Long-feared by U.S. intelligence, Muslim radicalization is gaining momentum in the United States, hit by a spate of recent cases featuring youths recruited and trained overseas for jihad, analysts say.
The latest case -- five US nationals arrested in Pakistan Wednesday on suspicion of plotting an attack -- deepened concern that militant Islamist groups are successfully enlisting potential attackers inside the United States, much as they have in Britain.
"We also as a community realize there is a problem," Nihad Awad told reporters in announcing that his organization, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), had steered worried parents of the five to the FBI.
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He and others insisted the problem involved only a small minority of the Muslim community in the United States, but the implications remain disquieting because of how easily US nationals can move across borders or within the United States. Related article: FBI questions terror suspects
"We've known for several years that Al-Qaeda and its allies like Lashkar-e-Taiba have put a high priority on recruiting assets in the Pakistani communities in the United States, and the United Kingdom, the rest of the world," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official.
Riedel, who led a White House review of US strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this year, said a recruit with a US, British or Canadian passport is "a gold mine for them."
"Put it this way: they know that 15 young Saudi males are not going to get into the United States on one-way visas to do flight training," he told AFP.
"What they need are people who are not going to arouse any suspicion when they arrive at JFK, or LAX or Washington-Dulles (airports). It's a high priority for them."
The US intelligence community warned in a 2007 assessment that the spread of radical Internet websites and a growing number of "self-generating" cells in Western countries "indicate that the radical and violent segment of the West's Muslim population is expanding, including in the United States."
But it noted that the "internal Muslim terrorist threat is not likely to be as severe as it is in Europe."
In the past year alone, however, there have been a dozen cases in the United States involving jihadist plots, attacks and other incidents, some involving homegrown radicals but others with direct links to extremist groups in Pakistan and Somalia.
David Headley, the son of a Pakistani diplomat and an American woman, was charged this week for acting as a scout for the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba in the Mumbai attacks last year, and plotting to target a Danish newspaper for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant, was arrested September 20 on charges of plotting a bombing spree in New York amid allegations he received explosives training in Pakistan.
Fourteen Somali-American youths were charged in Minnesota with conspiracy to support terrorism and other offenses after allegedly receiving military training in Somalia, and joining in a bitter civil war.
"We don't know as much yet about the new case in Virginia, but it would appear to be another case where the radicalization process taking root among Americans of Pakistani, or Afghan or Somali origin," said Riedel.
Some analysts say the United States has been slow to respond and still has little understanding of the scope and nature of the problem.
"Twelve warning signs is 12 too many," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University in Washington.
"For too long, I think we may have been complacent in the United States, thinking this was a problem that occurred elsewhere and that it wasn't a problem we really had to address in the US," he added, acknowledging it was difficult to determine the extent of the development.
Rick Nelson, a retired naval officer who served with the National Counterterrorism Center, said the rate of recruitment of US-based Muslims was unknown and pointed to the difficulty of tracking a trend that involves multiple groups with varying objectives.
"There's absolutely active recruiting done by these groups because again these western individuals hold passports that allow them to travel between countries; it gives them the access, it gives them the new face for their terrorist and extremist ideologies," he said.
"Certainly it's almost a crown jewel in their extremist efforts."
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