Syed Hashmi, better known as Fahad, a 26-year-old U.S. Muslim and New York City resident, was arrested June 6 at London's Heathrow Airport as he prepared to board a plane for Pakistan. He was charged with aiding an al Qaeda plot to stage attacks in London and shipping equipment to the jihadist network headquartered in Pakistan. Hashmi's evolution from a New York City college student to an al Qaeda operative underscores the manner in which militant Islamism can attract certain Western Muslim youths. The factors that cause such transitions can give security and intelligence officials the tools to effectively track down potential terrorists. Hashmi is a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin who grew up in New York, attending high school in the Long Island City area of Queens in the late 1990s. After briefly attending the State University of New York at Stony Brook in Long Island, he went to Brooklyn College, where he graduated in 2003. During this period, Hashmi was exposed to radical Islamist ideas, particularly those of the now defunct London-based group called al-Muhajiroun (The Immigrants). Successor groups, such as New York's Islamic Thinkers Society and London's al-Ghurabah (The Strangers) and Firqah al-Najiyah (Saved Sect), have emerged on both sides of the Atlantic since al-Muhajiroun disbanded in October 2004. Hashmi is not the only U.S. citizen from New York who turned into a high-profile al Qaeda suspect. Mohammed Junaid Babar
, like Hashmi, briefly was affiliated with al-Muhajiroun in Queens before becoming an al Qaeda operative. In fact, reports suggest that Hashmi was the one who brought Babar into the al-Muhajiroun fold. Hashmi had a reputation as a key recruiter for the group until he left it sometime before it disbanded. The question is: How did Hashmi and others affiliated with groups that are no more than jihadist cheerleaders become actual jihadists? Media reports say Hashmi founded al-Muhajiroun in Queens. However, the Queens chapter of al-Muhajiroun was founded sometime in 1996, a few months after Omar Bakri Muhammed — a radical Islamist ideologue — founded the original group in London
. Hashmi would have been only 16 in 1996; he reportedly joined the group around 2000. In 1996, the nascent and small New York branch of al-Muhajiroun, like its parent group in London, comprised members who had parted ways with Hizb al-Tahrir
, or Party of Liberation (HT), a transnational radical Islamist group seeking to re-establish the caliphate through nonviolent means. Al-Muhajiroun began as a more moderate alternative to HT, but when the leadership of al-Muhajiroun in London came out in support of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, its founding members — except Akbar Khattak, the chapter's leader — began leaving. By the end of 1999, the chapter had undergone a complete turnover, and the group gained notoriety for being an al Qaeda propaganda front organization. The group began flirting with jihadism but maintained a safe distance from al Qaeda
even after Sept. 11, when the group's founder initially condemned the attacks — though it was not long before he changed his tune and praised the attacks, even calling the Sept. 11 hijackers "The Magnificent 19." In mid-2002, the group posted on its Web site its formal renunciation of the Maturidi creed and its adoption of the Wahhabi doctrine. The group quickly emerged as the most extreme Wahhabist/Salafist group in the West. Though al-Muhajiroun's Islamist ideology took a more extremist direction, it avoided engaging in acts of terrorism
. This frustrated many members such as Hashmi and Babar, who eventually left the group in search of the "real deal." Their Western nationalities allowed them to easily travel to and from Pakistan, Europe and North America. Hashmi, Babar and others were able to make contact with a group of like-minded Western Muslims who, in the wake of the Afghanistan invasion, were engaged in sending young Muslim males to fight alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda. From there, Hashmi was able to link up with some facet of the jihadist hive mind and was inducted. Meanwhile, the Pakistani branch of al-Muhajiroun — led by Sajeel Shahid, a Bakri follower from London who had moved to Pakistan — evolved into one of many support networks connecting Western Muslim youths, mostly from Europe, to the jihadist theater in Southwest Asia. This occurred after the Pakistani branch's 2003 announcement of independence from the parent group in London. The Pakistani branch of al-Muhajiroun had decided to participate more actively in the "jihad" in Afghanistan, which necessitated its secession from the parent body. Bakri, the organization's founder, blessed this decision; clearly, he wanted to maintain plausible deniability for the group as a whole and avoid trouble with law enforcement agencies that the Pakistani branch's actions might create. Groups like al-Muhajiroun's Pakistani branch are channels for bringing conditioned Western Muslim youths into contact with al Qaeda recruiters. This is likely the same medium that allowed the July 7 London bombers to go from being radicalized youth to becoming actual suicide bombers. Given that the process begins in the West, it is essential that security and intelligence agencies maintain close vigilance for any signs of radical ideas circulating among Muslim students on Western campuses. That said, most Muslim student groups on U.S. and European campuses have diverse ideological trends, and it is difficult to pick out the few potential militants. Working with mainstream Muslim groups would facilitate this. Accurately identifying radicals and understanding the process by which radical ideas become terrorist activity are the greatest tools in the war against militant Islamists.