Reflections on Brian Michael Jenkins’ ‘Would-Be Warriors’

Recently RAND released a new paper by Brian Michael Jenkins entitled Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001. The paper constitutes a competent contribution to the study of homegrown terrorism; it is worth reading for both its analysis and also the data set it contributes.

There are several aspects of the report that I would like to highlight, beginning with my criticisms:

• First, there are some small — though not fatal — problems with the study’s data set. Forty-six cases are listed at the end of the paper, and Jenkins explains the methodology for inclusion in this way: “They all meet one simple criterion for inclusion in the list: They have resulted in indictments, in the United States or abroad.” However, Anwar al Awlaki is included in the data set even though he has never been indicted (leaving aside a June 2002 arrest warrant for making a false statement on a passport application that was subsequently rescinded); conversely, Hasan Akbar was excluded even though he was convicted by a military court of killing two fellow soldiers. If the study is going to include individuals like Awlaki who can clearly be classified as homegrown terrorists even though they have not been indicted, it should also include Ruben Shumpert, one of the first Westerners to join Somalia’s al Shabaab. Shabaab even issued a martyrdom bio following Shumpert’s death.

• Jenkins claims that “few of America’s accused terrorists seem to have arrived at jihadism through a process of profound spiritual discernment. We have no metric for measuring faith, but the attraction of the jihadists’ extremist ideology for these individuals appears to have had more to do with participating in action than with religious instruction.” In my view, this is unproven. I should note that Jenkins was kind enough to contribute a foreword last year to a study I co-authored that reaches a contrary conclusion: that various ideological indicators of radicalization contradict the view that religious ideology is irrelevant. (Jenkins also cites to my study in Would-Be Warriors, but for its demographic data rather than its ideological discussion.) Suffice it to say that without concrete data on this point, I am skeptical of claims that we know “sense of adventure” to be a predominant driver of homegrown terrorists.

• The study also concludes: “There are more than 3 million Muslims in the United States, and few more than 100 have joined jihad–one out of every 30,000–suggesting an American Muslim population that remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence.” But on this point, I agree with a thoughtful critique written by Drew Conway: “We know … that this final assertion is not true; specifically, with regard to the numbers. The numbers, at best, only support the claim that domestic radicalization is very rarely observed. It does not suggest anything about the internal disposition of American Muslims. While this may actually be the case, simply … not observing a phenomenon cannot support this claim. The clich

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1 Comment

  • Neo says:

    Degree of acculturation seems to be an important factor here. If the individual is already acculturated to Pakistani or Arab society, than their sense that they have been wronged and what to do about it may be inherent part of that groups politics.
    What kinds of connections are available to a budding extremist seems to be a critical factor with acculturated Muslims. Islamist activism seems to be imbedded to a degree in European Muslim community. The immigrant community has brought it into Europe with them over the last twenty years. First or second generation Muslim immigrants who wish to become involved already have pre-existing networks to plug into. In Europe a very violent atmosphere predates the 9/11 period and has been building for a number of decades.
    Militant activism is the United States seems to be much more rudimentary. There was the New York Mosque involved with the First World Trade Center bombing, and there were a number of rather loosely formed campus organizations. I remember reading about the agitation between Muslim and Jewish activists on the University of San Francisco campus. The intimidation level used by Muslim students barely amounted to jostling and name calling.
    I’m not sure where unhappy Muslims in the United States are plugging in. Are they being quiet, or keeping their political complaints in generalized form? How alienated are Muslim Americans from the rest of society. Do they feel the political process at least accommodates them at some level, or do they feel politically isolated? The question is whether we are dealing with dormant hostility or if hostility is somehow diffused.
    On the other end of things are domestic jihadists who start out unacculturated to either Muslim society, or radical Islam. Many of these seem to be loners, on the alienated fringe, looking to act out on some preconceived sense of injustice or oppression. There seem to be a few domestic jihadists that enter into a process of either acculturation or education about Islam, prior to their militant activism. It takes time for an outsider to thoroughly acculturate one’s self to any depth, and doing so may be superfluous or even counterproductive to armed militant action.
    I think we also underestimate the role the media plays. The American media while highly critical and often partisan, is not anti-American as such. Much of the European media especially the left media is almost militant in its hostility toward Americans. I don’t find it a coincidence that radical Islam would mimic the far left in its arguments and the darkest of views they see in the European media.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram