The shooting in Arkansas last week that claimed the life of a 24-year-old soldier and the bomb plot that was disrupted in the Bronx in late May put questions about homegrown terrorism into sharp focus. Why do some Americans, like Arkansas shooter Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, decide to take up arms against the society where they were born and raised?
There has been debate among those who study terrorism over the extent to which ideology — such as al Qaeda’s dark worldview — helps make a terrorist. Some observers think it is an important factor, while others argue that the feeling of grievance (legitimate or not) is critical and ideology provides only a veneer of pretext.
Interestingly, the Arkansas case provides fuel for both sides at first glance. Little Rock’s police chief told the media that investigators think the shooting had “political and religious motives” (in other words, an ideology) but also mentioned that Mr. Muhammad told police he had acted out of anger at the United States killing Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan (in other words, a grievance).
In an attempt to better understand the radicalization process, my colleague Laura Grossman and I released a study in late April, “Homegrown Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K.: An Empirical Examination of the Radicalization Process,” that explores external manifestations of radicalization of 117 homegrown “jihadist” terrorists from the United States and Great Britain.
The study examines several specific manifestations. These include adopting a legalistic interpretation of Islam, coming to trust only select and ideologically rigid religious authorities, perceiving Islam and the West as irreconcilably opposed, manifesting a low tolerance for perceived theological deviance and attempting to impose one’s religious beliefs on others. We found that all of these steps occurred frequently enough among the sample to be significant.
The prevalence of these factors suggests the importance of religio-political ideology as individuals become radicalized (an ideology that cannot be described as Islam itself, but rather a rigid and non-mainstream understanding of that faith). Underscoring this finding, more than a quarter of the homegrown terrorists examined had a spiritual sanctioner in their plot, an individual with perceived religious authority who provided theological approval for the violent activity. About 20 percent had a spiritual mentor, a more experienced Muslim who gave instruction and direction during the radicalization process.
Honing in on these factors helps make sense of previous cases of Americans who were drawn to Islamist terrorism. One of the United States’ most famous homegrown terrorists is Adam Gadahn, who progressed from a countercultural Southern California upbringing to serving as an al Qaeda spokesman. Soon after his conversion, he fell in with a “discussion group” filled with men who possessed a highly legalistic understanding of Islam, described by another convert as believing that everything in the United States was “haram,” or prohibited by Islamic law. Mr. Gadahn followed the intricate rules he was taught and came to see his mosque’s more moderate leadership as offering a diluted and inauthentic version of Islam. At one point, he punched the mosque’s president in the face during a confrontation.
As he radicalized, Mr. Gadahn came to see Islam and the West as irreconcilably opposed. He isolated himself from family members and all things Western. Mr. Gadahn later expressed the idea of a schism between Islam and the West in his first video for al Qaeda, in which he said that if there is a conflict between a Muslim’s “religion and his nation and family, then he must choose the religion every time. In fact, to side with the unbelievers against Islam and Muslims is one of the acts that nullifies one’s Islamic faith.”
The various behavioral changes examined in our study interacted together to push Mr. Gadahn toward supporting terrorism.
Similarly, New York’s “Lackawanna Six” had a spiritual mentor who exposed them to what journalist Dina Temple-Raston described as “an uncompromising religious atmosphere” designed to make them feel ashamed for being “too American.” After introducing the men to legalistic standards in which they constantly fell short, the mentor brought in a “closer,” a young imam who built off their feelings of religious failure to argue that jihad was their only chance at salvation.
At this point, many questions still surround Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad’s religious development. One important fact not known publicly is whether his radicalization occurred in the United States or if — like “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh — he became more extreme during his time in Yemen. Moreover, not all terrorists precisely follow our study’s factors. If early reports about Bronx plotter James Cromitie and his co-conspirators are correct, they routinely drank alcohol and even may have eaten pork.
Nonetheless, the power of the religio-political narrative advanced by al Qaeda and its affiliates can be seen across a broad range of homegrown terrorist cases. Understanding the power of this ideology is an important starting point when asking how homegrown terrorists radicalize. Successfully countering it is, in turn, critical to winning the struggle against global terrorism.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the director of the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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