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Part II. Who are the Terrorists?

Photo: U.S. Government / Public Domain
Part II. Who are the Terrorists?

They are as “American as Apple Pie”

In the post-9/11 era, conventional wisdom holds that the jihadist threat is foreign. The conventional wisdom is understandable; after all it was 19 Arab hijackers who infiltrated the United States and conducted the 9/11 attacks. Yet today, as Anwar al-Awlaki, the American born cleric who became a leader in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, put it in a 2010 post, “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie.” Far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents. Moreover, while a range of citizenship statuses are represented, every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident. In addition about a quarter of the extremists are converts, further confirming that the challenge cannot be reduced to one of immigration:

Far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents.

The Trump Travel Ban and Lethal Attacks

On January 27, 2017 President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry from seven majority Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia) citing national security reasons. None of the deadly attackers since 9/11 emigrated or came from a family that emigrated from one of these countries nor were any of the 9/11 attackers from the listed countries. Seven of the lethal attackers were born American citizens.

Of the twelve lethal jihadist terrorists in the United States since 9/11:

  • three are African-Americans
  • three are from families that hailed originally from Pakistan
  • one was born in Kuwait to Palestinian-Jordanian parents
  • two came from Russia as children
  • one emigrated from Egypt and conducted his attack a decade after coming to the United States
  • and one each had families that originally came from Kuwait and Afghanistan
Jihadist terrorism
What About Non-Lethal Attacks?

When the data is extended to include individuals who conducted attacks inside the United States that were foiled or otherwise failed to kill anyone, there are only three cases that the travel ban could have applied to. However, in two of those cases, the individual entered the United States as a child.

On March 3, 2006, Mohammed Reza Taheri-Azar, a naturalized citizen from Iran, drove a car into a group of students at the University of North Carolina, injuring nine people. However, Taheri-Azar, though born in Iran, came to the United States at the age of two. As a result his radicalization was homegrown inside the United States. 

On September 17, 2016 Dahir Adan, a 20-year-old naturalized citizen from Somalia, injured ten people while wielding a knife at a mall in Minnesota. However, like Taheri-Azar, Adan had come to the United States as a young child.

On November 28, 2016 Abdul Razak Ali Artan, an 18-year-old legal permanent resident who came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia in 2014 -- having left Somalia for Pakistan in 2007 -- injured eleven people when he rammed a car into his fellow students on the campus of Ohio State University and then proceeded to attack them with a knife. However, it is not clear that the attack provides support for Trump’s travel ban. Artan left Somalia as a pre-teen, and if he was radicalized abroad, it most likely occurred while in Pakistan, which is not included on the travel ban. Furthermore, it is far from clear that Artan radicalized abroad rather than inside the United States, and in a Facebook posting prior to his attack, he cited Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric born in the United States, whose work -- which draws largely upon American culture and history -- has helped radicalize a wide range of extremists in the United States including those born in the United States.

Part II. Who are the Terrorists?

They’re not all young hot heads

Another misconception is that jihadist extremism is the province of only young hotheaded loners. Such individuals certainly exist, yet in the United States, participation in jihadist terrorism has appealed to individuals ranging from young teenagers to those in their advanced years. Many of those involved have been married and even had kids - far from the stereotype of the lone, angry youngster.

Jihadists by Age and Marital Status

Far from being young hotheads, jihadists in the United States range across ages, with the average age in the late 20s, and many are or have been married.

Part II. Who are the Terrorists?

They're mostly men, but women are increasingly involved

Political violence broadly, and jihadist terrorism more specifically given the misogyny of the ideology, has long tended to be dominated by men. Unsurprisingly, jihadist terrorists in United States have fit this pattern, but more women have been accused of jihadist terrorism crimes in recent years.

Tashfeen Malik
Tashfeen Malik, along with her husband Syed Rizwan Farook, massacred 14 people in San Bernardino, California in December 2015. Malik is one of an increasing number of women involved in terrorist activities in the United States. (U.S. Government / Public Domain)

Jihadists, by Year and Gender

Illustration of gender of individuals who are charged with or died engaging in jihadist terrorism or related activities inside the United States, and Americans accused of such activity abroad. Years indicate the year that individuals were charged or if they were not charged, the year that they died.