This month has seen two cases of domestic terrorism break along storylines that have become depressingly familiar. The first, a Muslim immigrant, crafted a very self-styled jihad that aimed at killing his “sinful” neighbors. The second, a U.S. soldier who had suddenly converted to Islam, sought to join the jihad in Africa. While both young men were caught before carrying out their murderous objectives, the cases are cause for concern, despite the death of Osama bin Laden and the apparent decline of al-Qaeda as a fighting force.
Sami Osmakac, arrested on January 7, is an Albanian from Kosovo and a naturalized citizen who lives in the Tampa, Florida area. His trajectory of self-radicalization looks familiar to any who have examined similar cases of this idiosyncratic and alarming phenomenon. Osmakac, twenty-five years old, entered a world of self-styled jihadism, a violent fantasy life which exists more on the Internet than anywhere else. He seems to have developed a murderous loathing for “infidels” as well as for fellow Muslims whom he regarded as insufficiently pious—most Muslims, in other words.
Osmakac adopted the pseudo-Afghan getup, including unkempt beard, that is all the rage among al-Qaeda imitators worldwide. He was recently involved in a scuffle with a Christian preacher—predictably, given the jihadist tendency to self-parody, outside a Lady Gaga concert—and regularly posted angry videos online, de rigueur for the wannabe jihadist. His hateful utterances included the usual clichés: “We all have to die. Why not die the Islamic way?” plus mass-murder fantasies as “payback” for alleged crimes against Muslims.
Osmakac planned mass killings at nightclubs and other venues he considered symbols of his adopted homeland. Fortunately, he was arrested well short of actually pulling any of this off; his antics were known to local Muslims and were apparently reported to the FBI early on. Osmakac also exhibited a lack of common sense: he tried to purchase an al-Qaeda flag at a local store. While it is easy to laugh at these inept antics, which seems like those of the insightful British terrorism comedy film FourLions, the intent was real and frightening.
Much the same can be said about Craig Baxam, who was returned to the United States last week from Kenya after a failed effort to join al-Shabab, the local al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia. More than forty Americans, mostly Somali immigrants, are reported to have joined al-Shabab, but Baxam is a native-born American who has served in the U.S. Army.
The twenty-four-year-old, who grew up in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and joined the army in 2007, was trained in military intelligence and served in Iraq. While stationed in South Korea, he became a case study for what Daniel Pipes has called Sudden Jihad Syndrome. Baxam had never been particularly religious but was motivated to convert to Islam and abandon the entire life he had known. He left the army quickly and reportedly considered moving to a Muslim land like Afghanistan or the southern Philippines before deciding on Somalia. Baxam withdrew his life savings and attempted to make his way to al-Shabab. Fortunately, he seems to have been as inept as Osmakac and was intercepted by Kenyan authorities in late December, well short of joining anything. He has cooperated with the FBI since his arrest.
In both cases, young men born or raised in the United States opted for a violent ideology that offered an escape their problems and daily concerns. Both Osmakac and Baxam easily shed their original identities in favor of an imaginary community of the global “Muslim nation” that exists only online. It is difficult to imagine such cases would emerge so quickly in the pre-Internet age.
But there is good news in both cases. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement are doing their job well. The FBI was monitoring Osmakac for months before his arrest, and he eventually purchased weapons and explosives from an undercover FBI agent. Similarly, the speed with which Kenyan authorities arrested Baxam after his arrival in their country suggests effective intelligence sharing.
Nevertheless, it is cold comfort that, yet again, the FBI and our intelligence agencies were smarter than the would-be terrorists. Eventually luck runs out—particularly in the occasional cases in which the terrorists are not hopelessly inept—and people die. The United States must take homegrown jihad more seriously, regardless of political sensitivities. There should be a discussion about why young men turn on their own communities and want to murder their neighbors on behalf of an imagined community they know only through a computer screen.
John R. Schindler is professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and chair of the Partnership for Peace Consortium’s Combating Terrorism Working Group. He is a former National Security Agency counterintelligence officer. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own.