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June 23, 2016

13th U.S. Resident Linked to Islamic Extremism in 2016

Akram Musleh of Indiana, arrested for attempting to travel to join ISIS

Akram Musleh

Akram Musleh, an 18-year-old resident of Brownsburg, Indiana, was arrested on June 21 for attempting to travel to join ISIS. Court documents indicate that Musleh had been engaging with terrorist propaganda since at least 2013, when Musleh was a 15-year-old high school student.

According to authorities, the FBI first came into contact with Musleh after it was discovered that he posted three videos of Anwar al-Awlaki to YouTube in August 2013. Awlaki, an American cleric and English-language propagandist for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in a drone strike in 2011, but his speeches and quotes remain popular among extremist individuals and those radicalizing today. Indeed, the majority of U.S. residents linked to terror motivated by Islamic extremism since 2011 have allegedly downloaded material created by Awlaki or shared his speeches and statements on social media.

Upon finding the Awlaki speeches, court documents indicate that the FBI met with officials at Musleh’s high school, and coordinated with them to discourage Musleh from radicalizing.

Follow-up took place at Musleh’s school. It is unclear whether any measures could have been effective in Musleh’s case; he had allegedly obtained information on Awlaki from a family member, and so apparently had at least one close personal contact encouraging his radicalization. In any event, the measures unfortunately failed.

In April 2014, court documents indicate that Musleh asked minors at a park if they wanted to join ISIS. In 2015, Musleh allegedly made multiple attempts to travel to Turkey or Iraq, areas adjacent to ISIS-controlled territory that are often used initially as destinations for individuals attempting to join the group. In 2016, he allegedly researched attack targets and explosive materials, and then tried again to travel to join ISIS, this time in Libya, where the group has an active faction. He was arrested en route from Indiana to New York, where he allegedly intended to catch a plane from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Musleh is not the only U.S. resident to radicalize while still in high school. In 2015, 4 minors in the U.S. were linked to activity motivated by Islamic extremist ideology. They are among a total of 25 U.S. residents aged 21 or younger linked to such activity that year. Seven U.S. teenagers were linked to activity motivated by Islamic extremism in 2014.

In recognition of this disturbing trend, ADL has released a series of resources for educators and school administrators that provide background information about extremism and mass violence among school-aged individuals and materials for creating resilience among their students. Among the materials provided is a background report on mass violence and extremism geared specifically to educators and produced in cooperation with START, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism, at the University of Maryland. This backgrounder provides information about precursors to violent activity and establishing appropriate support and referral networks. A second resource is a unique lesson plan focused on enabling students to recognize propaganda if and when they encounter it and to become more discriminating consumers of online materials. Parallel resources for parents are available as well.

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August 12, 2015

From Charleston to Chattanooga: The Face of Terror in America

By Oren Segal and Mark Pitcavage
Directors of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism

Terrorism is sometimes referred to as the “faceless enemy,” but it has hardly been faceless in the United States this summer.  Too many people have emerged from the shadows to inflict death and suffering.

The parade of violence has seemed unending, from Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, who attacked police officers providing security for the so-called “Muhammad Art Exhibit” in Texas in May, to John Houser, the Hitler-admiring man obsessed with the moral decay of America who recently opened fire at a Louisiana movie theater showing the movie Trainwreck.

Of the various killers and would-be killers this summer, two stand out.  The first is Dylann Storm Roof, the white supremacist who allegedly confessed to the June massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine African-Americans dead.dylann-storm-roof-gun-confederate-flag-600

The second is Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who in July engaged in a shooting spree targeting a Chattanooga military recruiting center and a nearby naval reserve center.  Abdulazeez, who may have been inspired by radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed five people—all military personnel—before being killed by police.

In many ways, Roof and Abdulazeez personify America’s terrorist threat; they are the faces of the “faceless enemy.”  Most obviously, each represents a major source of terrorism.  Roof was a white supremacist who allegedly hoped to start a “race war” in which whites would prevail.  White supremacists have for decades been the most prolific source of domestic extremist-related lethal violence.  Along with the other main segment of the extreme right, anti-government militia groups and sovereign citizens, they are responsible for the great majority of extremist-related deaths in the U.S.

Abdulazeez, on whom there is less information regarding motivation, may well have latched onto the ideas of al-Awlaki—including his encouragement of attacks on military targets—as a way to atone for some of his personal demons, including drugs and alcohol.  Domestic Islamic extremists have in recent years attempted or conducted a large number of terrorist plots, conspiracies and acts, despite being fewer in number than right-wing extremists.

Both men also chose targets typical of their movements.  For Abdulazeez, it was the military; here he followed in the footsteps of Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who killed a soldier at a recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2009, and Nidal Malik Hassan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, that same year.  Other Islamic extremists have also recently plotted attacks against military targets in the U.S., though without success.mohammad-youssef-abdulazeez

Roof went on a shooting rampage against African-Americans.  Sprees of violence against racial, ethnic, or religious minorities are a common type of white supremacist terrorism.  In recent years, there have been a number of such episodes, including Frazier Glenn Miller’s attacks on Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas, in 2014; Wade Michael Page’s rampage at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012, and Keith Luke’s attacks on African immigrants in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 2009.

Both Roof and Abdulazeez used firearms for their attacks, which is also typical of American terrorism.  Although the public usually thinks of terrorism in terms of bombs, terrorists like Ted Kaczynski and the Boston Marathon bombers are rare in America.  The vast majority of extremist-related murders involve guns—easy to acquire, simple to use, and deadly.  This is why Charleston and Chattanooga number among the 10 deadliest extremist-related attacks of the past 50 years.  Indeed, with the exception of the Oklahoma City bombing, the “top 10” attacks all involved firearms.

Abdulazeez and Roof were both young men, disaffected, facing personal stresses of different kinds (Abdulazeez also suffered from mental illness).  Although terrorism knows no age limits—Nidal Hasan was 39 at the time of his Fort Hood rampage, while white supremacist James Von Brunn, who attacked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009, was in his late 80s—many of the attacks and plots in recent years by both Islamic and right-wing extremists have been committed by men in their mid-20s or younger.

Like Abdulazeez and Roof, a number of these extremists committed their attacks as lone wolves, unattached to any particular group.  Overall, the number of lethal lone wolf attacks in the past two decades has been fairly low, numbering only a few dozen, but in recent years, lone wolves seem to have been emerging at a faster rate.  One reason may be the increasing role played by the Internet in facilitating self-radicalization.  It was through the Internet that Roof educated himself in white supremacy; it was via the Internet that Abdulazeez downloaded recordings of al-Awlaki.

Here one can see a significant difference between right-wing extremists and domestic Islamic radicals.  While they can both easily immerse themselves in a sea of on-line propaganda designed to instill and reinforce extreme views, right-wing extremist Internet sources are primarily based in the United States and, therefore, must watch what they say.  White supremacists who openly use the Internet to encourage violence and terrorism open themselves up to criminal investigation and, if violence occurs, possible civil liability; as a result, their encouragement of violence is often more implicit than explicit.

Domestic Islamic extremists, in contrast, receive most of their radicalizing messages from abroad, from terrorist groups and like-minded supporters who are freer to use the Internet to call for violence and terrorism within the U.S.  Propaganda from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, was an inspiration for the Boston Marathon bombing.  In the past two years, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken such tactics to a new level altogether, employing a virtual army of on-line recruiters who use social media platforms to reach and radicalize susceptible individuals across the globe.  Seeking to instill a deep sense of community and purpose, ISIS supporters encourage Americans to come to the Middle East to help it fight its wars—many of the 80+ U.S. residents linked to Islamic extremist activity since 2014 have made such attempts. But ISIS also urges people to launch attacks in the U.S.

Roof and Abdulazeez were both cold-blooded killers.  Their attacks deeply affected the citizens of Charleston and Chattanooga and, indeed, the whole country, though not always in the same ways.  In particular, the Chattanooga shootings, like some similar attacks before them, stirred anti-Muslim sentiments directed at America’s entire Muslim community, a disturbing phenomenon for which there is no parallel with regard to white supremacist attacks.

But their attacks were similar in that they were both essentially futile, able to achieve little but death and misery.  Indeed, the reactions to the attacks illustrate just how ineffective they actually were.  The Chattanooga attack, for example, inspired an outpouring of support for the U.S. military. The Charleston response was even more powerful.  Far from starting a “race war,” Roof’s slaughter not only brought Charlestonians of all races together but also resulted in a bipartisan effort to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol.

American extremists, of whatever stripe, can hurt and even kill, but the one thing they can’t do is win.

Mr. Segal is an authority on Islamic extremism and terrorism in the United States; Dr. Pitcavage is an expert on right-wing extremism and terrorism in the United States.

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April 24, 2015

Adam Gadahn, American Al Qaeda Spokesman, Reported Dead

Adam GadahnOn Thursday, the White House announced that Adam Gadahn, an American spokesman for Al Qaeda, was killed in a January drone strike. Although less visible in recent years, Gadahn was at the forefront of creating English-language terrorist propaganda – an initiative that has evolved into a sophisticated recruitment and radicalization mechanism.

Gadahn’s death comes as English-language propaganda released by terrorist organizations is influencing an ever increasing number of Americans to join extremist organizations. As of this date, thirty-one people living in the U.S. have been implicated in terrorism motivated by Islamic extremism in 2015 alone, a significant increase from the total number of arrests in 2014 and in 2013.

Later American propagandists for Al Qaeda affiliates, such as Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, founders of Inspire magazine who were killed in a drone strike in 2011, have become more influential than Gadahn in extremist circles. And as online technology has advanced, groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have dramatically increased the reach and influence of English-language calls to violence.

Gadahn, however, was not only the first American to incite extremism on behalf of Al Qaeda, but presumably until his death remained the primary English-language spokesman for Al Qaeda’s Central organization.

Gadahn’s first propaganda piece for Al Qaeda was an audio translation of an Osama bin Laden speech. In 2004, he began to appear in videos using the nom de guerre Azzam Al-Amriki and to promote attacks against the U.S.

In the ensuing years, he released multiple videos that reflected his anti-Semitic and anti-Christian views and were marked by threats against America and its allies.

Gadahn also called for lone-wolf attacks. In a 2011 video, he stated, “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms” and that listeners can “go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card.”  He concluded, “So what are you waiting for?”

Gadahn’s most recent video was released in May 2014. Like his previous statements, it featured calls for attacks against the U.S. as well as anti-Semitic rhetoric and concluded with clips of the Boston Marathon bomb­ing, fight­ing in Syria, and ter­ror­ism in Israel, includ­ing a brief video clip of Jews pray­ing at the West­ern Wall, Judaism’s holi­est site, fol­lowed by footage of an explosion.

Gadahn was also featured in an interview in the March 2013 issue of Inspire magazine, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)’s English-language propaganda magazine. In it, he called on his fellow propagandists to “make every effort to reach out to Mus­lims both through new media like Face­book and Twit­ter as well as the tra­di­tional broad­cast and print media.” Gadahn also used the interview to call for attacks against “Amer­ica and its NATO part­ners, par­tic­u­larly France and Britain.”

Gadahn was born in Oregon in 1978 and grew up in California. He converted to Islam as a teenager and allegedly grew radicalized shortly thereafter. In the late 1990s, Gadahn traveled to Pakistan and joined Al Qaeda.

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