Once distant enemies now pose a real threat to the U.S. at home.
“By god,” said al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a 2002 broadcast, “the youths of god are preparing for you things that would fill your hearts with terror and target your economic lifeline until you stop your oppression and aggression.”
Ever since February, authorities have detected almost a dozen jihadist operations targeting the United States — or using it as a staging post for attacks elsewhere. In March, at least 20 men were reported to have returned home to fight with the Islamist group al-Shahab — recruited by a Somali-American cell operating out of Minneapolis. Four men were held in May for planting inactive explosives, provided by a police informant, outside synagogues in New York. The next month, seven North Carolina men were held for planning attacks in Israel and Pakistan.
September saw the detection of three major plots. Inspired by Islamists at a Flushing mosque, and his imagination fired by the Indian televangelist Zakir Naik, Afghan-born and Pakistan-trained Najibullah Zazi is alleged to have been preparing to set off several improvised explosive devices. Jordanian Hosam Maher Smadi and Illinois resident Michael Finton were also held for attempting to set off car bombs which had been provided to them by undercover agents.
In October, the Federal Bureau of Investigation held David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Rana. First held on charges of planning an attack on the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten in Copenhagen, the two men are now thought to have played a role in the reconnaissance which preceded the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai.
In the weeks after the Headley-Rana arrests, U.S. authorities held Boston resident Tarek Mehanna and Ahmad Abousamra for conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. The men were allegedly planning attacks on shopping malls, using automatic weapons.
And at the end of the month, FBI agents killed Detroit mosque leader Luqmaan Ameen Abdullah, after an exchange of fire with members of Ummah — an Islamist group said to preach hatred of the U.S. and provide its members with arms training.
None of these cells was linked — but each had complex ties to the ideological and combat infrastructure of the global jihadist movement, often located in Pakistan. Even as U.S. policymakers agonise over their choices in the region, it has become clear that once-distant enemies now pose a real threat at home.
Offensive pre-dates 9/11
Ever since September 11, 2001, jihadist groups have repeatedly targeted the U.S. Indeed, their offensive long pre-dates the massive attacks: as early as 1999, we now know, Seattle-based Oussama Kassir was attempting to set up a jihad training base in Oregon, with finance raised from United Kingdom-based Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri.
Osama bin Laden’s lieutenant, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the architect of the September 11 attacks, is known to have been planning what he called a “Second Wave” attack on the Library Tower in Los Angeles. Mohammad recruited Malaysian nationals Masran bin Arshad, Mohammed Nazir bin-Lep, Mod Farik bin-Amin and Zaini Zakaria for the operation.
Links with both Pakistan and Afghanistan became evident. The men are believed to have trained at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan between 1999 and 2001; interestingly, Zakaria possessed a pilot’s licence. In his book, At the Centre of the Storm, the former Central Intelligence Agency chief, George Tenet, wrote that a Baltimore-based Pakistani national, Majid Khan, provided funds to the Jemaah Islamiyah for the operation.
British-born Richard Reid participated in a separate Mohammad-led operation, targeting an American Airlines transatlantic flight that left Paris in December 2001. Reid’s ankle-high hiking boots were packed with plastic high-explosive.
In 2003, authorities in Saudi Arabia arrested five Bahrain nationals for their alleged role in planning a cyanide-gas attack on the New York subway system. Few details have become public on the operation, which is thought to have been authorised by the al-Qaeda. Later, in April 2005, British national Dhiren Bharot was held along with Nadeem Tarmohamed, Qaisar Shaffi and four other men for planning bomb attacks in the U.S., including the headquarters of Citigroup, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.
Evidence that emerged during Bharot’s trial showed he had trained in Pakistan in 1995, and proceeded to serve with the Lashkar. In The Army of Madinah in Kashmir, which he published in the U.K. in 1999, Bharot claims to have fought against “Hindu aggressors.” Bharot’s disillusion with the fighting in Jammu and Kashmir, which he described as “semi-farcical” and a “secondary rate jihad,” led him towards the al-Qaeda.
But the policymakers in the U.S., who saw counter-terrorism through the al-Qaeda prism, failed to understand that it was not the sole threat. Even as the al-Qaeda was degraded, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other Pakistan-based groups began to provide infrastructure for anti-U.S. jihadists.
In June 2005, France convicted Lashkar-e-Taiba linked Mustapha Ghulam Rama, Hassan el-Cheguer and Hakim Mokhfi for having funded shoe-bomber Reid’s operations. Algerian-born Cheguer and Mokhfi, it turned out, had trained at Lashkar camps in Pakistan. Rama was closely linked to the Lashkar’s commander for transcontinental operations, Sajid Mir — Headley’s suspected handler.
Lebanese national Assem Hammoud was held in April 2006 for planning to target Port Authority Trans-Hudson commuter trains running between New Jersey and New York. Hammoud’s cell, described by FBI Assistant Director John Miller as “a self-initiating cell that had access to [the] al-Qaeda,” included operatives from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Palestine and Iran. Hammoud also told the Lebanese police he had planned to travel to Pakistan to train at a Lashkar-run camp.
Months after Hammoud’s arrest, authorities in the U.K. charged 24 British-born Muslims with seeking to blow up multiple transatlantic flights over U.S. cities. Key suspect Rashid Rauf, a Birmingham-born British national of Pakistan origin, escaped from a Pakistani jail in 2007, and was believed to have been killed in an airstrike last November. However, recent media reports suggest that he is still alive, and located in Pakistan’s northwest.
Increasingly, new jihadist cells are independent of organisational structures: “Jihadi-Salafi ideology,” the New York Police department stated in an official report, “is the driver that motivates young men and women, born or living in the West, to carry out autonomous jihad via acts of terrorism against their host countries.”
Back in 2004, police in New York arrested Shahwar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay for plotting to bomb the Herald Square subway station. Neither of them possessed military training; they had, however, been promised an improvised explosive device by New York police informant Osama Eldawoody. Pakistan-born Siraj moved to the U.S. in 1999, after struggling through high school. His grades at St. Andrew’s High School in Karachi were undistinguished; interestingly, Siraj told a psychologist that he was often taunted for his parents’ affiliation to the Aga Khan sect, reviled by orthodox believers. Siraj said he had little interest in either religion or academia while at school, his interest focussing instead on cricket and video games. He was drawn to Islamist causes while working at a religious bookstore run by his uncle in New York, where he encountered school dropout Elshafay.
Islamists also proved adroit in using the Internet to mobilise. In July 2006, the FBI held Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Siddiquee for having prepared short digital video recordings of potential targets in the Washington DC area. The former FBI Director, Robert Muller, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the men “had long term goals of creating a large network of extremists in preparation for conducting attacks.” Sidiquee sent the reconnaissance tapes to Younis Tsouli, a U.K. resident of Moroccan origin, who for several years ran an elaborate network of jihadist websites using the screen-name Irhabi007 [“Terrorist007”]. Tsouli and University of Leicester-trained biochemist Waseem Mughal were held by British authorities in October 2005.
Like members of the Students Islamic Movement of India-linked jihad cells held in 2007, Ahmed and Siddiquee gained rudimentary combat skills at outdoor camps. Both men gained in paintball gun and survival training in the woodlands of northwestern Georgia and Washago, Canada.
Many new jihadist cells have been built around activities. Members of a Northern Virginia-based Lashkar-e-Taiba cell detected in 2001, for example, participated in paintball gun exercises, as did cadre involved in a Miami-based jihadist unit that was broken up in 2006. Mohammad Shahzad Khan, leader of the cell that bombed London’s underground train system in July 2005, also bonded with his group during paintball gunfights.
Earlier this year, a North Carolina jury indicted eight local residents for their links with a jihad cell which planned to target a military base in Quantico, Virginia. Prosecutors say Daniel Patrick Boyd, whose Islamist sympathies were forged while working in Peshawar assisting refugees displaced from Afghanistan, purchased 11 weapons for the assault. The group financed its operations by robbing banks and narcotics dealers. One cell member, Jude Kenan Mohammad, is believed to be still in Pakistan.
Even as it moves to address the causes of the rising tide of jihadist violence at home — among them resentment over foreign policy, racism, religious bigotry, and Islamist institutions that exploit them — the U.S. will have to work to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorist groups in Pakistan.