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American Jihadists: Three Case Studies of American Citizens Who Chose Extremism over America

The article below was written by IWP student Sam Read and published by the Small Wars Journal.

Speaking in the aftermath of the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, President Obama described the changing ways in which terrorist groups target the United States: “as we’ve become better at preventing complex, multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turned to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society” (Gilsinan, 2015). This reality has played out many times in recent years — large coordinated attacks are rare in the U.S., but small attacks carried out by individuals occur more frequently. These attacks are sometimes carried out by U.S. citizens, and after the incident there is always some debate over how the individual became willing to work and fight in support of a terrorist group against the U.S.

This paper will look at three of these incidents, and the people involved, and will attempt to analyze why they did what they did. The first case study will be Muhammad Dakhlalla and Jaelyn Young, two Mississippi college students who were arrested at an airport in 2015 when they attempted to fly to Syria to join ISIS. Why would two American citizens, having grown up in middle class America, and with education and opportunities before them, reject all of that to join ISIS? The second case study will be Nidal Malik Hasan, a former Major in the United States Army who planned and carried out a shooting at Fort Hood in 2009, in which he killed 13 of his fellow soldiers and wounded dozens more. What would cause Hasan, not only an American citizen but an American soldier — an Army officer who had taken an oath to defend the Constitution — to bring two handguns to work and open fire on other soldiers? And finally, this paper will pay special attention to the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, a well-known Muslim scholar born in New Mexico who once voiced support for the U.S. but later became increasingly violent and hostile to it, calling for and supporting violence against the U.S. until a drone strike killed him in 2011 in Yemen. Why would this U.S. citizen, who, in the aftermath of 9/11 was seen as a national authority on Islam and advocate for peace, spend the last years of his life calling for jihad against the U.S. and celebrating terrorists who killed Americans (Shane, 2015)? This paper will look at these questions of motivations, and why Americans familiar with the benefits of the American way of life would reject it for jihad. The conclusion of this paper will address the possibility that other Muslim-Americans today struggle with the same questions of faith and nationality as those studied in the paper, and what the U.S. government might do to prevent future cases of radicalization.

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