While immigrants draw much of the attention, it’s their children who are proving to be the most fruitful recruiting ground for radical jihad in the U.S., accounting for at least half of the deadly attacks over the past decade.
The latest instance of the second-generation terrorist syndrome played out in Orlando, Florida, over the weekend when Omar Mateen, son of immigrants from Afghanistan, went on a jihad-inspired rampage, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
He follows in the footsteps of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino, California, terrorists who was the son of Pakistanis; Nadir Soofi, one of two men who attacked a drawing competition in Garland, Texas, last year and whose father was from Pakistan; and then-Maj. Nidal Hassan, the child of Palestinian immigrants whose shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 set off the modern round of deadly lone-wolf attacks.
In other cases, attackers were immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children. They grew up in the U.S. but were besieged by questions of identity.
“Historically, the ‘high stress’ generation for American immigrants has been second generation,” said former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden. “Mom and Pop can rely on the culture of where they came from. Their grandchildren will be (more or less) thoroughly American. The generation in between, though, is anchored neither in the old or in the new. They often are searching for self or identity beyond self.”
Alejandro Beutel, a researcher at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, said many first-generation Americans face identity issues and often that’s healthy, spurring a desire for greater civic involvement. But some people–particularly those from Muslim-majority societies–can have deeper struggles, caught between seeing themselves as fully American or as part of their parents’ home cultures.
Hedieh Mirahmadi, president of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education and an authority on countering violent extremism, said part of the struggle is “religious literacy,” and a saying in Muslim communities that “if you don’t teach your child Islam someone else will.”
Parents are often culturally Muslim but their children are more religiously devoted and seek out instruction online, where they are ripe for recruitment.
“There’s a responsibility for immigrant families to realize that their children may be learning religion online and there may be deviant interpretations online they may be subjected to,” she said.