Al Qaeda's Efforts to Recruit Homegrown Jihadists in America Remain Largely Ineffective

For Release

August 31, 2011

Despite al Qaeda's increasing use of the Internet to attempt to radicalize and recruit homegrown terrorists in the United States, the turnout has been tiny and mostly inept, according to a new study from the RAND Corporation.

"America's homegrown jihadist terrorists have not shown great determination or very much competence," said Brian Michael Jenkins, the study's author and senior adviser to the president of RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "A careful analysis of these cases shows that the United States must remain vigilant, but not overreact."

A total of 176 Americans have been indicted, arrested or otherwise identified as jihadist terrorists or their supporters since Sept. 11, 2001. Those 176 people were involved in 82 cases, 20 of which were disclosed in 2010, versus 15 in 2009.

Working alone or with others, these so-called "homegrown terrorists" planned actions, implemented terrorist activities or contributed financial or other material support to others' terrorist activities. Some became radicalized in the United States and then traveled abroad to conduct terrorist activities against the United States or other countries.

However, Jenkins notes that few of the 32 jihadist plots hatched by U.S.-based terrorists since 9/11 got much beyond the discussion stage. Only 10 developed anything resembling an operational plan that identified a specific target and created the means of attack. Of those 10, six were the subject of U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation stings.

"When provided with bombs, they were willing to act, but only two actually tried to build devices on their own, and only one of these actually built an incendiary device, which failed to function," Jenkins said. "In a country where guns are readily available, only two—and the only two to succeed—actually obtained guns and used them to kill Americans."

Al Qaeda is relying heavily on the Internet to recruit Americans with a plethora of English-language websites and even an online magazine, Inspire, that promotes individual, violent jihad. However, Jenkins says the Internet engagement with jihad may be taking the place of actual engagement for many of these would-be terrorists. Suicide missions and martyrdom for American jihads are rarely contemplated, a factor that is said to have disappointed Osama bin Laden.

Most of the would-be jihadists were Muslims, but Jenkins notes that they are only a tiny portion of the U.S.-based Muslim population, several thousand of whom serve in the U.S. armed forces.

"There are local diaspora communities closely connected with conflict zones, such as Somalia, that are vulnerable to recruitment," Jenkins said. "Policing efforts aimed at enlisting community cooperation and intelligence efforts aimed at preventing and deterring terrorist activity will need to continue."

Four of the 20 cases disclosed during 2010 involved recruiting or fundraising for the al-Shabaab group in Somalia, and four more involved individuals going or attempting to travel to Somalia to join that group. Overall, Somalis and Pakistanis are heavily represented among U.S. homegrown jihadists; in Europe, Somalis, Algerians and Pakistanis predominate. All three countries are involved in major internal conflicts, which suggests that local diaspora communities with links to war zones and struggling with assimilation are the most vulnerable to al Qaeda recruitment efforts, Jenkins said.

The RAND study focuses on U.S. citizens who have been arrested for terrorist activities and excludes plots by foreign terrorists who either attempted or carried out attacks in the United States, such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of attempting to bring down an airliner approaching Detroit in December 2009 with explosives hidden in his underwear.

The study, "Stray Dogs and Virtual Armies: Radicalization and Recruitment to Jihadist Terrorism in the United States Since 9/11," can be found at The study is an updated and expanded version of Jenkins' 2010 book, "Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001."

Funding for this study was provided by RAND's Investment in People and Ideas program, which combines philanthropic contributions from individuals, foundations and private-sector firms with earnings from RAND's endowment and operations to support research on issues that reach beyond the scope of traditional client sponsorship.

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