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Coming of the US terrorist

One was a drywall contractor and father, another a petite woman who cared for the elderly, another a US military officer.

world Updated: Mar 19, 2010 01:07 IST

One was a drywall contractor and father, another a petite woman who cared for the elderly, another a US military officer.

The most alarming thing about a string of recently arrested terror suspects is that they are all Americans.

Over the past week, a Pennsylvania woman was accused in a plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist; a New Jersey man was held by authorities in Yemen; and five young Pakistani-American men from Northern Virginia were charged by Pakistani officials with planning terrorist attacks in the South Asian country.

These seven are among more than a dozen Americans captured or identified by the US government and its allies as actively supporting jihad, or holy war, in the past two years.

Some, according to prosecutors, were inspired by the US involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Others, like the accused Pennsylvania woman, allegedly wanted to avenge what they considered an insult to the Prophet Mohammed.

Many travelled overseas to get terrorist training. Some used home computers to foment plots. There is no evidence that these cases are connected in any way. But they underscore the new reality that there is a threat from violent Islamic extremism from within the US.

It is difficult to say whether the uptick in cases is because law enforcement has gotten better at catching suspects or if there are simply more to catch.

Most of the cases ended with suspects captured before they could act on their plans.

Determining how quickly a suspected homegrown terrorist goes from adopting extremist rhetoric to becoming a suicide bomber is a challenge to law enforcement. Some people never make that leap. Others do it in a matter of months or years. “Individuals can be radicalised in a number of ways — by direct contact with terrorists abroad or in the United States, over the Internet or on their own through a process of self-radicalisation,” said Assistant Attorney General David Kris, the top counterterrorism official at the Justice Department. These cases, Kris said, “underscore the constantly evolving nature of the threat we face.” Some homegrown terrorists take much longer to show their militant leanings.

It is not a new concept for Americans to join the jihadi cause. In 2001, John Walker Lindh was arrested in Afghanistan for fighting with the Taliban. Raised Catholic, the California native was 12 when he saw the movie Malcolm X and became interested in Islam. A few years later, the teenager who liked hip-hop music converted to Islam.

Being an American with terrorist leanings is not an automatic ticket into a group like Al Qaeda. Many of these groups are suspicious of Americans and worry they are spies for the US government.

But in the world of jihadi recruitment, it’s like winning a gold medal when an American is trusted and decides to join a terrorist network, Tomarchio said. In many cases they have no criminal record and can blend into society, like the woman who allegedly called herself Jihad Jane, and travel internationally with ease.

First Published: Mar 19, 2010 01:04 IST