A new report by the Anti-Defamation League said that since the start of 2015, 60 people in the United States “have been linked to Islamic extremist activity.” Four of them have lived in New Jersey.
The report, originally release in April and updated on Aug. 11, is entitled “2015 Sees Dramatic Spike in Islamic Extremism Arrests.”
One of the Jerseyans is Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, a 47-year-old former Air Force mechanic from Neptune, who was arrested in January for traveling to Egypt to enlist in Islamic State. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempting to provide material support to a terror organization.
Prosecutors said searches of his laptop revealed on-line queries about crossing points into the Islamic State and videos showing ISIS executions.
Among entries on his Facebook page were anti-Semitic and anti-Israel posts as well as those supporting Hamas.
Although Pugh, who was not born a Muslim, may not have been acting in concert with others, three other New Jerseyans are accused of conspiring on behalf of ISIS.
Two of them, Alaa and Nader Saadeh, are brothers.
Nader Saadeh, 21, who lived in Rutherford, was arrested in Jordan in May on suspicion of supporting ISIS. Federal prosecutors said he “wanted to form a small army” to fight for the Islamic State.
His brother, Alaa, 23, a West New York resident, was arrested before making a trip to Jordan allegedly for a similar purpose. The brothers, along with three New Yorkers and Samuel Rahamin Topaz of Fort Lee, are accused of being part of a conspiracy to build a pressure-cooker bomb for an attack on behalf of ISIS.
Topaz has reportedly entered into plea negotiations with federal prosecutors in Newark.
Like many other American young people who have been charged recently with wanting to enlist in Islamic terrorist groups, the arrest of Topaz came as a surprise to friends from Fort Lee High School who remembered him as an actor and a member of the track and football teams.
His alleged transformation from that mainstream American background did not, however, come as a surprise to Oren Segal, director of ADL’s Center on Extremism.
“Look at the profiles of the people who have been arrested here in the past few years. They are suburban white kids, African-American kids, Hispanic kids — a cross-section of Americans, and many of them are not raised within the Muslim community at all,” he told NJ Jewish News in an Aug. 17 phone interview. “They don’t know anything about the Koran. All they know about Islam is that they want to engage in violence on behalf of an extremist movement. That has nothing to do with Islam.”
‘Always a target’
Segal said only one-fourth of the people who have been arrested on charges connected with Islamic terrorism in the past several years are officially converts to Islam.
“A lot of them are converting, but they are not converting to the orthodox Islam you’ll find at your local mosque. They are converting to al Qaida’s version or ISIS’s version — the on-line propaganda version. They are people who have some cognitive issues in their lives and are finding this most violent, most radical interpretation of this religion and are attracted to that,” he said.
According to Segal, in previous generations, such individuals might have been attracted to the left-wing Weather Underground or right-wing militia movements.
“The ability to reach people with a video or a sound bite or reach them with whatever platform is changing the nature of jihad. You don’t have to be part of a group,” he said. “Anybody can become part of al Qaida or ISIS by carrying out an attack on its behalf. Period. That is what they are hoping for. Al Qaida and ISIS don’t care if someone has mental issues. They just want someone to go act.”
He said ISIS is especially skilled in recruiting young people by using social media to counteract the vicious image it and other violent fundamentalist groups receive in the mainstream press.
“We have seen the strategy that al Qaida and ISIS and others use to tell people that they can be part of the movement by staying at home in the comfort of their own couch,” Segal said. “That means by either helping to create propaganda or by carrying out attacks in the U.S. in their local communities instead of risk getting caught by traveling abroad.”
As far as direct threats to the Jewish community are concerned, Segal said the recruits are “very much on the fringes of the fringes. When you look at the total population of this country, it is very rare for someone to be arrested for any charge. But based on history, and based on what has happened in Europe, these groups are increasingly using anti-Semitism, and Jews are always going to be a target — it’s not like we can downplay that completely.”
NJJN asked the Council on American-Islamic Relations for its reaction to the ADL’s report.
A July 15 statement sent to NJJN by James Sues, executive director of CAIR New Jersey, said in part that “opposition to violent extremism is consistent among American Muslim leadership. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their ideological allies kill more Muslims than people of any other faith. At the same time, violent extremist recruiters troll the internet seeking to conscript Americans to their mindset…. CAIR is a natural enemy of violent extremists.”
But, it added, “there is a need for the government to acknowledge and reform its pattern of constitutionally-questionable law enforcement practices targeting the Muslims.”