Asked to visualize a jihadist who is based in North America, most Americans would probably conjure up a profile not unlike that of Najibullah Zazi the Afghan immigrant who was arrested in September in Denver for allegedly plotting to bomb targets in New York. Zazi, who sold doughnuts and coffee from a vending cart not far from Wall Street, is a young, poor and poorly educated Muslim from a country where the U.S. is at war. It's not hard to imagine someone of that profile being manipulated by al-Qaeda's skillful propagandists and recruiters.
But a profile like Zazi's, say experts on terrorism, may be the exception rather the rule for jihadists who are recruited on North American soil. "Historically, the idea that terrorists come from [poor and quasi-literate] backgrounds is a complete myth," says Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University. "They are much more likely to be well-educated and come from middle-class and wealthy families."
That description, in fact, fits all the Americans who have been accused of terrorism-related activities since Zazi's arrest. Nidal Malik Hasan, charged with killing 13 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas, is a psychiatrist and Army major. David Coleman Headley, who allegedly plotted to bomb a Danish newspaper and has been implicated in the Mumbai attacks, is a Chicago businessman. And the five young Virginia men who were detained in Pakistan last week have only their youth in common with Zazi: two are sons of businessmen, and the group's supposed leader, Ramy Zamzam, is a Howard University dental student. (The five men have not yet been charged, but Pakistani officials allege that they hoped to seek combat training in order to fight against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.)
The affluent background and education of so many American Muslims who have been accused of terrorist activities comes as no surprise to experts. "We don't have the Muslim slums that you see outside Paris," says Scott Stewart, vice president for tactical intelligence at Stratfor, a private intelligence analysis organization. "Most Muslims in [the U.S.] are doing well, so those who have been radicalized tend to come from that class."
The social status of such suspects makes them harder to spot for law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and also for the Muslim community as a whole. "Within the community, there's a tendency to think, Oh, this guy's from a good family; he won't go down that path," says Stewart. This may explain why Zamzam's group apparently didn't set off any alarms in the Virginia Muslim community before their sudden disappearance in late November. At the mosque Zamzam frequented, he seemed to have made no special impression on the imam or his fellow worshippers. Nor did Hasan stand out among the believers at his mosque, near Fort Hood.
The idea that mosques are the favored hunting ground of extremists and propagandists is a myth too. Since 9/11, law enforcement and national security agencies have maintained a close scrutiny of Muslim places of worship; equally, Muslim community leaders have grown more alert for any radical preaching. As a result, terrorist groups seeking American recruits now tend to propagandize mainly online. This also means that relatively wealthy Muslims are much more likely than poorer ones to be exposed to extremist views. "You need a computer, an Internet connection poor Muslims don't have that kind of access," says Stewart.
Pakistani authorities say Zamzam and his friends were recruited online, via YouTube and Facebook.
The key factor these cases have in common is the willingness of the suspects to embrace the propagandists' argument that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. policies elsewhere in the region, are part of an assault on the global community of Muslims. "The narrative that America is at war against Islam works for people from all classes," says Steve Emerson, author of American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us. He points out that even many of the 9/11 hijackers had been highly educated.
Hoffman, who has studied terrorism of all stripes, say it's not just Islamic extremism that attracts middle-class adherents. "You look at every kind of terrorism over the past century, and you'll find that the majority of the people who participated were not poor or ignorant but well-off and educated."
Despite the growing evidence against the stereotype, however, Hoffman says people will always tend to believe that terrorism is class-related. "We want to believe that, because then we can fix it. We can create jobs, provide opportunities, and these young men can be turned away from that path," says Hoffman. "But reality is much messier than that."