The stereotype of a disaffected youth finding solace in an underground movement might not be that far off in the case of a Massachusetts man appearing in court Friday for charges of attempting to bomb key government buildings to support Al Qaeda’s cause, say some terrorism experts.
By many accounts, 26-year-old Rezwan Ferdaus lived a good life. He played drums in a band in high school. After graduating from the private, secular Northeastern University, he lived in the basement of his family’s whitewashed home in an upper-class suburb west of Boston.
But at Mr. Ferdaus's court appearance last month, his mother, surrounded by a large contingent of friends and extended family, sobbed in the benches as guards walked her son in handcuffed, his tired but calm eyes meeting hers. Ferdaus is charged with six counts related to plotting to kill US soldiers in Iraq and to bomb the Pentagon and US Capitol with explosives carried by model airplanes. Facing more than 80 years in prison, he pleaded not guilty to all counts. He is slated to be back in federal court Friday afternoon in Worcester, Mass., for a bail hearing, where prosecutors plan to ask he be held without bail.
Terrorism experts say Ferdaus fits the bill for a typical Al Qaeda recruit.
“He seems like a classic case,” says Michael Ryan, a terrorism expert for the Middle East Institute who has spent the past two years researching radical jihadist Internet material for his next book.
Al Qaeda Internet magazines can be frank about the kinds of people they seek: isolated, oftentimes those who feel humiliated by society and, surprisingly, people who are not knowledgeable about Islam, Mr. Ryan says.
This last point, he says, “is counterintuitive to what you usually get in American news.” Al Qaeda believes Muslim clerics have sold out to governments and institutions, so longtime practitioners of the religion aren’t helpful to Al Qaeda’s cause. The people who don’t understand Islam very well, perhaps because they lack a religious education or are recent converts, tend to be the ones who jump at Al Qaeda’s romanticized version of the religion, Ryan says.
It is not known whether Ferdaus grew up as a Muslim or converted on his own. But court documents written by FBI agents who monitored Ferdaus paint the picture of a man who turned radical after being inspired by right-wing religious websites and videos he began browsing more than a year ago.
“He realized ‘how evil’ America is and that jihad is the solution,” wrote an FBI agent in an affidavit, quoting Ferdaus.
Ryan says Al Qaeda recruiters also look for young men with no prior criminal record or previous affiliation with radical groups. Except for a prank he pulled with his friends in high school, Ferdaus fits that model, as well. And his Internet browsing seems to be his first contact with the organized right-wing.
Ferdaus, who studied physics, also matches patterns of other would-be bombers in the US. They often have some kind of technical education and feel disconnected from wider society, Ryan says.
Al Qaeda preys on that detachment and acts “as secret friends” on the Internet, offering them the chance to become heroes, he says.
Cambridge-based Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert who has served on the staff of the National Security Council, agrees with that assessment of most young, American Al Qaeda sympathizers.
“The typical recruit, the one thing we can say they share, is that they are seeking an identity different from what they’re getting in their suburban town,” she says.
Ms. Stern goes so far as to call the recent increase in terrorist plots by Americans of all radical beliefs “a fad.”
“It’s a fad-ish way to express alienation or dissatisfaction,” she says.
A modern education, suburbia, and an untraceable sense of loneliness: There’s an aspect of this case that rings true for many people.
“Anyone who’s ever been in adolescence, there were moments we thought, ‘Maybe there isn’t a place for me in all of this,’ ” Ryan says.
For Ferdaus, joining jihad may have quelled those doubts.
“And then [Al Qaeda] just comes in here on a magic carpet,“ Ryan says, “trying to give meaning to somebody’s life.”