used to not only encourage attacks in the U.S., but also to recruit followers to join terrorist groups overseas.


Samir Khan: American Blogger and Al Qaeda Propagandist

Samir Khan has been identified as the principal author of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's English-language magazine, Inspire.  This report focuses on Khan's background and his previous efforts to disseminate jihadist propaganda prior to his relocation to Yemen.



This report focuses on Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), a Pakistani-based Islamic terrorist organization that seeks to drive out Indian security forces from the disputed Jammu and Kashmir regions of South Asia and establish an Islamic caliphate. Over the past few years, LET's agenda has embraced a more global anti-Western ideology that considers the United States, Israel and India to be its primary enemies.  As part of this campaign, LET has vowed that it will plant the "flag of Islam" in Washington, Tel Aviv and New Delhi. Several American citizens have been charged with providing material support to LET, including some Americans that have worked directly with LET to plan terrorist attacks.


Explaining "Lone Wolf" Terrorism

Recent terror cases demonstrate not only the growing threat posed by individuals who self-radicalize online without any physical interactions with established terrorist groups, but also their willingness to act alone to further the objectives and ideologies commonly propagated by Islamic terrorist movements overseas.  This report highlights cases of self-radicalization as well as emphasizing the difference between true "lone wolf" terrorism and small cells of terrorists.


American Women and Terrorism: A Growing Trend

An increasing number of American women motivated by radical interpretations of Islam have been involved in terrorist activity ranging from planning terrorist plots to raising funds and providing material goods to foreign terrorist organizations. This report provides a snapshot of this trend and the way terrorist organizations are encouraging women to play a more direct role in the global terrorist movement.


Criminal Proceedings: A Timeline of U.S. Terror Cases

Americans motivated by radical interpretations of Islam constitute a growing and increasingly dangerous domestic terror threat.  Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, nearly 200 Americans have been charged for their roles in various bomb plots and conspiracies in the U.S., as well as for providing material support to Islamic terrorist groups. This report provides a timeline of criminal proceedings related to these activities.


American Muslim Extremists: A Growing Threat to Jews

American Muslim extremists fueled by hatred of Jews and Israel have planned a number of terrorist attacks within the U.S. This report illustrates the degree to which Americans, influenced by radical interpretations of Islam, have targeted or considered attacking Jews or Jewish institutions throughout the U.S. since the September 11 attacks, as well as the degree to which hatred of Jews and Israel has motivated those individuals involved in other terror-related activity.

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ADL Highlights Threat of Terrorist Recruitment in the United States 

Al Shabaab's American Recruits


Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula


American Ideologues Reach Western Audiences with Online Terror Propaganda


Samir Khan: American Blogger and Al Qaeda Propagandist

Terrorist Groups Use Distinct Symbols To Convey Their Ideology And Goals.

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