The Role of Converts in Al-Qa`ida-Related Terrorism Offenses in the United States
Mar 27, 2013
With al-Qa`ida’s ability to carry out attacks in the United States seemingly diminishing, there will be increased focus on the threat posed by individuals not in contact with its leadership, but inspired by its ideology. At least part of this threat is from converts to Islam who might become radicalized to commit violence. Between 1997 and 2011, 171 individuals were either convicted of al-Qa`ida related offenses (AQROs) within the U.S. civilian or military court system or committed a suicide attack on U.S. soil. Converts to Islam comprised almost a quarter of these individuals, or 40 out of the 171 convicted.
In fact, in three of the years between 2007 and 2011, and in eight of the years between 1997 and 2011, converts committed a higher proportion of AQROs than non-converts. Tracking the backgrounds of these converts—and how they differ from non-converts—is beneficial in obtaining a greater understanding of the terrorism threat to the United States.
This article assesses the differing trends between convert and non-convert offenders in the United States in 10 specific fields: gender, age, nationality, ancestry, place of residence, education, occupation, terrorist training, combat experience and links to designated terrorist organizations (DTOs). The article then draws conclusions from the data gathered, and suggests how the threat may develop in the future.
Context and Methodology
The data extracted for this article comes from a larger study into al-Qa`ida terrorism trends over a 15-year period. That study, Al-Qa`ida in the United States: A Complete Analysis of Terrorism Offenses, examined all 171 individuals who committed AQROs and provided a statistical breakdown of key trends. This article provides the condensed findings from that larger report, yet focuses more specifically on the role of converts to Islam.
To determine which cases to include in the study, the authors started with the largest possible number of individuals who could have been interpreted as connected to al-Qa`ida or inspired by al-Qa`ida. Each of these cases was analyzed, with a strict methodological definition of terms and a high burden of proof in the criteria for inclusion. There were hundreds of perpetrators who may have appeared to be inspired by al-Qa`ida, yet when the information in the actual trial was analyzed closely, their primary motivation was nationalist or for financial gain. Therefore, the 171 figure relates to cases that could confidently be called al-Qa`ida or al-Qa`ida-inspired terrorism.
In both the larger report and in this article, all data was gathered by analyzing official government documentation, court records and court transcripts when available. Additional data was acquired using an online media database with exhaustive records of local and national press sources, and academic texts.
In the 171 cases, 97% of non-converts were men and 3% women. In the case of converts, however, only 90% were men while 10% were women. Overall, eight women committed AQROs, and half of these were converts.
Women converts occasionally acted in support roles to male plotters. For example, October Lewis wired money to her ex-husband, knowing that it would be used in his efforts to join the Taliban. Nadia Rockwood provided false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), having denied delivering a letter containing a list of targets for assassination, composed by her husband Paul Rockwood, to another individual.
One exception was Aafia Siddiqui, an al-Qa`ida associate convicted in 2010 for attempting to murder U.S. officers and employees in Afghanistan, and for assaulting the FBI agent, U.S. Army officer, and interpreter who tried to stop her. Colleen LaRose also played a more active role in conspiring to kill Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist, in February 2011. Jamie Paulin-Ramirez was charged alongside Colleen LaRose and pleaded guilty in March 2011 to providing material support to terrorists.
Converts were significantly older at the time of charge than non-converts. Converts were most commonly aged 32, compared to 24 for non-converts, while the median age of converts (31.2) was slightly older than that of non-converts (29.1). The most common age at the time of offense for all 171 individuals was between 20 and 24 (33%).
One explanation as to why convert offenses commonly fell outside this age range is that at least seven offenders were already over 24-years-old by the time they had converted to Islam.
The vast majority of converts (95%) were U.S. citizens, significantly higher than the 54% of U.S. citizens among all AQRO perpetrators. The remaining 5% of converts were British (for example, the “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid) or Australian (for example, David Hicks, who was found guilty in a military court of providing material support to al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan). By contrast, 45% of non-converts were U.S. citizens.
When disaggregated further, 83% of converts were born in the United States, significantly higher than the 21% among non-converts. Of all U.S.-born individuals, 54% were converts. Examples of U.S.-born converts include Hassan Abu-Jihaad, who provided classified information concerning the movements of a U.S. Navy battle group, and Daniel Maldonado, who received military training at a camp in Somalia where members of al-Qa`ida were present.
Nearly two-thirds of converts were of African American (40%) or American White Caucasian (25%) ancestry, while the only non-convert to have either of these ancestries was Tarik Shah, who was the son of one of Malcolm X’s aides and pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to al-Qa`ida.
African American converts included Abdulhakim Muhammad, who used a rifle to shoot two U.S. soldiers at a military recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Barry Walter Bujol, who was convicted in November 2011 for attempting to aid al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and who had been e-mailing its influential cleric, Anwar al-`Awlaqi.
American White Caucasian converts included Randall Royer, a member of a Virginia cell seeking to assist Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (LeT), and Zachary Chesser, who attempted to travel to Somalia to join al-Shabab as a foreign fighter on two occasions. Three of the four female converts were also American White Caucasians.
Place of Residence
Within the United States, the highest proportion of offenders lived in New York (14%) at the time of charge or attack, followed by Florida (11%) and New Jersey (9%). Converts, however, tended to be based elsewhere, with only two convert offenders residing in New York, one in New Jersey and none in Florida.
Instead, converts comprised all of the offenders in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas and Washington, D.C., and half the offenders in Washington, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas. The highest convert presence was in Oregon, where converts (all in a cell seeking to assist the Taliban post-9/11) made up four out of the five offenders (80%), and in Virginia, with four out of nine offenders (44%). A disproportionately high number of converts lived in the western United States (36%) compared to non-converts (16%).
Converts did not differ greatly to non-converts in their level of education. In both categories, 52% of individuals had attended some form of college. Converts, however, had a higher proportion of college graduates or above (28% vs. 21%), and proportionally more converts were known to have achieved a college degree than non-converts (20% vs. 8%).
Of converts, 63% were employed or attending school at the time of offense (55% employed, with 35% in skilled employment, and 8% receiving an education). Skilled convert employees included Paul Rockwood, a meteorological technician.
Of non-converts, 55% were employed or receiving an education (40% employed, with 15% in skilled employment, and 15% receiving an education). Non-converts were also more likely to be unemployed than converts (30% vs. 23%). This did not, however, necessarily mean that they were impoverished. For example, “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh was technically unemployed, yet he came from an affluent background.
Converts were less likely to have received terrorist training than non-converts. A quarter of converts had received terrorist training, compared to 51% of non-converts.
While a higher proportion of non-converts received training in 2000 (33% vs. 20%), a higher proportion of converts received training in 2001 (40% vs. 16%). This suggests that the events of 9/11 disproportionately inspired converts to receive terrorist training abroad. Converts were most likely to have trained in Afghanistan.
Proportionally, converts and non-converts were equally as likely to have had combat experience (18% in both categories). Of converts with combat experience, the majority (71%) had fought in Afghanistan, such as Wadih el-Hage (convicted for his role in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings). Non-converts were also most likely to have fought in Afghanistan (52%), yet there was a broader range of locations, including Pakistan, Somalia and Iraq.
Converts were more likely than non-converts (54% vs. 33%) to have received terrorist training and then to have moved on to actual combat. Converts with both training and combat experience included Randall Royer, who fought in Bosnia and Pakistan.
Links to Designated Terrorist Organizations
Converts were significantly less likely to be connected to DTOs than non-converts (38% vs. 63%). Of the relatively small number of converts who were connected to a DTO, 60% were connected to al-Qa`ida, 27% to the LeT, 13% to AQAP, 7% to al-Shabab and 7% to the Pakistan-based Harkat-ul-Mujahidin (HuM). Only two converts had connections to more than one DTO: John Walker Lindh (al-Qa`ida and HuM) and David Hicks (al-Qa`ida and the LeT).
Of the larger number of non-converts who were connected to a DTO, 63% were connected to al-Qa`ida, 12% to the LeT, 10% to al-Shabab and 1% to AQAP. While there were no non-converts connected to HuM, there were a variety of organizations that only had non-converts connected to them: Makhtab-al-Khidamat, the al-Haramain Foundation, the Armed Islamic Group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Jemaah Islamiya, al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya, Ansar al-Islam, al-Ittihad al-Islami and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. There were also six individuals connected to multiple groups.
This shows that while converts were less likely to have been connected to DTOs than non-converts, those who were often had connections to al-Qa`ida, displaying the seriousness of some of these cases. For example, Bryant Neal Vinas consulted with senior al-Qa`ida members, providing them with information as part of a plot to attack New York’s Long Island Rail Road system.
Mass Casualty Operatives
Overall, 21% of all individuals were mass casualty operatives (MCOs): individuals who committed an AQRO and were part of a major plot. This included any kind of planned or premeditated attack that led to multiple deaths; a terrorism conspiracy that led to a successful, mass casualty attack; an attempted mass casualty attack that took place without the state’s knowledge yet led to no fatalities; a plot with operational involvement from al-Qa`ida or another DTO; or a plot in which components for a bomb were purchased or assembled without an undercover investigation taking place. These plots included the “millennium bomb” plot, the “shoe bomb” plot and the suicide attacks of 9/11.
There was a lower proportion of individual converts (11%) involved in the 10 most serious terrorism plots against the United States than there were in the total number of overall offenses (23%). Convert MCOs included two members of al-Qa`ida: Wadih el-Hage and Richard Reid. Both had received terrorist training. There has only been one convert MCO since 2003 (Abdulhakim Muhammad), however, and he did not receive terrorist training.
Comparison and Process
Out of the 171 individuals who were either convicted of AQROs within the U.S. civilian or military court system or who committed a suicide attack on U.S. soil between 1997 and 2011, 23% were converts to Islam. This number is high in comparison to the United Kingdom, where only 15% of individuals who committed Islamism-related offenses were converts. The U.S. statistic, however, is exactly in line with the proportion of converts residing in the United States. According to 2007 data from the Pew Research Center, 23% of Muslims in the United States are converts to Islam. In comparison, only 4% of the UK Muslim population are considered converts, making the British figure disproportionately high.
In terms of process, there tended to be several years between conversion to Islam and the criminal’s decision to commit a terrorist offense. Among the cases, offenses committed immediately after conversion were rare. Exceptions to this included LaRose and Ramirez, who committed offenses in the same year that they converted. It was more common, however, for the individuals in this study to commit offenses between three to seven years after conversion. This was the case with almost half of all the convicted converts. This suggests that there was rarely an inevitability of converts committing offenses, and factors other than religion pushed individuals toward committing terrorist acts.
The data suggests that it is not necessarily socioeconomic factors that may inspire some converts to Islam to commit AQROs. Converts who were convicted of AQROs were by no means all socially disenfranchised, impoverished individuals who turned to extremism out of desperation. Instead, they were likely U.S.-born young men with a good education who had since found regular work.
The fact that American Muslims are generally affluent has been identified as one reason limiting incidents of homegrown extremism. Yet this study’s findings should serve as a reminder that other factors—such as ideology or the suffering of Muslims abroad—can be just as significant as poverty in placing individuals on a path to radicalization.
The data should also have an impact on the response from European policymakers. While enhancing the socioeconomic prospects of Europe’s Muslim communities remains worthwhile, the data suggests that it will not be a panacea to preventing radicalization at home.
Robin Simcox is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. He previously was a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Cohesion, a think-tank studying extremism and terrorism in the United Kingdom. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New Republic, Weekly Standard and the Guardian. Mr. Simcox has an MSc in U.S. Foreign Policy from the Institute for the Study of Americas, University of London, and a BA in History from the University of Leeds.
Emily Dyer is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. She previously worked as a Higher Executive Officer for the Preventing Extremism Unit at the UK Department for Education, where she wrote several papers on extremism within educational settings. Ms. Dyer has a BA in International Relations from the University of Birmingham, where she produced a First class dissertation on Islamic feminism in Iran, and has traveled widely within Syria.
 All converts were convicted in the U.S. court system. There is yet to be an example of a convert who committed a suicide attack on U.S. soil.
 These years were: 1998, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011.
 Robin Simcox and Emily Dyer, Al-Qaeda in the United States: A Complete Analysis of Terrorism Offenses (London: Henry Jackson Society, 2013). This study is available at www.henryjacksonsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Al-Qaeda-in-the-USAbridged-version-LOWRES-Final.pdf.
 Government agencies and non-governmental organizations give widely differing figures as to the total number of terrorism or al-Qa`ida-inspired convictions in the United States. This is largely due to problems of classification. A deputy attorney general acknowledged in 2006 that some individuals in “terrorism or terrorism-related cases” since September 11, 2001 actually had no established links to terrorism. A Department of Justice’s inspector general also criticized his department’s classifications, with cases initially filed as terrorism-related simply not updated if no evidence of terrorist motivation was found. As a result, a recent Department of Justice list of 494 terrorism-related convictions from 9/11 included members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Tamil Tigers alongside jihadist-related crimes and other cases which are only exceptionally loosely tied to terrorism. See “F.B.I. Killed Plot In Talking Stage, A Top Aide Says,” New York Times, June 24, 2006; “Terror Conviction Rate High in US, with Questions,” Associated Press, September 3, 2011; “Introduction to National Security Division Statistics on Unsealed International Terrorism and Terrorism-Related Convictions,” U.S. Department of Justice, 2011.
 Simcox and Dyer.
 “October Martinique Lewis Pleads Guilty to Money Laundering Charges in ‘Portland Cell’ Case,” U.S. Department of Justice, September 26, 2003.
 “Alaska Man Pleads Guilty to Making False Statements in Domestic Terrorism Investigation,” U.S. Department of Justice, July 21, 2010.
 “Aafia Siddiqui Found Guilty in Manhattan Federal Court of Attempting to Murder U.S. Nationals in Afghanistan and Six Additional Charges,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 3, 2010.
 U.S.A. v. Colleen R. LaRose, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 2011.
 “Colorado Woman Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Provide Material Support to Terrorists,” U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, March 8, 2011.
 “Richard Reid Pleads Guilty,” CNN, October 4, 2002.
 “Australian Gitmo Detainee Gets 9 Months,” Washington Post, March 31, 2007.
 “Former Member of U.S. Navy Sentenced to 10 Years in Federal Prison for Disclosing Classified Information,” U.S. Department of Justice, April 3, 2009.
 U.S.A. v. Daniel Joseph Maldonado, Southern District of Texas, 2007.
 “Bronx Martial Arts Instructor Pleads Guilty to Conspiring to Support Al Qaeda,” U.S. Department of Justice, April 4, 2007.
 “Accused Gunman Sentenced in 2009 Arkansas Shooting,” Los Angeles Times, July 26, 2011.
 “Texas Man Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison for Attempting to Provide Material Support to al Qaeda,” U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, May 24, 2012.
 “Randall Todd Royer and Ibrahim Ahmed al-Hamdi Sentenced for Participation in Virginia Jihad Network,” U.S. Department of Justice, April 9, 2004.
 “Virginia Man Pleads Guilty to Providing Material Support to a Foreign Terrorist Organization and Encouraging Violent Jihadists to Kill U.S. Citizens,” U.S. Department of Justice, October 20, 2010.
 A convert who had significant links to Florida was Jose Padilla, who was convicted in August 2007 for conspiring to provide and providing material support to al-Qa`ida and conspiring to murder, kidnap, and maim people abroad. Padilla lived in Florida between 1990 and 1997. He had not been living there, however, for the five years up to his eventual arrest, and so he was not classified as a Florida resident in the study.
 The exact numerical breakdown is as follows: Alaska (two offenders); Arizona, Arkansas, Tennessee, Washington, and Washington, D.C. (one offender in each state/district); Pennsylvania (two offenders); and Texas (three offenders).
 Skilled employment was defined as a job where formal educational or a technical qualification and/or experience was required.
 “Terrorism Case Baffles Remote Alaska Town,” Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2010.
 “Profiles of John Walker Lindh, Osama bin Laden,” CNN, July 20, 2002.
 Terrorist training was defined as attendance at a camp specifically designed and organized to train “mujahidin” fighters, and which was formally run by al-Qa`ida or al-Qa`ida-inspired groups. These were all abroad, with the exception of a training camp established in Bly, Oregon, in 2000. Despite its lack of success, the Oregon camp constituted inclusion because the primary trainer, Oussama Kassir, had trained in Afghanistan himself and was well connected to the broader jihadist network.
 U.S.A. v. Wadih El Hage et al., Southern District of New York, 2000.
 Chris Heffelfinger, Radical Islam in America: Salafism’s Journey from Arabia to the West (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books Inc., 2011), p. 97; U.S.A. v. Randall Todd Royer, Eastern District of Virginia, 2004.
 A DTO is defined as being on either the U.S. Department of State’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations or the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List.
 “U.S. Citizen Admits al Qaeda Ties,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2009.
 The 10 major plots were: the East African embassy bomb attacks in 1998; the “millennium bomb” plot in 2000; the “shoe bomb” plot in 2001; the suicide attacks of 9/11; the Camp Pennsylvania murders in 2003; the University of North Carolina plot in 2006; the “underwear bomb” plot in 2009; the New York City subway plot in 2009; the Florence Army Recruitment Center shootings in 2009; and the Times Square car bomb plot in 2010.
 Data extracted from Robin Simcox, Hannah Stuart & Houriya Ahmed, Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections (London: Henry Jackson Society, 2011)
 “Converts to Islam,” Pew Research Center, July 21, 2007.
 The number of converts in the United Kingdom has not been statistically measured by the government. This figure is based on research conducted by the interfaith group Faith Matters, which suggested there could be as many as 100,000 converts in the United Kingdom. See “The Islamification of Britain: Record Numbers Embrace Muslim Faith,” Independent, January 4, 2011.