Anwar al-Aulaqi had plenty of opportunities to wage war on the United States.The alleged Al-Qaeda leader (who was killed in a 2011 drone strike) was born in New Mexico and went to college at Colorado State. In 2001 he even attended a Pentagon luncheon aimed at Muslim outreach.
But rather than recruit radicals from within the U.S., al-Aulaqi relocated to Yemen and joined a radical community there.
This pattern is more common than you might think, according to a paper published in Cambridge’s American Political Science Review. Thomas Hegghammer, a young terrorism analyst at the centre for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, says that Western jihadists actually prefer fighting outside of the west—a trend established by 20 years of open-source data.
According to the paper, jihadists prefer fighting abroad essentially because that’s where the “jihad” is located, the ongoing Holy War, to expel any occupying force – as it may be perceived to be. Also because there is a larger jihadist community that can provide training, what Hegghammer refers to as “veterans.”. Above all, however, Hegghammer says that fighting to expel westerners from the Islamic world is viewed as a more legitimate form of jihad.
Hegghammer argues that the west’s understanding about jihad has led to miscalculations.
From the text:
Many assume that jihadists all want to attack the West, and that those who leave do so for training. I argue the opposite, namely, that most Western jihadists prefer foreign ﬁghting, but a minority attacks at home after being radicalized, most often through foreign ﬁghting or contact with a veteran.
He argues that the linguistic, and political distinction between homegrown terror threats and foreign fighters is important, one that ultimately affects policy.
From the text:
Prosecuting all aspiring foreign ﬁghters as prospective domestic terrorists has limited preventive beneﬁts, because so few of them, statistically speaking, will go on to attack the homeland. By the same logic, the use of agents provocateurs to draw aspiring foreign ﬁghters into fake domestic plots may have limited preventive value.
Hegghammer says the lack of a clear distinction this has caused governments to dedicate resources in the most inefficient way possible. Setting up costly surveillance and domestic security apparatus — like the NYPD wire-tapping program in New Jersey or the headline making Transportation Security Agency — doesn’t do much to “discourage” the likeliest candidates for domestic attacks.
“By contrast,” writes Hegghammer, “returning foreign ﬁghters and their contacts should be monitored very carefully.”
That’s because, statistically, the planning, logistics and redicalization necessary for such large-scale attacks can only be found with “veterans,” who are more radical and more motivated to strike political targets.
It’s also worth nothing that civilian targets do not fall within most definitions of jihad—which means “struggle” and can be spiritual or intellectual, as well as militant.
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