Small Wars Journal

The Country Club Jihad: A Study of North American Radicalization

Sun, 01/24/2016 - 6:33pm

The Country Club Jihad: A Study of North American Radicalization

Alex Reese


Using the University of Maryland National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Profiles of Islamist Radicals in North America (PIRaNA) dataset, this research paper examines a curious dynamic among Muslims who radicalize to the point of violence in North America.  Far from being a “last-straw” decision, the choice to radicalize and carry out violent actions is one made by individuals who had seemingly better options, at least materially. The majority of individuals “driven” to violence in North America were well-assimilated into North American society.  They lived in diverse communities for extended periods, knew their neighbors, and studied at local schools and universities.  Their involvement in and connection to their community would logically, at a minimum, create a disincentive to attack their neighbors and coworkers. 

Moreover, these radicals were of a positive socio-economic status before choosing jihad.  Many of these North American jihadists worked in well-regarded occupations, earned acceptable wages, and came from higher class family backgrounds.  Their status within the community provided them with the tools to enrich their material quality of life, and yet they selected a route which was sure to decrease their material well-being.

This research paper examines four cells of individuals, both rooted in society and of a high socio-economic status, whose members have radicalized within North America, espousing jihadist motives to the point of violence or intention to commit violent acts.  These four cells will be deconstructed individually with a focus on environmental, demographic and economic factors which might have driven these select sets of individuals to radicalize.  Finally, patterns common to these cells will be aggregated. 

Review of Literature

Relative Deprivation and Social Groups

Relevant social science research consistently advances the notion that, contrary to intuition, feelings of deprivation are relative and not absolute (Crosby 1976).  According to the theory of relative deprivation the dissatisfaction that might result from one’s socio-economic status is the result of comparisons between the status of others and not one’s absolute deprivation (Gurr 1970).  An important nuance of the comparison is that it must be made with an individual whom is perceived to be comparable to one’s self for deprivation to result.      

The scholar Denton E. Morrison thoroughly examines the role of relative deprivation in social movements (1979).  Morrison explores the role of expectations and external, environmental conditions on individuals developing feelings of discontent.  The interplay of the perceived legitimacy of one’s expectations and the extent to which this expectation is blocked by environmental conditions may lead to efforts of structural reform under certain conditions. 

The first condition is the presence of relative deprivation which results from an individual simultaneously believing that their expectation is legitimate, while at the same time believing that their expectation will not be fulfilled or blocked.  For a goal to be legitimate, a person must perceive that they deserve and have a right to obtain the goal, at least under certain conditions which the author terms “investments.”   An example of an investment would be a role or status within a society.  A desire then forms into a legitimate expectation when a person learns that certain investments are generally rewarded by specific outcomes.  The concept of a legitimate desire being blocked then depends on the individual’s belief that the desire will be fulfilled.  The temporal rate at which the desire is fulfilled is meaningful—if the probability that a desire will not be fulfilled is low over an extended period of time, the desire does not become a legitimate expectation. 

In order for feelings of deprivation to result, one or all of the three methods to resolve dissonance through rationalization must fail.  One resolution method is to attribute roadblocks to achieving one’s goal is to attribute failure to meet the goal to a variety of internal and external factors, e.g., luck, lack of resources.  This then frames the actors initial expectation as not legitimate—a necessary condition.  Another method to resolve dissonance would be to believe that, though an individual experiences blockage, achievement is possible with more effort.  And still another possibility to resolve dissonance is to simply change the environment.  For example, a person seeking employment might move from a rural to urban environment where jobs are more available.  

Under this construct, societal stratification provides a potentially useful explanation for the selection of members of aspirational deprivation movements.[1]  Individuals on the highest strata have by definition the greatest opportunity to realize their aspirations.  Their aspirations are more likely to have yielded success, and they are, as a result, less likely to develop feelings of deprivation.  Both middle and low strata are then more likely to have not achieved their aspirations, however, the middle group would be more likely to have achieved some success than the lower.  Having had more success, it reasons that this would create an expectation of continued fulfillment among the middle group, making them more likely to join aspirational deprivation movements. 

Collective Action and Behavioral Response

According to a dominant theory in intergroup behavior, there are five stages to intergroup behavior through which groups pass in sequential order before finally engaging in collective action to advance their group to a stratum of greater advantage (Taylor & McKirnan 1984).  These five stages are marked by (1) clearly stratified intergroup relations, (2) individualistic ideology, (3) individual social mobility, (4) consciousness raising, and (5) collective actions.  An inherent assumption of this model is the concept of inequality between groups or classes.  How individuals of disadvantaged groups respond to stimulus is driven by their perception of intergroup relations.  For example, the subsequent actions of an individual of a disadvantaged class who is seeking employment and is rejected would primarily be guided by his perception of his position within his group and of the advantaged group.  Accordingly, this person might ascribe his rejection to his lack of qualifications, or alternatively, that the advantaged class unfairly rejected them because of their disadvantaged group attributes.  Attribution to external factors such as race, sex, or socioeconomic status leads to feelings of injustice and ultimately an interest in action to create a merit-based system. 

Under experimental conditions, researchers found the most probable conditions for collective action as well as conditions most likely to result in individuals from a disadvantaged group carrying out anti-normative action, i.e., acts that violate norms of appropriateness, where normative activity are attempts at upward mobility toward the advantaged group (Wright, Taylor & Moghaddam 1990; Taylor, Moghaddam 1994).   First, a central ordering principle of groups in the five-stage model is that members perceive that their group membership, as well as their position within that group, is based upon their merit relative to other group members.  Members who perceive their merit as closest to the more advantaged group will attempt upward social mobility to the advantaged group.  An individual attempt at social mobility will continue so long as the advantaged group appears open and membership is based upon merit.  If a disadvantaged group member is blocked from an advantaged group and perceives the system as closed, individual attempts will be abandoned in favor of collective action.  A field experiment conducted by the researchers revealed dynamics relevant to the topic of this research paper. 

The study divided the subjects into a number of independent groups and presented each with different levels of openness ranging from closed, with none advancing to the advantaged group, to a completely open meritocracy.  Not surprisingly, a high percentage of the bottom of each respective group chose to accept their non-selection and took no action, and a similarly large percentage of individuals who nearly missed selection chose to take collective action.  The study results record an interesting effect in the group where just a small token percentage, 2%, of the nearly qualified disadvantaged group members were admitted to the advantaged group.  Under these circumstances, an astounding 59% of participants chose a behavior that was consistent with an individual non-normative response.  When this group of nearly qualified group members were put in a completely closed environment, where all are blocked from advancement, only 28% chose the same behavioral response.  This segment of blocked, nearly qualified study participants by-in-large chose collective action.  Tokenism, a process through which a small number of members of a disadvantaged group were allowed into the advantaged group, appears to have a substantial effect on the numbers who undertook individual anti-normative action.

Muslim Americans

An examination of Muslim Americans revealed nuanced differences between this group and the general American public, but found that Muslim Americans are largely congruent with mainstream American culture in a number of key ways. [2]   Muslim Americans largely disapprove of Islamist extremism and believe that the economic playing field is level, and that hard work in the labor force is the path to getting ahead.  Furthermore, this group by-in-large strives to integrate into American culture. 

While Muslim Americans disapprove of aspects of U.S. foreign policy post September 11th, the vast majority disapprove of Islamic extremism. [3]  In particular, Muslim Americans have doubts about the U.S. War on Terrorism, with just 26% believing it to be a sincere effort, compared to 67% of the American public.  On the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Muslim Americans expressed similar reservations, with 75% deeming the war in Iraq to be the wrong decision.  However, this number is not terribly far from the 47% of the general public who disapproves of the war.  On the war in Afghanistan, a smaller number, 48%, disapprove compared to 29% of the general public.  This group’s doubts about U.S. foreign policy post September 11th contrast with their concern about Islamic extremism in the United States and disapproval of the tactic of suicide bombing.  As a whole, 61% responded that they were concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in the United States, while 83% responded that suicide bombing is rarely or never justified.

Case Studies

The cases selected for detailed analysis, are those where a significant number of group members chose to espouse jihad in spite of factors that would discourage that choice.  The PIRaNA dataset contains demographic details on 151 individuals who participated in 26 conspiracies.  The four conspiracies detailed below were selected because their members were disproportionately rooted and of a high socio-economic status: two factors that would rationally discourage one from espousing jihad.  Table 1 breaks down the four case studies in terms of rootedness and social stratum, revealing an astounding 20 of the 23 were both rooted in society and of a positive socio-economic status.  And while the plurality of the 151 conspirators for whom these variables are known are of this variety (Table 2), none fit as succinctly as the selected case studies below.  For comparison, this research paper also looks at a case more representative of the typical Muslim-American experience where individuals became integrated, upholding the norms of their adopted society.

Lackawanna Six

In the summer of 2001, eight men of Yemeni descent who hailed from Lackawanna, New York, traveled from their small hamlet in Upstate New York to Kandahar, Afghanistan, to attend an Al-Qaida-sponsored training camp where they received training in small arms, explosives, and heavy artillery. [4]  In the weeks prior to September 11th, this group that came to be known as the Lackawanna Six was addressed by Osama bin Laden during the course of their training.[5]  In the end, six of the men were prosecuted for providing material support to a terrorist organization, one was killed in Yemen in a drone strike, and the other remains at-large.    

The Yemeni-American community of Lackawanna, New York, was, as a whole, isolated from the generations of Americans who called that area home.  However, the Lackawanna Six were individually well-rooted in their community.  A charismatic, devout Muslim of Yemeni descent, Kamal Derwish, 28, emerged as the group’s leader.[6]  Derwish was born in Buffalo’s Mercy Hospital, had lived abroad with relatives in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s, returning to Lackawanna in 2000 to live.  Derwish spoke Arabic fluently with a Saudi accent.  His travels abroad, combined with his advanced familiarity with the Koran, provided authority to Derwish’s militant and fiercely anti-Western rhetoric.  Derwish often shared with his friends stories of jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya and the suffering of Muslims in Palestine at the hand of the U.S.-equipped Israeli Defense Force.[7]

When Kamal Derwish returned to Lackawanna, he settled in an apartment with Yahya Goba, a 24-year old Lackawanna High School graduate.  Goba was born in Yonkers, New York, to Yemeni parents.  Goba had lived abroad in the Middle East for two years and was fluent in Arabic.  After graduating from high school, Goba’s life took a listless course.  He demonstrated little interest in post-secondary education, yet at the same time seemed above blue-collar employment.  Goba earned a living through odd jobs and spent his time teaching Arabic to youths in the community.[8]  While Goba was described as a pious and devout Muslim, it was not until his association with the jihad-espousing Kamal Derwish that his religious views became Islamist. 

Yahya Goba and Kamal Derwish’s lodging together allowed them to host and, because of their knowledge of the Koran, lead a study circle, or Halaqah, where community Muslims would meet and advance their faith collectively.  One of these students was the 29-year old college graduate Sahim Alwan.  An unlikely jihadist, Alwan had three young children and was employed as a youth counselor at a U.S. Labor Department facility.[9]  Another was Yassein Taher, the 24-year old Lackawanna High School graduate who was a soccer stand-out and voted by his classmates as the “friendliest” of his graduating class.[10]   

Like other members of the Lackawanna Six, Taher’s life became aimless following high school.  After graduation, Taher attended community college, but left to marry his high school girlfriend when she became pregnant.  Following their marriage, Taher held a number of jobs that lacked future long-term career prospects, for example, working at a collection agency and as a gas station attendant.[11]  

Yassein Taher’s associates and classmates, Shafal Mosed, Faysal Galab, Mukhtar Al-Bakri, and Jaber Elbaneh accompanied him to Goba and Derwish’s study circle.  Mosed had moved to the Buffalo area as a high school junior when his father had relocated to work at the Ford Motor Company’s Buffalo plant.  Mosed’s father died of a heart attack shortly after the family’s move, forcing him, as the oldest sibling, to become a provider for his mother and three siblings. In Lackawanna, Mosed found work as a telemarketer and attended community college.[12]  Galab was born in Lackawanna, was married with two children, and worked in the town as a used car salesman.[13] Mukhtar Al-Bakri was born in Yemen and was fluent in Arabic, but had lived in Lackawanna since childhood.[14] The son of a Sorrento Cheese worker, Al-Bakri was a slow learner who took six years to graduate from Lackawanna High School.[15]  Jaber Elbaneh, in his early 30s, was older than the others, but shared much in common with the group.[16]  Born in Yemen and fluent in Arabic, Elbaneh came to the U.S. at the age of 12.  He was married and worked at a factory in South Buffalo.[17]

At Derwish’s Halaqah he introduced the, by all accounts moderate members, to concepts and stories that would ultimately inspire them to travel to Afghanistan and attend military training to engage in jihad.  The first was the example of jihad.  Derwish had trained for jihad in Afghanistan during the early 1990s.  Conceptually, he introduced the group to the furious thought of the Islamist radical author Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966 for his role in the attempted assassination of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser. From Qutb, who wrote prolifically on the Koran and the moral shortcomings of the U.S., Derwish influenced the group to distance themselves from their American habits.[18]  Another Derwish lesson was the suffering of Muslims in places such as Palestine and the virtue of jihad and the duty of Muslims to wage it.  In one illuminating conversation between Derwish and Taher in front of the group, Derwish told the story of the suicide attack of the USS Cole in the port of Aden by Yemeni Islamists in the name of jihad.  Employing the Socratic Method, Derwish recounted the scenario and asked the group whether “suicide bombing was the right thing to do?”  “No,” answered Taher.  Jihad, he reasoned, was justified to resist occupation and oppression in places like Bosnia, Chechnya, or Palestine.  “Is it?,” Derwish retorted. [19]

Atlanta Student Casings

In 2005, Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, both U.S. citizens, traveled from their homes in Atlanta, Georgia, to Toronto, Canada, to meet “with other supporters of violent jihad and to discuss how to participate in […] and further violent jihad activities in the United States and other foreign nations.”[20]  Following this meeting, the two traveled to the Washington, D.C. area and “cased” potential targets of iconic value with video including the U.S. Capitol, the World Bank, and the Masonic Temple in Alexandria, Virginia.  Further, Ahmed and Sadequee prepared for jihad by watching videos of Osama bin Laden and rehearsing small arms attack maneuvers with paintball guns in the woods of North Georgia. [21] The pair were arrested by federal authorities in March 2006.

At the time of his arrest, Syed Haris Ahmed was 21 and lived in a trendy area of Atlanta very near the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he was awarded a scholarship and studied mechanical engineering.  Ahmed was born in Pakistan, but immigrated to the United States at the age of 13 with his mother, father, and sisters in 1997 after winning a green card in a State Department lottery.  He had attended high school in Roswell, Georgia, but ultimately graduated from high school in Dawsonville, Georgia, when Ahmed’s father, a professor of computer science at nearby North Georgia College, moved the family there to be closer to his work.[22]

During his time at Georgia Tech, the Ahmed family indicated that Sayed Ahmed became increasingly observant of Islam.  He began regularly attending the Al-Farooq Masjid, located near his Midtown Atlanta residence.  It was here that Ahmed met fellow conspirator Ehsanul Islam Sadequee.[23]    

Ehsanul Islam Sadequee is a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi descent who was born in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1986.  Prior to his arrest in 2006, Sadequee was unemployed and lived in Roswell, Georgia, with his mother, brother, and sister.  He attended high school in Toronto, Canada, and did not attend college.[24]

Portland Seven

In October 2002, the U.S. Justice Department charged six individuals in Portland, Oregon, with conspiracy to levy war against the United States and providing material support to Al-Qaida.[25]  Namely, the group had trained for jihad with firearms in the U.S. and traveled abroad in an effort to join Al-Qaida in its struggle against the U.S.  All but two members of this cell, which came to be known as the Portland Seven, were U.S. citizens; the majority were employed, three in white-collar professions.  Further, two members were college graduates. 

The group became familiar with one another at the Portland Masjed Al Saber Mosque.  Habis Abdulla Al Saoub, a Jordanian who had fought against the Soviets in the 1980s in Afghanistan, emerged as the group’s leader.  Al Saoub, 35, along with U.S. citizens Jeffrey Leon Battle and Patrice Lumumba Ford, first gained the attention of law enforcement in 2001 when they were discovered firing assault weapons in a remote area in rural Portland by a sheriff’s deputy responding to a noise complaint.[26]  Ford, 30, was enrolled in Portland State University, where he studied Chinese and International Studies.  He had studied abroad for three semesters in China where he, reportedly inspired by the Uighur Muslim separatist group, converted to Islam.[27]  Battle, 32, was self-employed as a security guard at a security firm he incorporated in 2000.  He had moved to Portland from Houston in 1998 with his wife, October Martinique Lewis, also named as a Portland Seven conspirator.[28]  The deputy recorded the individuals’ names and passed a report on to the local FBI office.    

In the wake of the September 11th  attack, Al Saoub, Battle, and Ford developed a plan with fellow Masjed Al Saber attendees and siblings Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, 24, and Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, 22, to travel to Afghanistan via China and enlist their services to the Taliban and Al-Qaida. In October 2001, Al Saoub, Battle, Ford, A. Bilal, and M. Bilal departed from Portland International Airport for Hong Kong.  From Hong Kong, the group intended to travel to Afghanistan, but was turned away by border control authorities in Pakistan. By February 2002, all but Al Saoub, who was killed during a firefight by the Pakistani Army on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, had returned to the U.S. having failed to gain entry to Afghanistan.

Fort Dix Six

The Fort Dix Six terror plot to attack military installations in the North-Eastern United States was hatched in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, by six local residents.  The members of the conspiracy, ranging in age from 22 to 28, planned to attack military installations with small arms and explosives, killing “as many American soldiers as possible.”[29]  Although most of the group had been raised in the U.S. and had no involvement with extremist organizations, the group was inspired by the message of Al-Qaida to attack targets in their locality.[30]

The six were described by friends and neighbors as ordinary and had developed significant ties to the community.  Dritan Duka, Eljvir Duka, and Shain Duka were brothers who had attended Cherry Hill West High School and operated a roofing and construction company.  The Dukas were ethnic Albanians who emigrated with their family to the U.S. from Macedonia in 1984.  The family shared a single-family home in Cherry Hill.[31]  Serdar Tater was the son of Turkish immigrants who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1992.  Tater’s father operated an Italian restaurant where Serdar had worked as a deliveryman.  The fifth conspirator, Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, a brother-in-law of the Dukas, was of Jordanian descent, graduated from Cherry Hill West High School, and was employed as a taxi driver in nearby Philadelphia.  The final member, Agron Abdulla, was employed at a local supermarket.  An ethnic Albanian and long-time friend of the Dukas, Abdulla had served as a sniper in Kosovo in the late 1990s.[32]    

The group purchased weapons and engaged in outdoor activities together in preparation for their attacks.  According to court documents, Shnewer, along with D. Duka and E. Duka, purchased a pump action 12-gauge shotgun, a semi-automatic 9-millimeter rifle, and a 7.62-millimeter AK-47-styled semi-automatic assault rifle.[33]  All members of the group then engaged in target practice with the weapons and participated in paramilitary maneuvers with paintball guns.  Group member Shnewer surveilled Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base, Lakehurst Naval Air Station, the U.S. Army installation at Fort Monmouth, Dover Air Force Base, and the U.S. Coast Guard Base in Philadelphia.[34]

In addition to weapons training, the group bonded by viewing violent jihadist videos together.  Shnewer had a library of videos depicting armed attacks on U.S. military personnel and glorifying the September 11th attacks.  Ultimately, however, videos proved to be the undoing of the Fort Dix plot when a Circuit City store clerk reported to law enforcement a disturbing video, which Shnewer had brought to the electronics store to duplicate, that the group recorded of themselves chanting and firing weapons.[35]

Minnesota Somali Diaspora: A Case Study More Representative of the Muslim American Experience

Fleeing the Somali Civil War in the 1990s, thousands of Somalis migrated from Somalia—a country where the dominant religion has been Islam since the 12th century—to Minnesota; many of whom went on to become successful business owners and integrate into society. [36],[37]  These émigrés had a level of training and education similar to the individuals in the above case studies who chose to radicalize, yet this group chose a different path.  The success of the Somali diaspora in Minnesota has been studied by academics and looked to as a model by policy makers in Western Europe where immigrant populations have not achieved the same level of success.[38]

At the outset of the 1990s there were no Somali-owned or run businesses in the state, by 2006 there were 600.[39] Somali immigrant Mohammed Ali fled Somalia for the United States in 1996 and today is the owner of Midwest Auto Repair in Minneapolis where he employs a staff of five fulltime employees.[40]  Upon arrival in the United States, Ali had basic automotive mechanical skills which allowed him to gain employment as a technician at an automotive maintenance shop.  Initially he performed menial tasks such as oil changes but progressed to a position where his employer provided him formal training on theories and principles of the maintenance and repair cycle.  Ali used this greater understanding of the broader automotive repair industry to secure financial backing to start his own auto maintenance business.         

Another Somali-American business success story is Jamal Dalqaf, who fled Somalia during the civil war.[41] Dalqaf was a math and physics teacher in Somalia; however, to become a teacher in the United States would have required a new university education, so he elected to begin a new career in a more accessible industry—transportation.  He began as a truck loader, advanced to mechanic, and then became a long-haul driver, where he traversed the continent carrying merchandise.  His travels as a long haul driver offered him the opportunity to view the cultural landscape of the United States; he recalled fondly an experience of being invited to stay with a Connecticut Jewish family whose kosher diet satisfied his halal dietary requirement. In 2006, Dalqaf incorporated his own business, Dalqaf Transportation, buying his business’s first truck with Islamic-compliant financing provided by a non-profit organization which helps African immigrants in Minnesota achieve financial success. 

Quite contrary to Islamist radicalization, many migrants from Somalia have pursued careers in law enforcement.  Somali-Americans pursuing careers as law enforcement officers is enough of a phenomenon to warrant the creation of a national organization for officers of Somali heritage—the Somali American Police Association.  One such example is Somali-American police officer Mohamed Ali who fled Somalia as a child for Egypt, where he attended primary school as a refugee and worked a series of menial jobs after school for as little as $5 a day.[42]  Ali arrived in Minnesota at the age of a college freshman and elected to pursue a college degree, though he lacked all of the requisite courses necessary for admission and was required to take courses at a local high school to gain admission. Though he initially intended to pursue a career in business post-college, Ali ultimately elected to become a police officer after meeting a Somali police officer in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.  He regards the opportunity to become a police officer as an opportunity unique to this country observing, ‘[…] I thought you could only be a police officer if you were born in that country […] that’s how it is in Third World countries.’

Case Analysis

Being Rooted and Barely Middle Class

A common theme among conspirators in the four rooted plots is dissatisfaction with their relative socio-economic status.  For example, four of the conspirators in the Lackawanna plot: Al-Bakri earned $300 per week as a deliveryman; Galab, Taher, and Mosed had similar career trajectories in Lackawanna where they worked as a gas station attendant, debt collection agent, and telemarketer, respectively. All had recently graduated from Lackawanna High School, but none pursued training or education to advance socio-economically, though all had access. The same can be said of the Fort Dix conspirators.  Tatar attended the local high school, earning a General Equivalency Diploma in lieu of graduation.  Thereafter, Tatar worked as a deliveryman for a local restaurant and then as a 7-Eleven clerk.  The Duka brothers, the most professionally ambitious of the lot, led discursive career paths, at one time operating a pizza parlor and, at the time of their arrest, operating a roofing company. 

The mid-level socio-economic position of the individuals involved in the group conspiracies makes them more prone to membership in an aspirational deprivation movement. These individuals had just enough in terms of language skill and social connections to achieve a modicum of success as wage earners.  This level of success would have raised the aspirations of the soon to be conspirators, aspirations which were likely dashed when they struggled to meet the financial obligations of the trappings of middle class life.  It is then logical that these individuals who shared these same circumstances would have shared feelings of deprivation and that they formed the groups that went on to carry out the various conspiracies. 

The conspirators were nearly to a man second-generation Americans.  Familiarity with the language and contacts gained through being raised in their communities allowed the conspirators employment, but employment without long-term prospects.  This was not the case for many in the PIRaNA dataset who were of a higher socio-economic stratum, but not rooted like the Lackawanna or Fort Dix conspirators above. 

Cases of this type, positive socio-economic stratum yet not rooted, can be generally lumped into two categories (see Table 3). The first variety is the Al-Shabaab affiliates of the dataset. Take, for example, Jamal Sheikh Bana of Minneapolis who at 19 traveled to Somalia to fight in the Al-Shabaab Militia.  Prior to this, Bana studied chemical engineering and was employed at a local department store.  A second variety is the jihad intelligentsia - highly educated and not rooted.  For example, Fort Hood shooter Army Major Nidal Hassan, who was a medical doctor.  Hassan, a second-generation Jordanian, exhibited a high degree of alienation in American society.  Another is Pakistani-born, Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, who was a naturalized U.S. citizen and held an MBA. Or, Anwar al-Awlaki, who is of Yemeni descent, was born in the U.S., and holds a doctorate degree from a U.S. university.  A commonality of these two varieties, along with a distinction from the four selected case studies, is that they took opportunities offered by their social stratum, e.g., medical degree, advanced business degree, to advance their positions therein.

Paternity and Jihad

Before radicalization, a surprising number of individuals in the four cases studied had significant family responsibilities as the head of their households:  logically reason to prevent them from endangering their lives and livelihoods by espousing jihad.  Of the Lackawanna Six, six of the eight were married, five with children. Take Yassein Taher who, at 24, was recently married and a new father.  Taher worked as a debt collection agent and struggled to provide for his wife, who did not earn an income, and child.  By all accounts, finances were tight in Taher’s household.  Yet, at Derwish’s prompting and to the dismay of his wife, Taher elected to travel to Pakistan to prepare for jihad.  Like others in the Lackawanna group who had family obligations, Taher was presented the choice between a life in Lackawanna as a sole provider, barely making ends meet, or the adventure of traveling abroad and preparing for jihad.      

When compared to the other conspirators in the PIRaNA dataset, the finding that conspirators had family obligations that would ostensibly discourage jihad is common.  Though paternity/maternity is unknown for roughly three-quarters of the 151 cases, conspirators in three of the four rooted/positive socio-economic status plots were fathers (see Table 4, 5). [43]  Moreover, at least one conspirator was married in all four of the rooted/positive socio-economic plots and in more than half of the 27 plots in the dataset. The implication of this finding being that when faced with the choice between adventure and jihad or  providing for their family, family obligations were, at the very least, not an impediment to choosing jihad.   

Evil Luminary, Point of Convergence, and Male Bonding:  Necessary Conditions?

In the four high-rooted, positive socio-economic status cases, an evil luminary was critical to guiding the rooted subjects, who were stuck in dead-end jobs, to radicalize.  The Lackawanna Six plot most exemplifies this dynamic.  The plot conspirators were all second-generation Americans, who, though being of Yemeni descent and Muslim was central to their identity, had little firsthand knowledge of the tenets of their nativity or religion.  For the most part, what little they did understand was filtered through their parents.  Enter jihad-espousing, radical Kamal Derwish.  Derwish had lived most of his life in the Middle East and commanded an understanding of the Koran that surpassed that of many of the Lackawanna Six parents.  A jihad veteran, he had trained at Al-Qaida camps and even fought in Bosnia, all of which provided him an air of authenticity and mystery and gave gravity to his words.  Through the lens of Derwish, the group learned to rationalize violence in the name of the Koran and, at the prompting of Derswish, attended an Al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan.          

There seems to be a common thread among evil luminaries: credibility/authenticity and lackluster success in society.  This again is exemplified by Derwish.  Derwish, as illuminated above, had an impressive understanding of the Koran.  And while he had led an exciting life, fighting in Bosnia and training in Afghanistan, he was less successful socially or professionally.  It is reported that Derwish was barely proficient with English.  And for employment, he had worked the same sorts of dead-end jobs as others in the Lackawanna plot.  Another evil luminary example that fits this mold is Habis Abdulla Al Saoub of the Portland Seven.  Al Saoub, who was a Jordanian, had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  In Portland, he worked as a parking lot attendant. 

Characters such as Derwish and Al Saoub were generally less successful in society than their fellow diaspora members, which gave them less to lose.  At the same time, the qualities that prevented them from fully assimilating into Western society, e.g., limited language proficiency, gave them an air of authenticity and elevated their social standing with second-generation Americans.  Having less to lose, these “evil luminaries” then used their standing to influence their fellow conspirators to radicalize. 

Next, the cast of characters who would comprise the various conspiracies in the PIRaNA dataset all had a point of convergence where they found like-minded individuals.  In most cases, this took the form of a local Islamic center, as in the case of the Portland Seven, the Atlanta Student Casings, and the Lackawanna Six, but not always, as in the case of some, especially converts, such as Colleen Renee Larose (also known as Jihad Jane) or Zachary Adam Chesser (Al Shabaab Conspiracy), where conspirators found one another through the Internet.  Without a meeting point for the individual conspirators to meet, network, and radicalize or further radicalize, it seems doubtful that a conspiracy would have evolved.

Finally, all four of the rooted/positive socio-economic plots engaged in a group activity to solidify the bond between them.  In most cases, this was an outdoor, male-oriented activity, such as paintball in the case of the Atlanta Student Casings, where the conspirators rehearsed maneuvers together using paintball guns, or in the Portland Seven and Fort Dix plots, where conspirators purchased firearms and conducted target practice together.  In the Lackawanna plot, however, the group bonded through spirited discussions of jihad and religion.

The Road to Action and Implications[44]

The individuals involved in the various conspiracies experienced situations which would lead to feelings of relative deprivation.  It is reasonable that the individuals perceived their expectations of socio-economic advancement as legitimate.  As rooted members of American society with English proficiency, they would have been inculcated with stories of individuals achieving economic success.  We have a rough understanding of their economic circumstances from their low-paying occupations prior to taking action which might have led them to believe that their legitimate expectations were blocked.  

Another useful implication from the relevant literature is the stage of the case studies within the five-stage model.  Further information on the conspiracies is needed to confirm the groups’ position, but the evidence suggests that the individual conspiracies were in the fourth stage of consciousness-raising which directly precedes collective action.  In order for collective action to occur, members of the class must be made to feel that the system is unjust and legitimate effort on their part will not result in advancement to the advantaged group.  During this stage members of the disadvantaged group who have failed to progress play a vital role in raising the consciousness of group members.  Wright, Taylor, and Moghaddan (1994) explain:

These ‘consciousness raisers’ attempt to convince all members of their group that membership in a disadvantaged group is not based upon […] ability and effort, but is unjustly determined by discrimination on the basis of ascribed characteristics such as ethnicity and race.

This description almost exactly illustrates the role played by the evil luminaries in the various conspiracies, e.g., Kamal Derwish in the Lakawanna plot.  Since this model  holds that groups must pass through the stages sequentially, the recognition and intervention in a would-be plot at this stage would prevent it from resulting in collective action.

Tokenism appears to have not played a meaningful role in the case studies analyzed or in the broader PIRaNA dataset.  The phenomenon of tokenism, where a token percentage of the disadvantaged group is advanced to the advantaged group, provides an explanation as to why individuals choose individual non-normative action.  And individuals in the case studies all engaged in collective non-normative action.  Individuals in the broader PIRaNA dataset who carried out individual non-normative action, e.g., Fort Hood shooter and medical doctor Nidal Hasan, were by all accounts members of the advantaged class. 

What might be different about Muslim Americans who chose to engage in violent behavior?  This is difficult to determine due to the dearth of information available on less sensational Muslim American success stories. Our cursory examination of Muslim Americans suggests that the absence of an evil luminary and the presence of a positive role model to guide would be jihadists is one potentially important difference.  Though the Muslim American immigrants to Minnesota profiled had education and job skill similar to the Lakawanna Six, et al, they had a business development non-profit to provide them advice and capital to open small businesses.  Somali-American police officer Mohamed Ali cited the influence of his interactions with Somali police officers in Minnesota as determinant of his decision to pursue the career.  Had these individuals interacted with an influential evil luminary instead, these outcomes might have been different. 


In the case of rooted Muslims of a positive socio-economic status who radicalized in North America, there are several commonalities.  First, these individuals, though not native, had a native familiarity with their respective societies in North America.  This nativity gave them the necessary elements to function in society, e.g., language proficiency, knowledge of cultural norms, and social contacts, but these elements are lower tier and lead to dead-end jobs.  Essentially, their rooted status placed them on a career track, yet on a lower rung.  Ultimately, these bottom-rung careers gave the conspirators less hope for the future. 

Second, they had recently accepted significant family responsibilities, either as husbands or fathers.  At the least, their familial responsibilities did little to dissuade their decision to commit to the Islamist cause, though that decision was certain to run counter to their interests.   And at most, their responsibilities were an incentive.  To explain, perhaps the Islamist cause, which offered adventure and purpose, appealed to the conspirators because it provided something sorely lacking in their pedestrian lives as breadwinners.  

Finally, the evil luminary, meeting point, and bonding activities were present in not only the rooted/positive socio-economic groups, but also in many of the other plots in the PIRaNA dataset.  The evil luminary acted to pull the group towards the Islamist cause, while the point of convergence functioned as a recruiting post, and the bonding activities seemed to solidify the group.  As these elements were present in so many conspiracies, it is worth further inquiry to determine whether the plots would have advanced without their presence.

Table 1: Social-Economic Status and Rootedness

Case Studies: Lackawanna Six, Portland Seven, Atlanta Student Casings and Fort Dix Six

Table 2: Socio-Economic Status and Rootedness

All other conspiracies from the PIRaNA dataset vs. our selected case studies

Table 3: Not Rooted and High Socio-Economic Status

Totals from all other conspiracies from the PIRaNA dataset and our selected case studies

Table 4: Marital Status

Totals from all other conspiracies from the PIRaNA dataset and our selected case studies

Table 5: Jihadists with Children

Totals from all other conspiracies from the PIRaNA dataset and our selected case studies

Key Terms and Definitions

Aspirational deprivation occurs when the magnitude of aspiration increases to a much greater extent than opportunities for realizing the increased aspiration.  This variety of relative deprivation is distinct from decremental deprivation which occurs when aspiration remains the same but opportunities decline as in the situation of an unemployed jobseeker during an economic depression (Morrison 1979). 

Criteria for Inclusion in the Profiles of Islamist Radicals in North American (PIRANA) dataset:  Individuals, espousing jihadist motives, who have radicalized within North America to the point of violence or intention to commit violent acts. 

Individuals: Whether or not they are part of a group.

Espousing:  Where it appears from the open sources that jihadist motives were the prime driver of the decision to engage in violence.

Islamism: Radically anti-Western Islamic political ideology with both revolutionary and revivalist elements.  The principal characteristics of Islamism in all of its forms are: 1) an outright rejection of Western secular values, an intransigent resistance to “infidel” political, economic, social, and cultural influence over the Muslim world, an extreme hostility towards less committed and militant Muslims. These less committed and militant Muslims are at worst denounced as “apostates” or even “infidels,” the process of takfir, thereby making them potential targets of violence; 2) a demand for the creation of an “Islamic state” or “Islamic order” governed by a rigid, puritanical application of the shari`a. The use of this term is certainly to be distinguished from the religion of Islam, but arguably also from other forms of political Islam and so-called fundamentalist Islam in general, which do not necessarily include all of the above characteristics.  Further, the term “jihadist” can be used to describe explicitly violent Islamists, those who advocate jihad bi al-sayf (jihad of the sword), which is to be distinguished from other, non-violent forms of jihad.[45]

Jihadist:  Violent Islamists. 

Radicalized to the point of violence:  Anyone arrested, indicted, and/or convicted of either engaging or planning to engage in unlawful violence. 

North America: The United States and Canada. 

Radicalized within North America: The radicalization process must have begun and significantly advanced within North America where “significantly advanced” is determined on a case by case basis. 

Rootedness: A subjective measure for the individual’s attachment to the United States, taking into account demonstrated levels of alienation, generation since immigration, length of time spent in the U.S., community location, e.g. within a close-knit diaspora community, etc.

Social Stratum: A subjective measure that takes into account socio-economic level, family background, community status in North America, and education.


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End Notes

[1] See Terms and Definitions Annex of this paper for definition of aspirational deprivation.  

[2] Pew Research Center. 2007. Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream. May 22

[3] Ibid at p. 5

[4] U.S. v Goba, et al; Affidavit of FBI Special Agent Edward Needham

[5] While eight attended training, all but two were brought to justice: Jamel Darwish who was killed in Yemen in 2002 by a U.S. drone, and Jaber Elbaneh who remains at-large.

[6] Derwish is Co-Conspirator A in U.S. v Goba, et al.

[7] Temple-Raston, Dina. 2007. The Jihad Next Door. Public Affairs: New York. p. 31-38

[8] Ibid at p. 38

[9] Herbeck, Dan and Lou Michel. 2002. “Intrigue Surrounds Lackawanna Suspect.” Buffalo News. September 27.

[10] Edwards, Peter. 2002. “Judge Grapples with Motive of Lackawanna Six.” Toronto Star. October 4.

[11] Temple-Raston, Dina. 2007. p. 28

[12] Ibid at 45; Herbeck, Dan. 2003. “Lackawanna Man Admits Assisting Al-Qaida.” Buffalo News. March 25.

[13] Cheney, Peter. 2002. “Lackawanna Mystery Men Divide Town.” Globe and Mail. September 21.

[14] Al-Bakri is Co-Conspirator C in U.S. v Goba, et al.

[15] Herbeck, Dan and Lou Michel. 2003. “Al-Bakri is the Last of Suspects to Plead Guilty.” Buffalo News. May 20.

[16] Elbaneh is Co-Conspirator B in U.S. v Goba, et al.

[17] Herbeck, Dan. 2006. “The Two Worlds of Jaber Elbaneh.” Buffalo News. April 10.

[18] These are the essential elements of Qutb’s work and, no doubt, an oversimplification. 

[19] Temple-Raston, Dina. 2007. p. 32 Temple-Raston reconstructs many of the group’s interactions.

[20] U.S. v. Ahmed and Sadequee

[21] U.S. v. Ahmed and Sadequee; Redmon, Jeremy and Bill Trophy. 2006. “Path Traced in Suspects’ Terror Case.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution. April 22; Matteucci, Megan. 2009. “Suspect Studied Jihad,Pal Says.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution. August 5.

[22] Rankin, Bill. 2009. “Trial Nears for ex-Tech Student.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution. May 31.

[23] Ibid

[24] U.S. v. Ahmed and Sadequee; Afadavit of FBI Special Agent Michael Scherck.

[25] U.S. v. Battle, et al; A seventh individual, Maher Hawash, was named in 2003 a party to the conspiracy.

[26] U.S. v. Battle, et al; Lewis, Mike. 2002. “Vigilant Officer Noticed more than Target Practice.”  Seattle Post-Intelligencer. October 5.

[27] Budnick, Nick. 2002. “The Making of a Terrorist.” Willamete Week. October 16.

[28] Waxman, Sharon. 2002. “Friends, Families ‘Shocked’ by Arrests” Washington Post. October 6.

[29] Parry, Wayne. 2007. “6 Charged in Plot to Attack Army Post.” Washington Post. May 9; Livio, Susan and Ted Sherman. 2007. “Just Ordinary Men, Shocked Neighbors Say.” Star-Ledger. May 9.  

[30] U.S. v. Shnewer, et al.

[31] Faiola, Anthony and Dale Russakoff. 2007. “The Terrorists Next Door?” Washington Post. May 9.

[32] Mulvihill, Geoff. 2008. “Who’s Who at Fort Dix Plot Trial.” AP State and Local Wire. October 21.

[33] U.S. v. Shnewer, et al.

[34] Ibid

[35] Mulvihill, Geoff. 2008. October 21.

[36] Dunbar, Elizabeth. 2010. “Comparing the Somali Experience in Minnesota […].”Minnesota Public Radio. Jan 22.

[37] Noor, Mohamood C & Diane Putman. 1993. “The Somalis Their History and Culture.”

[38] Yuen, Laura. 2010. “Swedish Delegation Seeks Answers to Somali Success.” Minnesota Public Radio. Oct 20.

[39] Samatar, Hussein. 2010. Presentation. “Somali Entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities.” African Development Center of Minnesota.

[40] African Development Center. Success Stories; “Midwest Auto Repair.” Website. 

[41] African Development Center. Success Stories; “New Lessons in Motion. Website.

[42] Nienaber, Dan. 2015. “Somali Police Officer Moving Barriers, Improving Community.” Mankato Free Press. March 21.

[43] All but two in the PIRaNA Dataset are men.

[44] The thrust of the argument in this research paper is a socio-economic one.  Borrowing from theory of economics the individuals in the various conspiracies are considered rational actors and benefit maximizers who seek to maximize utility.  In this context, the goal of action would be to raise socio-economic status.  Participation in the Jihad movement which seeks to establish a Caliphate, whether collectively or individually, is considered non-normative behavior.     

[45] The University of Maryland National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism thanks Dr. Jeffrey Bale for his succinct formulation of the complex topics during personal discussions.  See Jeffrey M. Bale, “Islamism and Totalitarianism,” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions. 10:2.  Esp. p. 79-80, 92, and note 32.


About the Author(s)

This work was authored by Alex Reese while assigned to the University of Maryland National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) as a Presidential Management Fellow.  He would like to thank and acknowledge Gary Ackerman, Brandon Behlendorf and John Sawyer of START for their guidance during this research project. The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.



Fri, 07/22/2022 - 1:11am

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Alex Reese

Tue, 01/26/2016 - 11:03am

In reply to by CW4 ret H North

Thanks for taking the time to give this a read. I'll try to succinctly address the concerns you raised. On your first point, let me clarify that a central premise of the paper is that people engage in Jihad not because of abject poverty as you suggest that I say. The paper seeks to explain why people of adequate financial circumstances select a course of action that is almost guaranteed to not benefit them materially, ergo the title "Country Club Jihad." The quote you extracted from the paper to make your point is from the portion of the Lit Review which examines the theory of Tokenism for an explanation, a theory I also later discount as an explanation, but for separate reasons.

I may have partially addressed your second point WRT economic motivations above, but let me be clear that I am not conveying anywhere in the paper that poverty is a motivation for selecting to engage in Jihad. See Gurr theory of relative deprivation. And without getting into the specifics of the Glasgow example you cited, let me point out that this incident occurred outside North America.

CW4 ret H North

Mon, 01/25/2016 - 11:28pm

"Participation in the Jihad movement which seeks to establish a Caliphate, whether collectively or individually, is considered non-normative behavior." The author invalidates this entire research paper by weakly attempting to exclude the ONLY REAL reason for Jihad with this false statement. The idea that Muslims wage Jihad for lack of economic opportunities is a false narrative pushed by the mainstream media who are too ignorant and lazy to pick up a Koran. The fact is that Muslims waging Jihad is VERY normative behavior! To consider otherwise is ludicrous, as the evidence is overwhelming. One would have to exercise extreme cognitive dissonance not to see it.

The economic premise of this paper can easily be disproved simply by observing the MILLIONS of poor Muslims throughout the world that choose NOT to wage Jihad (for now). Conversely, one only needs to look at the Jihad attack on the Glasgow International airport on 30 June 2007 conducted by two employed and well-paid Muslim medical doctors to show that Jihad has NOTHING to do with economic status or opportunity.

The bibliography fails to use the most significant references to learn the simple truth about Jihad motivations. Anyone seeking the truth only needs to read the Koran and the Hadith. There, Islamic Doctrine openly and plainly commands all Muslims to wage Jihad in order to guarantee their place in paradise. No economic incentive can compete with that kind of reward.