By Brian Itami, NSJ Senior Editor –
Over the last week and a half, at least fourteen Americans were detained on terrorism charges in the United States and Yemen in two separate incidents. Law enforcement officials arrested Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Almonte on Saturday, June 5 at John F. Kennedy Airport as the two allegedly began a trip to join the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabaab. United States Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley also confirmed on Monday, June 7 that Yemeni officials have detained at least twelve Americans who are suspected of being a part of Al-Qaeda.
The United States arraigned Alessa and Almonte in the District Court of New Jersey on June 7. Alessa and Almonte were charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 956(a)(1), which makes conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, or injure persons or damage property abroad a felony punishable by up to life imprisonment. The complaint recounts an investigation that turned up suspicious behavior and incriminating comments dating back to December 2007, including alleged statements of intent to join al-Shabaab, viewings of videos by radical American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and deposits given to an undercover New York Police Department officer totaling $8100 that the defendants believed would be made accessible outside the country. If the government’s allegations are true, this complaint may indicate that al-Shabaab has stepped up recruitment efforts of late through internet propaganda, potentially as part of an attempt to expand beyond Somalia.
Details about the arrest of a number Americans in Yemen remain sparse. Various reports indicated that the Americans were part of a group of at least thirty foreigners arrested for alleged connections to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the regional affiliate of the transnational terrorist organization. All were enrolled in various Arabic language programs in Sana’a, where would-be Christmas Day bomber Umar Abdulmutallab studied prior to embarking upon his plot to destroy an airliner en route to Detroit. Crowley would not confirm if the United States knew the identity of those taken into custody and as of June 7, the United States had not been given consular access to all twelve detainees. However, the next day Crowley clarified that he only knew of terrorism charges pending for three Americans, but that there were twenty United States citizens in detention who were suspected of committing various crimes. Among the foreigners caught up in the Yemeni counterterrorist sweeps was Sharif Mobley, a former nuclear plant maintenance worker from New Jersey who, like Abdulmutallab, had followed al-Awlaki. Meanwhile, Barry Bujol, a Texan man, was arraigned by a federal grand jury on June 8 on charges of attempted material support to AQAP.
These arrests, which come after the arrests of seven Americans in North Carolina, a Minnesota resident, and a New Jersey resident in separate terrorism plots, Abdulmutallab’s failed plot to bomb an airliner bound for Detroit, the March 2010 arrest of a New Jersey man in Yemen, and Faizal Shahzad’s attempted car bombing of Times Square all in the last year, have renewed concerns about the threats posed by radicalized United States citizens. Indeed, President Obama’s National Security Strategy, released in May 2010, highlighted the recruitment of United States citizens by terrorist organizations as a threat to be countered. Similarly, a January 2010 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned of expanded recruiting efforts by AQAP and al-Shabaab targeting U.S. citizens. In particular, the presence of thirty-six American ex-convicts and ten radicalized Americans in Yemen raised particular concerns amongst the Committee.
As noted by Dr. Paul Pillar, former Chief of Analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency’s Counterterrorist Center, U.S. citizens pose a unique risk to homeland security because they are not subjected to the same border control procedures that foreigners are (and could evade specific precautions taken against travelers from states identified by the Department of Homeland Security) and are more familiar with their potential targets. Additionally, Assistant Attorney General for National Security David Kris noted last year that radicalized Americans who returned to the United States would have an easier time recruiting additional individuals due to the credibility gained by their experiences abroad.
It is unclear what has spurred the recent surge in radicalized Americans, but United States citizens seem to be a focus of current recruitment efforts by al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab. One possible explanation is the influence of Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki, who is believed to be the first American for whom the United States government has approved targeted killing, is the common link between Abdulmuttab, Bujol, Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, and a number of other attempted terrorists, and was reportedly the inspiration for Shahzad. Al-Awlaki recently taped a 45-minute interview with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula calling for jihad against the United States and labeling U.S. civilians as legitimate targets. He has also praised Al Shabaab. Both Alessa and Almonte showed al-Awlaki videos to the undercover officer, although it is unknown if there are any further ties between the two and the radical cleric.
The charismatic al-Awlaki is relatively unique amongst radicalized clerics in that most of his video appearances are in English, broadening the potential reach of his message amongst Americans. Al-Awlaki also hints in his videos—as the Senate report fears—that al-Qaeda is targeting non-Arabic individuals for recruitment in an attempt to circumvent counterterrorist border control measures enacted by the United States. Al-Shabaab’s success in recruiting Americans—reportedly about twenty U.S. citizens have joined the group—may derive from targeting the considerable Somali-American community within the United States, and presents a potentially fruitful source of recruits for various al-Qaeda affiliates. Reports of deaths amongst American recruits in battle had hurt the Somali organization’s efforts to recruit from the United States. For now, both the National Security Strategy and the Senate report on the American terrorist threat advocate enhancing interagency cooperation to more effectively track potentially radicalized Americans as a countermeasure to increased terrorist recruitment efforts.
Image courtesy of the Toronto Star