TrendEvolving terrorist threat: home-grown radicalized Western Muslims to the fore

Published 5 October 2010

The relentless attacks by U.S. drones — and, away from the headlines, U.S. special forces — on militants’ hideouts in Pakistan — and also, to an extent, the half-hearted, pick-and-choose-among-militants campaign by the Pakistani military — have forced al Qaeda to rely more and more on home-grown, radicalized Islamists in Western countries for terrorist actions instead of militants from Muslim countries

James Cromitie, arrested in New York, 2009 // Source:

U.S. and British alerts about possible attacks in Europe highlight concern that growing numbers of militants are going from the West to remote war zones for training in answer to al Qaeda’s online call for violence.

The immediate trigger for Sunday’s travel alerts was intelligence about a plot against European targets reportedly originating with a group of individuals in mountainous northern Pakistan, some of them believed to be European citizens. Reuters reports that few details of the conspiracy are known, but the plot appears to be of the kind that Western officials believe poses the most significant danger today — the use of so-called self-radicalized militants with no previous record of extremism.

Al Qaeda’s leadership, increasingly restrained by missile strikes from U.S. drones in northwest Pakistan, prizes such “home-grown” recruits as they have Western passports and can travel overseas easily, experts say.

Hard numbers are not available, but some experts suspect the flows to countries like Pakistan and Yemen of would-be militants have risen especially in the past two years, despite stepped-up efforts by some Western governments to counter Islamist radicalization among Muslim minority communities.

It’s a serious phenomenon in Europe, especially in Britain and Germany,” said Edwin Bakker, a security and conflict expert at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “The motivation is not always simply Islamist extremism, sometimes individuals also go to find a sense of purpose for themselves, or for excitement.”

The U.S. State Department on Sunday issued an alert warning American citizens to exercise caution while traveling in Europe. Britain raised the terrorism threat level to “high” from “general” for its citizens traveling to Germany and France.

The plot that triggered the alerts involved al Qaeda and allied militants, possibly including European citizens or residents, intelligence sources said last week. They said the militants were plotting coordinated attacks on European cities.

The use in attack plots of Western-based militants radicalized in online chat-rooms or through e-mail contacts with hard-line preachers has grown sharply in the last two years.

Among the most dramatic of the mostly failed attacks and plots in the West was the failed bombing of New York’s Times Square by Pakistani-born U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad on 1 May.

Joerg Ziercke, head of Germany’s BKA Federal Crime Office, said last month more than 400 Islamist radicals were living in Germany, some of whom had trained in camps overseas, including a hard core with combat experience in Afghanistan. Police had seen a rise in German residents moving to and from the camps.

European Union counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove told Reuters on Friday the plot showed the continent had to do more to impede extremists going overseas to train. “There’s a number, a not insignificant number, of seriously dangerous people going around,” he said.