Drift into Extremism: Immigrant Communities and Terrorism – Adam Silverman, Ph. D.

With the recent arrests of five young Muslim American men in Pakistan as part of an alleged attempt to take part in violence and terrorism on behalf of extremist Islam, the recent shooting at Ft. Hood by a Muslim American in the US Army, the interruption of a plot this past fall to create explosives out of common items such as hydrogen peroxide, and the failed attempt to use a crush detonator chemical explosive to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit, has once again led to a larger discussion about the radicalization of Muslims in the US and other countries; especially as it pertains to the threat from or countering of terrorism.
[2]  All of the individuals involved with these incidents were part of immigrant or expatriot communities: Pakistani, Afghan, Palestinian, Nigerian and as such share similarities with the men who perpetrated the London suicide bombings in July of 2005 and Muhammed Atta – the ringleader of the 9-11 cell.  Most, but not all, are second or third generation members of immigrant communities with the exceptions being the expats, such as Attah and the Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

While it is refreshing to see the acknowledged experts on terrorism recognize that the perceptions of American actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries with majority populations are a contributing factor to the choices that these men have made, and that others will likely make, it is actually necessary to drill down further and try to focus on what may be setting the conditions that create susceptibility to these perceptions and attitudes.  Now that we’ve identified the drivers of the learning dynamic, the definitions that are favorable to engaging in extremist Islamic violence and terrorism and neutralizing of the prohibitions against it, we also need to identify the structural dynamic that is driving the learning process.

 The comparative data on immigrant and ethnic communities clearly demonstrates that the children and grandchildren of immigrants have a very similar life course for drifting into illicit and illegal behavior.[3]  Most first generation immigrants, unless they specifically relocate in order to engage in criminal and illegal activities (usually some form of organized crime or terrorism, and often directed at their own communities) or drift into it as a result of exposure as foreigners living abroad, do not have the time to offend, rather its their children and grandchildren who begin to drift into illegal activities.  While there have fortunately only been a small number of the members of these Islamic immigrant and expatriot groups who have drifted into extremism violence and terrorism, rather than more traditional forms of illegality, the pattern that is beginning to emerge seems to conform to that of other immigrant groups.

The significant difference is that when young second and third generation Muslim immigrants, as well as Muslim expats, drift, some of them are being captured by religious and educational institutions which have been specifically funded to promote the most extreme, reactionary, and violence justifying version of Islam available.  For instance, MAJ Hasan, the recently arrested Pakistani-American men from VA, and the 2005 London bombers – all 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants[4] conform to these patterns.  When they felt the competing demands of their immigrant subculture in conflict with the surrounding culture and subcultures, as well as their other social identities they resolved their identity and ideational conflicts by through adoption of the most extreme, reactionary, and violent offshoot of Islam.  MAJ Hasan was in correspondence with a reactionary cleric, as well as active on extremist websites.  The five young men from VA who are being extradited from Pakistan back to the US are alleged to have travelled to Pakistan for training, and the 2005 London bombers had flirted with extremist preaching in British mosques, one of their members had travelled to the Pakistan/Afghanistan region for training, and all were active on the extremist websites. 

A related concern is the drift into extremism not of immigrants or expats (both Atta and Abdulmutallab, from well off families, embraced violent, reactionary Islam while students in non-Muslim settings), but of young Muslims who reside in states that are majority Muslim.  A number of foundations and charities, primarily funded from Saudi Arabia[5], seek to spread the extremist, reactionary, and often violence promoting Wahabbi offshoot of Islam throughout both the Muslim and non-Muslim parts of the world through the establishment of mosques, madrassas, and mosque schools (kutbs).  As a result more and more young Muslim men are exposed to religious definitions favorable towards intolerance of other versions of Islam, let alone other religions, neutralizing to the prohibitions against violence, and to examples for imitation of martyrs whose violent behaviors and actions should be emulated.  When the legitimate and constructed grievances of these young men are added to the structural and learning environments a powerful set of drivers for negative violent extremism and terrorism are put into play.  There is little that the US can do to stop this dynamic, given that we are dependent on the Saudis, as a lynchpin of OPEC, for our energy needs.

The resolution to this social structural/social learning behavioral dynamic requires two reinforcing courses of actions (these are not to be confused for structural changes in security or institutions, those require change as well).  The first is on the structural side and may in fact be the hardest part: better integration of Muslim immigrants into their new states and societies.  While the US has, historically, done a very good job of this, there have been serious setbacks due to reactions from the 9-11 attacks.[6] The American record, however, is clearly head and shoulders above those of many European states in which the attempt to integrate immigrants from Muslim communities has taken exceedingly strident forms: the banning of head scarves in France, the new ban on minaret construction in Switzerland, and the ghettoization of many Dutch Muslims as just a few examples.  The American track record has always been better because America is not an ethnically homogenous society; our ideal, even if we do not always achieve it, is to accept those coming to seek a better life.  So the first recommendation is to zealously try to achieve that ideal of welcoming newcomers and integrating them. That said we, as Americans, seem to be recently loosing too many young Muslim immigrants to extremism.  While there is no quick or fast solution to this problem, the second thing that we do need to do is be vigilant about, is falling into the hysteria trap that we have seen sweep up many of our elected officials, media personalities, elites, and notables since the failed attempt to bring down that Northwest flight right before Christmas 2009.  Part of embracing the freak out always seems to include bizarre calls for more profiling, even though all evidence clearly indicates that profiling is no more than the cold reading that mentalists use in their stage shows[7], as well as the demands that we invade and attack even more Muslim countries and areas, and get tougher in dealing with Muslims.  These seemingly reflexive reactions by noted American leaders and commentators are seen by Muslims around the world and they provide free information operations and psychological operations for al Qaeda and other Muslim extremists by giving the truth to the lies that al Qaeda spreads about America and its intentions.  As a result they become part of the grievances that both facilitate young Muslim men drifting into extremist violence and terrorism, as well as reinforcing the behavioral definitions that promote such violence and terrorism.  This is not a call for political correctness, but rather to recognize that how we react and interact with Muslims as individuals, as a group, and as a socio-cultural system has an effect on social and political behavior, including violent behavior.  By changing the dynamic through better integration, as well as showing greater care in our rhetorical and actual dealings with the Muslim world, we can help Muslim communities diffuse the life course and behavioral dynamics that make members of their communities available for recruitment into the world of extremism and terrorism


Adam L. Silverman PhD[1]

[1]Adam L. Silverman, PhD was the Field Social Scientist and Team Leader for Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 (HTT IZ6) assigned to the 2BCT/1AD from OCT 2007 to OCT 2008.  Upon his redeployment to the US he served as the US Army Human Terrain System Strategic Advisor through June 2009.  The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the 2BCT/1AD, the US Army Human Terrain System, or the US Army.

[3] One of the best single volumes on this, one I used when I taught comparative criminology, is: Tonry, Michael H. Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration: Comparative Cross National Perspectives. University of Chicago Press

[4] The one exception here is of one of the 2005 London bombers who moved from Jamaica to England with his mother when he was a boy.

[5]http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/saudi/analyses/madrassas.html. Blanchard, CM. Islamic Religious Schools, Madrasas: Background. Congressional Research Service, 2007.

[6]It is hard to empirically determine just how much of an increase in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab behavior has risen since 9-11.  The data, as well as the discussion, has become a hotly contested political arena pitting groups like the ADL, SPLC, and CAIR on one side and a variety of neo-Conservative organizations, such as the American Forum for Truth Investigative Report (a Dr. Daniel Pipes offshoot organization) on the other.  I would refer everyone to the actual official data maintained by the US Government at: http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/hc2008/index.html.

[7] http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/11/12/071112fa_fact_gladwell. This is perhaps the best, short (under ten pages), and easily accessible explanation and critique of the science of behavioral profiling I have come across. 

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22 Responses to Drift into Extremism: Immigrant Communities and Terrorism – Adam Silverman, Ph. D.

  1. WOW! Great post! Question? Wonder how the decennial census required by Constitution this year will document immigration issues?

  2. Annie says:

    Segmented Immigration Theory documents the process of social disorganization leading many Latino youth into gangs. I see some parallels. See ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RACE AND CRIME edited by Helen Taylor Greene, Sage Pubs for quick overview. (Citation to compliment results you may drag up from google search.)

  3. N. M. Salamon says:

    an excellent analysis from an intellectual view. However the public perception and expression [aside from all the USA led wars and support of dictatorial governments in Muslim lands] as the word “islamofasist”, “war of religions” court judgement excusing all outright murders by the USA forces/contractors are the food on which extremeist Wahabbi base their teaching of EVIL USA. This aside from the blind and self-destructive, both to USA and Isreal, support of Israeli colonial actions, where the rule of international law is regularly abused.
    While the integration of minorities might be better in the USA than some other parts of the world, the constant harping on racial profiling, the constant excuses for colletoral damage, etc; indicate that there does not seem to be any effort by the USA government and or USA society to undermine the major grievences of Muslims in general.
    The use of Predators, Reapers, high altitude bombers etc indicate that the USA leadership places no value on Muslim civilian life – as indicated by a 100 civilian deaths to 1 AQ target ratios.
    Until such time that the USA gives up on its interference in Muslim lands, the USA will face inported or homegrown terrorism, for the victim has no army, no bombers, no Predators, nor cruise missiles.

  4. psc says:

    How about some common sense? Restrict muslim peoples from emigrating to America.
    Our country no longer needs mass immigration as we no longer produce anything. Back in the day, we needed coal miners, steel workers, tunnel diggers, shoe makers, etc… these industries are long gone. Over 300 million people reside in America. When is enough, enough?
    Major Hasan carried his family’s war of dispossesion onto innocents in Texas. Children of Abanian Kosovar refugees were convicted of planning to attack Fort Dix.
    America’s policy of Invade the world, Invite the world, and in Hock to the world has been a disaster.
    Why create more problems for ourselves?
    While some may look at Somalians in Minnesota and see the wonders of diversity, I see generations of people who will come to resent America (due to our interventionist foreign policy) and may just take action against it.

  5. JohnH says:

    Yes, we could do a lot to ease the integration of 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants into society. The problem is that the US has never had a particularly enlightened approach towards the disadvantaged. It is not particularly reassuring to note that the US record on integrating immigrants is better than most countries, when their records are truly awful.
    Unfortunately, stratospheric rates of unemployment among young, even worse among minority youth are exacerbating the situation. And widespread demonization of Muslims does not help, either.
    The other, unmentioned side of the coin is the potential for more veterans to turn into terrorists like Timothy McVeigh. The situation they face on returning home is dire–often recruited from disadvantaged groups, brains addled by PTSD and multiple deployments into battle zones, they face awful prospects reintegrating into job markets and into a society that is not particularly sympathetic to the causes they put their lives on the line for. Furthermore, these people have been well trained in the use of weapons and explosives. It’s hard to image a worse recipe for brewing a lethal cocktail.

  6. Bill Wade, NH says:

    What do you do when you are a 20 year old college student and your Mom is a very wealthy widow of Muslim descent and it’s two weeks after 911 and all Muslims have been vilified by GWB and folks who live your very wealthy neighborhood are starting to look at you kinda funny?
    I knew this kid, he was a good kid, not sure what he’s been doing lately but one did have to feel badly for him.

  7. Stormcrow says:

    Thank you VERY much for that link on profiling!
    I learned something new today.

  8. Sara says:

    Observing the Minneapolis Somalian Community through the eyes of friends who have done social work in that community for now more than ten years — the analysis needs to factor in Gender.
    Many Somali women who arrived young, as pre-teens, or were born here, have used US educational resources to establish economic independence, careers, and contact with larger community assets that protect and preserve their self defined independence. In contrast with the traditional roles of women in Somali Culture, Somali-American women have built modes of adaptation to the larger American Community that are very distinct from their male peers.
    They are far more likely to finish HS, attend college or a voc/tech school, find middle class careers that pay sufficently well to support self and family. They are much more likely to have close friends among native born Americans, and stronger connections within the African American Women’s community where women headed households are fairly common. Somali-American women are far more likely to divorce and seek court protection in an abusive marriage. A significant part of the next generation of Somali-Americans will be raised with these values in evidence, and the tensions in the whole Somali Community will be heightened and defined by this reality. Somali tradition offers no place for these women in Mosque centered organization, but that has not prevented them from inventing adaptations that support their interests. Any analysis of how a migrant group adapts needs to consider Gender matters.

  9. ryanwc says:

    Interesting post. The nature of those few young American men who have been seduced by radical Islam offers some comfort. They have been isolated losers incompetent of the attacks they hope to commit.
    I would call some attention to the recent Decatur Illinois arrest – an Anglo convert.
    Inevitably, we argue and analyze from our own experiences — the muslim kids I knew in high school and college were generally deeply integrated into white society, in a way that wasn’t true of African Americans (and at the time there still weren’t many Latino immigrants outside of a few major cities, agricultural areas and border states). I don’t know the degree to which that remains true. Certainly the numbers of muslim immigrants grew to the point that there are now communities, whereas I mostly knew scattered families. You couldn’t hang out only with muslims, because there weren’t enough of them. Also, my experiences are more with Pakistanis and Indian muslim emigres than with any other groups of muslims. Socioeconomically, they may be distinct.

  10. curious says:

    Our country no longer needs mass immigration as we no longer produce anything. Back in the day, we needed coal miners, steel workers, tunnel diggers, shoe makers, etc… these industries are long gone. Over 300 million people reside in America. When is enough, enough?
    Posted by: psc | 06 January 2010 at 02:04 PM
    demographically, like any other developed countries, US is aging rapidly. Without immigration, the burden ratio between workers and retirees will not be able to sustain “american lifestyle”.
    It’ll be closer to northern europe, if not Italy or japan economic growth. And these countries has far more efficient population density compared to US. Healthcare is labor intensive.
    In order to sustain current fiscal policy (yes, huge deficit and military spending) US needs to grow at ~3% and that’s an impossible task with baby boomer entering retirement and the size of generation X.
    And this is assuming energy price and the position of dollar as international reserve are the same. If Dollar cease becoming global reserve, then price of a lot of raw material, including energy will be at the mercy of EU and Asia market, which will be about 5 to 10 times bigger as trade area. (euro, and asean+3)
    Hey, even scientific discovery and industrial innovation are fueled by manpower. Look at the phd stat. If the taiwanese reverse brain drain happens in china and India, without finding replacement, US industrial engine will be quickly fall into 3rd or 4th place within 2 decade.

  11. Abu Sinan says:

    Stopping Muslim immigration to the US dodges the question. There are already millions of Muslims in the US and a majority of them are American born, many of them from the African American and European American communities.
    I know, I am one. It also ignores the fact that the vast majority of Muslim Americans lead very law abidding and decent lives. More than a few of us have done and still do our bit to help our government and our country.

  12. samuelburke says:

    i’ll go along with the flow of the argument for arguments sake… so i’ll ask what then causes fourth or fifth generation american jews to support and advocate for israeli zionism?
    muslim extremist are just not as sophisticated as their counterpart and thereby seem more neanderthal. the muslims are in the front lines doing the fighting for their cause while the zionist supporters are in the backrooms agitating so that others do the warring.
    where do they get their training?
    is it in the synagogues or at home from the parents?
    there must be an answer because there is deffinitely a body of these individuals up and down academia and in political positions within the american body politic.

  13. Adam L Silverman says:

    Sara: Gender is essentially built into life course arguments. The life course literature largely focuses on young men as the data clearly shows that young women’s life course’s are very, very different. Even those that drift into some form of deviance and delinquency generally drift out by the time they are young adults due to a variety of reasons (getting married, becoming a care taker, having a child, employment). Young men tend to be biographically available far longer; well into the later 20s and 30s. The seminal authors for Life Course are Sampson and Laub and there work is very approachable.
    Samuelburke: as to Zionism among Jewish-Americans, this is, I think also a layered issue. The first is trying to determine whether by Zionism you just mean that Israel should exist or rather you’re referring to the much more aggressive and oft times violent revisionist Zionism of Likud and the natio-religious Zionism of the settler movements? I think the former is sort of the default for many American Jews, while the latter seems to appeal the way certain political and religious ideologies appeal to some Americans whether they’re Jewish or not. In this latter case I think the best explanations are found in the works of Professor Altemeyer, a political psychologist, who studies authoritarianism. You can find more on his work here:http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

  14. Fred Strack says:

    Given the recent damage to the US Economy perhaps it is time to profile the perpetrators on Wall Street. I suspect zero muslim MBAs but plenty of Harvard one’s. Then again perhaps our politicians think 14%+ unemployment, homelessness and broken families is not a threat to national securityl.
    As to population decline the proper response should be to Raise Wages, not import low wager, poorly educated foreign workers; then there is zero immigation problem.

  15. hope4usa says:

    First let me say I wholeheartedly concur with F. Strack’s comments.
    To return to the subject of Dr. Silverman’s post I refer you to Glenn Greenwald’s post http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/
    I believe the concepts in both posts are the same problem from different perspectives/direction and expand/explain the situation.
    For the record, I believe in Israel, their right to exist, to have a country. I also believe that they committed atrocities in Gaza and should be held accountable. I believe that this is the United States of America and that although they are our ally, that does not mean that our goals or methods are the same.

  16. jerseycityjoan says:

    Very interesting, thanks Dr. Silverman.
    I wonder:
    1) how much attention is the issue of criminality, terrorism and immigration getting in the academic world?; and
    2) is anyone in government paying attention to what’s being discovered?
    This is certainly something that should be considered as we debate future immigration policy. For lots of reasons I’ve felt that with our high legal and illegal immigration levels we’ve been blindly opening ourselves up to future grief. Now there’s more to worry about, apparently.

  17. optimax says:

    I read an article that stated 55% of male and 48% of female Harvard MBAs went to work on Wall Street.
    We are diverting too much attention and energy to the BVD bomber. What if it’s a smokescreen for a really big op? Some guy in a cave is out thinking us, but then again he doesn’t micromanage.

  18. Jose says:

    Dr Silverman, IMHO new “immigrants” are not melting in to American society like past ones.
    The new “Latinos” are not interested in becoming integrated to American society.
    Most would prefer to make money here, watch “Univision” and “Telemundo” (I believe number one and two in the Miami market), get the satellite channels for soccer games/cultural event from home, send their kids to “bi-lingual education” schools (which means native born Americans who can barely speak English) and listen to Spanish language radio stations (again dominant in the Miami market).
    Haitians are also making “progress” ever since Dade County was declared tri-lingual with the additional of Creole language.
    This is also happening in Los Angeles, Houston, Austin, etc (recent trip to Minnesota a contact told me she was learning Spanish because it was needed to communicate with workers).
    I wonder if this is also occurring in the Islamic communities?
    If you see the success of Spanish gangs in exploiting this “isolation”, makes you wonder what is happening in the Muslims areas.
    Just my two cents…

  19. optimax says:

    Airline airplanes are serviced by workers who can’t read the English manuals, only the foreman is required to know English. That’s why I don’t want to fly, not because of some guy with a crotch rocket or hot feet. The latter can be defeated but too much deregulation, putting the Randards in charge, will probably lead us once again into the jaws of defeat.

  20. Fred Strack says:

    I’m not surprised. However possession of an MBA (from Harvard or elsewhere) does not make one a competent manager or a crook. There’s plenty of bad management on Wall Street as well as some crooks. The lack of regulation has done nothing to deter either. Collective guilt – i.e. profiling all Harvard MBA’s because some are crooks is not an effeicinet law enforcement tool any more than profiling those born in Yemen, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere is effective to find a ‘potential’ terrorist. The latter is highly palatable in the MSM and among some members of the electorate. It’s much easier to have a thumb-rule than the to have to think.

  21. optimax says:

    I took your statement about profiling Harvard MBAs the same way the audience at the Globe reacted to Dick The Butchers line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
    You weren’t, but I was, surprised that over 50% of Harvard MBAs went to Wall St. It’s just another of many signs of where the money and power have coalesced. In fact I believe it is a certain “class” of people that are too big to fail and not the size of the financial institution, which in a more rational system would have been broken up into more manageable parts. Ater all the rest of us are allowed to fail and, if you listen to the wrong people (Citi credit cards, a sleazy mortgage lender or any of the other conmen in a low-wage, high-asset country such as ours), you are encouraged to fail. Ayan Rand was nothing more than a Social Darwinist. Her followers nothing more than predators that don’t live by natural law but make the laws and break them when it is to their advantage to do so. Example: the UBS whistleblower just got 40 months in jail, the people who got caught hiding their money in Swiss banks were fined and put on probation. The message is clear.
    One of my best friends has a MBA. He is very successful and has earned every dollar he has made. He is also an ethical person. I don’t believe all Harvard MBAs are slimeballs but am sure some are–in fact, one was elected to high office.

  22. optimax says:

    I meant wage-poor and asset-rich.. Those terms are from a paper by a Morgan Stanley analyst who predicted the bursting of the housing bubble in 2004 or 5.

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