December 22, 2003

December 22, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

Jihad Juniors

'PSSSST, jihad this way," hissed the al Qaeda recruiter, enlisting another rookie into the global terror war against the United States, our interests and supporters. After two years, al Qaeda and its allies continue to find new foot soldiers to wage a jihad against the West.

Italian police, for instance, made multiple arrests in the last few weeks related to jihadist recruiting networks for Iraq (by al Qaeda franchise Ansar al Islam) and presumably elsewhere. The network had recruited at least 200 Islamic militants, 70 of them from Italy.

Italian authorities say an Arab male suicide bomber from Italy helped conduct the attack on the U.N. headquarters in August that killed 22, including U.N. envoy, Sergio de Mello. And another from Italy attacked the al Rasheed hotel in October, where Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz stayed during a visit to Iraq.

Terrorist recruiting often comes through Islamic religious schools and mosques, as well as through Web sites and Internet chat rooms. And the new recruits are coming from the darnedest places, in addition to Italy: France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Norway, Canada and the United States.

Arab Muslim males living abroad are one natural recruitment target, but some others are more surprising: young Caucasians, Latinos, Black Muslims and even women. Legal residents and travelers with valid passports are especially appealing for al Qaeda's recruit because they arouse less suspicion and can move more freely across international borders.

Elsewhere in Europe, pockets of potential trouble exist.

  • France's community of Muslim converts is a rising concern. In this predominantly Catholic nation, many decide to convert to Islam to buck the establishment, much as did the U.S. flower children of the '60s and early '70s. The French government estimates the number of converts at about 100,000. Frenchman Pierre Robert, known as the "Blue-eyed Emir of Tangiers" was recently sentenced to life in prison in Morocco for recruiting and training Moroccan extremists after the May 16 suicide bombing in Casablanca that killed 45 people.
  • Two Britons of Pakistani descent were radicalized by Muslim clerics before carrying out bombings in Tel Aviv earlier this year.
  • Germany, home to 3.2 million Muslims and the way station of three of the 19 hijackers of 9/11, has concerns as well. Take Christian Ganczarski, a Caucasian German convert with ties to former al Qaeda operations kingpin Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: The French arrested Ganczarski in June as a suspected conspirator in the bombing of a Tunisian synagogue on the island of Djerba, which killed 21, in April 2002.

Officials believe that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed used a number of non-Arab Europeans, including Swiss and Spaniards, to support the Tunisian synagogue suicide bomber Nizar Nawar and confuse authorities.

In the United States, Jose Padilla, a Latino gang member convert originally from New York, was arrested in May 2002 in Chicago for plotting to detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States. He was reportedly recruited by Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, Abu Zubaydah, and was directed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. (Zubaydah was arrested in March in Pakistan.)

The vast majority of Islamic converts, of course, don't become terrorists. But we should be aware that the pool of suspects isn't limited to Arab males from the Middle East.

Law-enforcement officials note that many converts are ferociously ideological and anxious to show their zeal and worth to their new faith, including joining a jihad. Osama bin Laden reportedly views converts as an especially potent weapon and a unique talent pool for the cause.

Perhaps the most surprising trend is the uptick in women terrorists. Islamist groups have long opposed female martyrs, but women are increasingly undertaking violent terrorist acts, according to Harvard University's Jessica Stern, a well-known terrorist expert. Because women are less prone to violence, they usually raise less concern among security personnel, making them ideal recruits for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, Stern adds.

All of this is not to say that everyone is suspect. But we do need to remain vigilant (especially during the holiday season). Though two-thirds of al Qaeda's senior leadership have been killed or detained since 9/11, a new generation of jihadis is stepping up to the plate for a swing at the ball. Sometimes these rookies hardly resemble the old team, but they're just as dangerous.

We must adapt, just as our enemy is adapting. And, unfortunately, thinking outside the box for us is a continuing requirement, not a luxury, in the War on Terror.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post.