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Domestic militants harder to profile: experts

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The changing face of U.S. homegrown extremism has officials and analysts worried as a growing number of unlikely militants in small-town America radicalize themselves using the Internet and plot attacks at home and abroad.

The ease with which people can convert online to extremism is making it harder to profile possible militants within the United States, they say.

“It’s no longer some bearded man in his mid-30s who looks Saudi Arabian. We have to look at blond blue-eyed women too,” Charles McKenna, director of New Jersey’s state Office of Homeland Security told Reuters.

On Thursday, Colleen LaRose, a white, blond Pennsylvania woman who called herself “Jihad Jane,” pleaded not guilty to charges of providing material support to terrorists and conspiring to kill in a foreign country.

She is accused of plotting with others over the Internet to kill a Swedish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet Mohammed in a way that was offensive to Muslims, and of wanting to become a martyr to Islam.

Prosecutors said the case “shatters any lingering thought that we can spot a terrorist based on appearance.”

Arrests of Americans accused of terrorism are “coming at a much more rapid clip, almost one case per month,” said Rick Nelson, director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Homeland Security Program.

“Now you’re getting individuals that are just going online because they have a grudge -- I think it’s a troubling trend,” he said.

Sharif Mobley, 26, a New Jersey laborer, was detained in Yemen this month on suspicion of being an al Qaeda militant. Yet his friends and family say he showed no signs of extremism before moving to the impoverished Arab country.

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“Homegrown violent extremists are not clustered in one geographic area, nor are they confined to any one type of setting -- they can appear in cities, smaller towns, and rural parts of the country,” FBI Director Robert Mueller told a House of Representatives subcommittee on Wednesday.

“This diffuse and dynamic threat -- which can take the form of a lone actor -- is of particular concern,” Mueller said.


U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has become increasingly worried about the threat posed by homegrown anti-American militants, a concern underscored by two recent cases.

David Headley of Chicago was due to plead guilty on Thursday to helping scout locations for the 2008 Mumbai assaults that killed some 166 people, including six Americans.

And Afghan-born Najibullah Zazi, who attended a U.S. high school, admitted in February to trying to bomb New York City subways in a plot that officials said was one of the most serious security threats to the United States since the September 11 attacks.

Zazi successfully connected with al-Qaeda to plot his attack, but officials say most domestic militants resort to their own means, using the Internet as a guide.

“Most worrisome I think is the Internet,” Mueller said. “It has not been communities, persons in the communities, it has been the Internet.”

Colleen LaRose is pictured in this handout released by Site Intelligence Group March 10, 2010. Larose, who also goes by the pseudonyms of "Fatima LaRose" and "JihadJane", has been charged with plotting to kill a Swedish man and trying to recruit fighters via the Internet to commit violent attacks overseas, the U.S. Justice Department said. REUTERS/Site Intelligence Group/Handout

Some experts suggest that the threat posed by such militants can be exaggerated.

“They’re real amateurs,” said Scott Atran, a professor at the University of Michigan. “There’s no real organized jihad out there.”

The United States is not at risk of large-scale Islamist radicalization as seen in Europe, where analysts say a failure to integrate second- and third-generation children of immigrants has left young Muslims more vulnerable to extremism.

Economic opportunities in the United States are better and the country’s Muslims are more resistant to Islamist extremism, but they are not immune to the radical message.

“People have been susceptible to extremist messages since the U.S. was founded,” said James Forest, director of Terrorism Studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “All kinds of people go down the rabbit hole.”

Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Michelle Nichols and Xavier Briand