Since the 9/11 attacks, conventional wisdom has held that acts of terror on U.S. soil would most likely come from abroad. Much time and effort have been spent on beefing up border security to make sure the next Mohammad Atta never reaches the homeland. Yet the massacre at Fort Hood by Major Nidal Hasan underscored what has long been known in counterterrorism circles: Muslims born and raised in the U.S. might become radicalized and perpetrate acts of terror here at home, and more resources need to be directed inward.
Now, a string of arrests by the FBI over the past year has raised awareness of a new phenomenon: there exist Americans who wish to commit acts of terror abroad.
For the most part, those arrested have been individuals who wished to join foreign jihadi groups as foot soldiers. Many of those attempts have failed. Boston’s Tarek Mehanna went to Yemen to join al-Qaeda but was rebuffed. His friend Ahmad Abousamra traveled to Pakistan and Iraq for the same purpose and also failed. Similarly, several young men from North Carolina made a pilgrimage to the Palestinian territories to join in jihad against Israel, but they seem to have spent the majority of their time seeing the sights in Cairo.
Late last month, two arrests in Chicago seemed to confirm a pattern of American citizens wishing to engage in acts of terror abroad but failing. But new reports from India indicate that at least one of the two arrested may have been involved in planning the coordinated attacks in Mumbai last year. Those attacks killed 173 people and have been described as India’s 9/11.
If these reports pan out, then a Chicago-area man who legally changed his name from Daood Gilani to David Headley — and who had previously been indicted for planning a foiled terror attack against Denmark’s Jylland Posten newspaper as “revenge” for printing cartoons of the prophet Mohammad — conducted surveillance of targets in Mumbai. He helped facilitate the massacre in which innocent civilians were methodically gunned down at the real-time urging of their Lashkar-e-Taiba controllers from Pakistan.
On October 18, over 100 federal and local law enforcement agents swooped in on a meat processing plant in rural Illinois. The raid seemed like overkill for an immigration raid, given that the plant only employed 13 people. When the FBI announced that the plant’s owner — a Canadian citizen named Tahawar Rana who lived and ran other businesses in Chicago — had been indicted along with David Headley on charges of plotting terror attacks abroad, the raids still seemed like overkill.
The specific charges were that Rana had conspired with Headley to attack the Jyllands-Posten headquarters. However, the attack was still very much in the planning stages. Although Headley was in contact with at least two separate Pakistani-based terror organizations, his contacts there had urged him to focus on India rather than Denmark. There was no indication that the pair had made any progress towards obtaining either the weapons or explosives necessary for the attack. They also seemed to have lacked the volunteers needed, as there is no indication that the two were themselves willing to die for the cause.
So why put so much manpower into a raid on two men who seemed to fit into the category of “aspirational terrorists”?
Last week, Indian officials revealed that “Headley” had visited Mumbai, and that two of the hotels he stayed at were attacked during the terror raid. One might be tempted to write this off as coincidence — both hotels are frequented by Westerners, which is why they were targeted in the attacks. Headley had gone to India on a “business” trip on behalf of an immigration company owned by Rana. Perhaps he was in Mumbai recruiting immigrants for work in the U.S. and stayed at two hotels popular among Western businessmen?