- Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad's deadly shooting outside a recruitment center in 2009, though initially seen as an anomaly, actually marked the beginning of a new trend in terrorist attacks.
- Adapting to counterterrorism programs that prevent complex assaults executed from afar, jihadist groups are increasingly relying on local operatives to organize and execute plans using simpler methods.
- Though domestically organized terrorist attacks will continue, governments are now adapting to the trend by actively pursuing grassroots jihadists.
Today is the sixth anniversary of the June 1, 2009 shooting attack in Little Rock, Arkansas, that killed one U.S. Army soldier and critically wounded another outside of an armed forces recruitment center. Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, an American man who changed his name from Carlos Leon Bledsoe after converting to Islam, was convicted for the crime and sentenced to life in prison in July 2011.
In a letter he sent to the judge in his case, Muhammad stated that during the 16 months he spent in Yemen, ostensibly to learn Arabic and teach English, he had come into contact with members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and had become a member of "Abu Basir's Army." Abu Basir is the honorific name, or kunya, for Nasir al-Wahayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Muhammad also noted in a subsequent letter to a newspaper that he had hoped to travel to Somalia for explosives training, but that his arrest and eventual deportation by Yemeni authorities had foiled those plans. Lacking explosives training, he claimed that a member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula helped him devise a plan to conduct a violent campaign of simple attacks using firearms and Molotov cocktails across the southern United States but that his arrest in Little Rock prevented him from continuing his spree.
At the time, Muhammad's claim to be connected with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was met with a degree of skepticism, as his attacks did not seem to be in line with type of attacks an al Qaeda franchise would encourage. Shortly after the Little Rock shooting, however, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Arabic-language Sada al-Malahim magazine began to clearly call on its sympathizers to plan and conduct attacks in their own countries. In November, just five months after the Little Rock shooting, Maj. Nidal Hasan conducted a similar but far more deadly attack at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas.
By the following year, it had become clear that Muhammad's shooting had signaled the emergence of a new style of terrorism in the United States and in the West as a whole. Before, jihadist groups had favored sophisticated, spectacular attacks planned by professional operatives in the style of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. After the assault on the Arkansas recruitment office, jihadists began to adopt a new model of operations to evade the counterterrorism programs put in place to guard against attacks by jihadist groups. This new model involved leaderless resistance that organized attacks locally rather than receiving direction from overseas, as well as more straightforward methods and simplistic weaponry.
A Shift in Methods
Muhammad was certainly not the first grassroots jihadist to conduct an attack in the United States, or even the first to carry out an attack with a gun. El Sayyid Nosair, for example, had already done that two decades before, when he assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane in a midtown Manhattan hotel in 1990. But Nosair's attack was unusual at the time, merely an outlier.
The Little Rock shooting was no such anomaly. The wave of grassroots terrorist activity set off by Muhammad's rampage has only grown in subsequent years. Like a flash flood gathering momentum with every drop of rain, each attack encouraged other sympathizers on as jihadist leaders bestowed their blessings from abroad. And the drops continue to fall.
In March 2010, the al Qaeda core signed onto the leaderless resistance concept with the publication of an English-language video featuring U.S. citizen spokesman Adam Gadahn, who advised would-be jihadists in the United States to practice careful operational security and to visit a gun show, buy a gun and conduct a shooting attack in the United States rather than attempt to travel overseas to join al Qaeda or franchise groups. Gadahn also advised jihadists to carefully study past attacks in order to emulate successes and learn from failures.
In July 2010, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began publishing Inspire, an English-language magazine explicitly intended to radicalize grassroots jihadists living in the West and then equip them to conduct attacks, either individually as lone wolves or working together in small clandestine cells. The magazine has served its purpose. While it never succeeded in triggering a massive number of attacks, it has helped radicalize a number of jihadists and has been an integral part of a number of plots and attacks. For example, the pressure cooker bombs used in the April 2013 Boston Marathon attack were built using instructions contained in Inspire's first issue
Another trend that began with Mohammed's attack was the shift from plots involving the use of large, sophisticated explosive devices toward attack plans involving firearms or simple explosive devices such as pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails. The pressure cooker bomb used in the Boston Marathon attack, for instance, was merely a large device similar to a pipe bomb. The switch to simpler methods has helped jihadists operating independently ensure more successful attacks. In the past, a number of plots were botched either because the attacker could not construct an effective device — as in the May 2010 Faisal Shahzad and the September 2009 Najibullah Zazi cases — or because jihadists inadvertently involved law enforcement when dealing with complex weapons. Take for instance the Jose Pimentel case in November 2011, when a would-be assailant walked right into a government sting operation looking for help assembling explosive devices. Or Quazi Nafis, who in October 2012 attempted to detonate a vehicle bomb at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York using explosives he had unintentionally acquired from government informants.
The shift toward grassroots terrorism began to pick up steam in the last quarter of 2014 after the Islamic State's spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani issued a statement in September exhorting grassroots jihadists wanting to support the Islamic State to conduct attacks in the West.
Following this call, there were Islamic State-inspired grassroots attacks in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Ottawa, Canada, and New York in October, and an attack in Sydney, Australia, in December. In January 2015, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi conducted a high-profile armed assault against the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The brothers were connected to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Said Kouachi had even traveled to Yemen to receive training from the terrorist group. In an interesting twist, Amedy Coulibaly, a friend of the Kouachi brothers, went on his own shooting spree in which he shot five people and wounded more over a three-day period.
While the trend, which Stratfor predicted in May 2010, took time to develop, armed attacks such as the one on Charlie Hebdo's offices in January have confirmed these methods as an increasingly popular tool in the jihadist arsenal.
Grassroots terrorists are more active now than ever before. I have been investigating and analyzing the jihadist threat since 1992, and the number of arrests over the past six months is the highest I can ever recall for such a short period of time. While many of those arrested have sought to travel to fight in places like Syria, Somalia or Libya, many of them were also involved in plots to conduct attacks in their countries of residence. And some plots, like the Hasan Edmonds case, contained an element of both, with one cousin seeking to travel and the other seeking to conduct an attack against a National Guard Armory in Illinois.
Today the wave of grassroots jihadism rolls on, a dangerous and undeniable facet of modern life in the West. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have not yet fully realized their aspirations, and the wave has not yet become an inexorable all consuming flood overwhelming the earth. But it is a continuous, deadly stream.
Lead Analyst: Scott Stewart