Expert Commentary

Analyzing the Islamic extremist phenomenon in the United States

2011 report by Rice University seeks to identify demographic trends among persons suspected of ties to Islamic extremist activity.

In the post-9/11 era, the practice of establishing profiles to help identify potential terrorists has been the subject of significant public controversy. Despite this, building such data has remained a core goal of law enforcement and intelligence officials.

A 2011 report by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, “Analyzing the Islamic Extremist Phenomenon in the United States: A Study of Recent Activity,” categorized the demographics of persons who were suspected of having ties to terrorist activity between January 2009 and April 2011. The researchers primarily used public documents and press reports relating to suspects who were arrested, detained or deported; they cautioned that they “did not have access to law enforcement or classified information.”

The paper’s findings include:

  • Over the study period, 104 persons were suspected of Islamic extremist activity and subjected to law enforcement action in the United States. Some 60% of them were U.S. citizens: 31% were born in the United States; 22% were naturalized citizens; and 7% were dual citizens. Females comprised 8% of suspects overall.
  • At the time of their arrest, 69 of the 104 individuals studied (66%) had traveled overseas or were attempting to travel overseas to countries with strong terrorist group presences (e.g., Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia).
  • Thirty-four of the 104 persons were born in the United States; 14 of them had prior criminal histories. Additionally, 76% were younger than 34 years old and 32% were younger than 24 years of age.
  • Information on religious affiliation was available for 31 of the 34 U.S.-born persons; of these, 14 were born into Muslim families, and 17 were converts to Islam.
  • A total of 61 persons (approximately 40%) were foreign-born. Some 46% of these had become naturalized citizens (including dual citizens), 15% were permanent resident aliens and 8% entered the United States on visas. Data on age existed for 58 of these foreign-born persons; of these, approximately 81% were 34 years old or younger and 46% were 24 years old or younger.
  • Of the 104 persons studied, 63% had ties to Al Qaeda or its affiliates.

The paper’s authors concluded that “no one, all-encompassing profile can be made of the individuals,” and that the “data call for the examination of subgroups and the safeguarding against the development of incorrect stereotypes that might hamper threat detection.”

Tags: security, terrorism, religion

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