A new, unprecedented study of the demographics of terrorists reveals that America's enemies are not coming from a distant land with foreign beliefs, but are created within a U.S. society that makes them prime targets for al Qaeda recruitment.
More than half of the convicted terrorists studied in "Al Qaeda in the United States" were college educated, 57 percent were employed or in school, almost half received terrorist training, and four out of five were U.S. residents. The data within the report is not new, but marks the first time it has been compiled to reveal terrorist trends, says former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden, who authored the report's foreword.
The study, released Tuesday through the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was conducted through the London-based think tank The Henry Jackson Society, and repeats a similar analysis performed for the British government.
Hayden would not say how the U.S. government or intelligence agencies could use this data, but warned against employing this information as a source for targets.
"This is not about targeting Americans or American groups," he said. "This is about being aware of [which] Americans are targeted by al Qaeda for recruitment, so that we can help these targeted groups...withstand these kinds of efforts."
The study looks at 171 cases of convicted terrorists from 1997 to 2011,and cross-references their personal narratives and documents of their extremist and criminal histories. More than half were U.S. citizens, and 62 percent had direct ties to al Qaeda.
Robin Simcox, one of the study authors, says he was surprised by the broad backgrounds of the subjects, sharply contrasted against a more concentrated source of terrorism in his native United Kingdom.
New York, New Jersey, and Florida were home to the largest number of offenders, in keeping with their high density and immigrant populations. But Texas, Oregon, and Illinois also hosted significant numbers of terrorists, which Simcox says he would not have expected.
"Individuals in the U.S. are generally better trained, better educated, and to my mind, as deeply serious as some individuals in the U.K. were. I think the U.S. is ramped up another notch in terms of individuals we see that are involved in this report," he said.
The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks motivated a large number of people to aspire to terrorism, he said. Almost a quarter of the terrorist threat came from those who had converted, mostly to Islam, almost entirely from Christianity. Ninety-five percent of them were U.S. citizens, who converted largely after 2001.
A British trial that convicted three would-be suicide bombers last week yielded a new al Qaeda strategy, of training aspiring terrorists to train others at home. Simcox says this matches the data in his report of the United States.
"From what the [wire] taps and transcripts of what some of the bombers were saying, al Qaeda was almost not encouraging people to go out to Pakistan because it was getting so dangerous for operatives there to be based," he said. "So they were keen on taking this approach of do-it-yourself in your homeland. Don't bring the heat that going to Pakistan entails."
Islamic terrorism has more to do with social alienation, a propensity for crime, and gang culture than any one religion, Hayden said.
"This isn't about communities. It's not about large monotheistic religious groups," said Hayden. "It's about individuals who, for one reason or another in a small group, are attracted to the symbol of 9/11 rather than repelled."
"I'm willing to accept the possibility that this has a lot more to do with the Crips and the Bloods than it does with the Koran and the Hadith," he added.
Every postindustrial society has this challenge of alienation, Hayden later told reporters. The best solution comes from recruiting community leaders to eliminate the "magnets" that draw at-risk young men toward a radical ideology, he said.