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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Saturday, July 17, 2004

FBI Warning That Al Qaeda Is Recruiting Non-Arabs Comes 10 Years Too Late

By J.M. Berger

The FBI warned this week that al Qaeda may try to recruit non-Arabs for terrorist attacks in the United States. The warning comes more than 10 years after the terrorist network's first known efforts to recruit non-Arabs.

"Finding operatives with U.S. [citizenship or legal residency] status would greatly facilitate al Qaeda's ability to carry out an attack within the United States," CNN quoted from the weekly FBI bulletin to law enforcement. (external link)

The strategy is not surprising. What is shocking is how it took the FBI so long to assess this risk and notify law enforcement officials about it.

J.M. Berger is available to be interviewed on this topic. His e-mail address is printed at the end of this article.

al Qaeda has been targeting non-Arab U.S. citizens as potential terrorist recruits since no later than 1991, when a Saudi-linked program collected the names and addresses of Gulf War soldiers, who were later the subject of recruitment efforts, a plot reported exclusively by INTELWIRE. (related story)

Al Qaeda worked to recruit Gulf War vets and servicemen who were leaving the military. One of the recruiters was himself an African-American, Clement Rodney Hampton-El, who was convicted of a plot to blow up New York City landmarks in 1993.

Osama bin Laden and other top al Qaeda figures were unindicted co-conspirators in that plot, which was also tied to "the blind sheikh," Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian-born Islamic extremist.

There have been numerous examples of non-Arab figures apparently recruited by al Qaeda, including John Walker Lindh, a Caucasian who fought with the Taliban, and Jose Padilla, a Hispanic male whom the U.S. government accuses of being a top al Qaeda operative. (related story)

Padilla may have been recruited by al Qaeda as early as 1992. Federal prosecutors are reportedly seeking to link Padilla to the same terrorist cell to which Hampton-El belonged. (related story)

al Qaeda targeted U.S. citizens throughout the 1990s, and had several American citizens within its ranks even earlier, by the end of the 1980s. Among many others, this list included Hampton-El; Ali Mohammed, who served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces; and Wadih El-Hage, later convicted of helping plan U.S. embassy bombings.

The FBI is currently searching for Adam Gadahn, an American-born Caucasian. Justice Department officials claim he is only wanted for questioning, but his name and photo were released in a very high-profile press conference targeting top-level al Qaeda suspects. (related story)

David Hicks, an Australian-born Caucasian, is accused by the U.S. of being an al Qaeda operative. Jack Roche, another Australian-born Caucasian, was recently convicted of having ties to al Qaeda's Southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah.

al Qaeda has also focused on recruiting converts from Christianity in other nations, such as the Philippines. (related story) That recruiting effort has been linked in media reports to Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden whom the U.S. government accuses of leading al Qaeda's operations in the Philippines. Khalifa was arrested in the U.S. in December 1994 and held for six months, before being deported to Jordan to face terrorism charges there.

Khalifa was subsequently released and today denies any past wrongdoing. When the U.S. government released him, they allowed him to remove items from the country that may have been evidence relevant to three terrorism investigations which were ongoing at that time. (related story)


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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"At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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