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Radical Interpretations of Islam and the Homegrown Extremist Threat

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Radical Interpretations of Islam and the Homegrown Extremist Threat

Posted: March 9, 2011

With a population of over 300 million, the United States is home to a variety of extremists groups and movements from across the ideological spectrum. One of the most striking elements of today's domestic threat picture 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 years 2009 and 2010 were marked by a significant increase in the number of bomb plots 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 returning to the U.S. using their American passports in order to attempt 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 Islamic terrorist groups overseas before returning to the U.S.


Although they do not constitute a fully coherent movement in the U.S., more and more American-born citizens, naturalized U.S. citizens and residents are being influenced by ideologies that justify and sanction violence commonly propagated by Islamic terrorist movements overseas. In addition to disagreements with perceived American actions against Muslims around the world, these extremists believe that the West (and America and Israel specifically) is at war with Islam and it is the duty of Muslims to defend the global Muslim community through violent means.


About one fourth of those arrested since the September 11 attacks have been converts to Islam who embrace the most extreme interpretations of the religion. They come from diverse backgrounds and, as a whole, do not easily fit into a specific profile. Many of these extremists have been influenced by English-language terrorist propaganda and recruitment materials on Web sites, forums, blogs, social networking sites, video hosting sites and other online platforms. These materials are filled with colloquial Western references and practical advice designed specifically for an American audience.


For example, the media wing of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, has deliberately designed a portion of its propaganda to appeal to, engage and recruit sympathizers in the U.S. Since July 2010, AQAP has released four 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. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who was arrested in November 2010 for attempting to blow up a Christmas tree lighting with a car bomb in Portland, Oregon, submitted an article to Inspire (it was not published) as well as to another English language online terror magazine called Jihad Recollections.


The style and emphasis of Inspire is likely the result of Samir Khan, the apparent principal author of the magazine, and Anwar al-Awlaki, a regular contributor. Al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both American citizens, are among a growing chorus of Americans residing abroad who use their online pulpits to reach and influence audiences in the U.S. by repackaging ideologies of extreme intolerance and violence into digestible sound bites.


The types of materials distributed by al-Awlaki and others, and the manner in which they are disseminated, have served as a blueprint for other Americans seeking to emulate their methods. Zachary Chesser, a Virginia man who was arrested in July 2010 for attempting to join Al Shabaab in Somalia, sought to mimic much of the terrorist materials on the Internet that he saw targeting Americans. Chesser, who threatened the creators of South Park for satirizing issues surrounding the depiction of Muhammad, not only distributed terrorist propaganda through a variety of Web sites, blogs and social networking sites, but also created and distributed original materials, including a 25-page document that detailed ways to teach Western children the "values of Jihad." Chesser argued in several of his pieces that the only way to ensure the longevity of a global terrorist movement is by using the Internet. "The jihad movement has moved from the mountains and caves to the bedrooms of every major city around the world," he wrote.


Another indication of al-Awlaki's widespread influence is the number of extremists that have been found in possession of his materials. The list includes many of those arrested in 2010, among them Antonio Martinez, a Maryland man arrested for attempting to detonate what he believed to be a car bomb at a Maryland Army recruiting center in December; Ahmed Farooque, a Virginia man who was arrested in October for allegedly plotting attacks against Metro stations in the Washington Metropolitan Area; and Barry Walter Bujol, Jr., a Texas resident arrested for attempting to deliver money and other equipment to AQAP.


Many others arrested on terror related charges prior to 2010 have been influenced by al-Awlaki as well, most notably Nidal Malik Hasan, who allegedly killed 13 people at the Fort Hood Army base after exchanging emails with al-Awlaki. The shooting at Fort Hood demonstrates the particular danger posed by so-called "lone wolf" extremists who, though unaffiliated with terrorist groups, share their radical interpretations of Islam and ideological goals. The shooting at Fort Hood followed a separate incident in June 2009 when Abdulahakim Mujahid Muhammad allegedly shot two uniformed American soldiers, killing one of them, at a military recruiting center in Arkansas. Following his arrest, Muhammad reportedly said that he sought revenge on the American military for its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan


In addition to military installations, the most common targets in the U.S. are major landmarks, transit systems and Jewish or Israeli institutions. In fact, hatred of Jews and Israel has played an alarming role in the radicalization process of many of these same homegrown extremists.


Although most individuals or groups lack the means and materials to carry out violent attacks plots have been foiled by law enforcement at various stages they continue to demonstrate a willingness to conduct attacks in the U.S. 

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


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 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.


A significant number of American extremists motivated by radical interpretations of Islam have been influenced by an abundance of terrorist propaganda and recruitment techniques online. This report highlights the continuing significance and development of these evolving online efforts in the radicalization process.


The media wing of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, has deliberately designed a portion of its propaganda to appeal to and recruit sympathizers in the U.S. This report takes a closer look at AQAP's Inspire magazine, which seeks to engage sympathizers in the U.S.


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 provided 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.


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.

This report takes a close look at Zachary Chesser's online history. Chesser, a Virginia man who targeted the creators of South Park for satirizing issues surrounding the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for attempting to travel to Somalia and join an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group.


This report highlights the wave of Americans traveling to Somalia to fight with an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group.


Revolution Muslim (RM), a fringe anti-Semitic Muslim organization that justifies terrorist attacks and other forms of violence against non-Muslims, has been active well beyond its online presence.


Other ADL Resources


This report highlights the intensified level of anti-Muslim bigotry has surfaced in a variety of public forums over the past several months. While some of the anti-Muslim sentiment has fed on growing community concerns about Islamic extremism, much of it has focused on various plans to relocate or expand mosques around the country.


Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), an international organization that seeks to establish a worldwide Islamic theocracy, is increasing its efforts to spread its message and recruit members in the U.S.


While the Muslim American Society portrays itself as a mainstream organization that attempts to serve the social, educational and religious needs of American Muslims, the organization has a troubling history of associations with radical organizations and individuals that promote terrorism, anti-Semitism and reject Israel's right to exist.

The Islamic Circle of North America frequently organizes joint regional conferences with the Muslim American Society. These conventions, which attract thousands of participants, have featured known anti-Semites and provided a platform for extremist rhetoric.


CAIR, founded by leaders of the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), a Hamas affiliated anti-Semitic propaganda organization, has repeatedly asserted that U.S. counter-terrorism initiatives are directed by the pro-Israel lobby. CAIR's leadership had participated in and endorsed numerous rallies where support for terrorist organizations was undeniable.


The two principal leaders of Sabiqun, an anti-Semitic Muslim group that advocates for the creation of a global Islamic state, have become popular speakers on college and university campuses over the past several years

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