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The rising threat of home grown extremism in US

Watch Peter Marshall's report for Newsnight in full

Five US citizens accused of plotting jihad, attempting to join Al-Qaeda and planning terrorist attacks are due to appear in court in Pakistan's Punjab province on Tuesday. Peter Marshall considers whether a lack of opportunity for open debate in the US might have led these young Muslims to extremism.

When five US students were reported missing in November last year, their relatives had no inkling they had left the country. Yet nine days later the young men had turned up on the other side of the world in deep trouble.

So how did these young men go from quiet lives in a Virginia suburb to terrorism charges and a prison cell in Pakistan in little more than a week?

Police in Pakistan say the five had been trying to join militant groups for terrorist training. The Pakistanis also say there are emails with an Al-Qaeda recruiter. It is alleged the Americans may also have planned attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan, or on targets back in the United States.

Sharing the American dream

Mustafa Abu Mariyam, Youth coordinator at mosque
Mr Abu Mariyam says he thought the five were "as American as apple pie"

The US has always taken comfort from the idea that American Muslims are well assimilated and well educated, live in diverse communities and earn more than the average wage.

They share the American dream, and until recently it had been assumed young American Muslims were not vulnerable to the clarion call of the jihadis.

Mustafa Abu Maryam, a youth co-ordinator at the neighbourhood mosque, describes what has happened to the five students as "jaw-dropping."

"But we have to stay strong and see what we can do to prevent other youth from taking a view that is radical and extreme."

Mustafa says he avoided talking politics and never considered counselling his college-educated friends against the extremist Islamic message.

"We felt that it was understood. We still feel that the vast majority of youth understand the right and wrong."

In future, he says, his approach will be different.

Farewell video

Americans who we had assumed were somewhat immune from this narrative, who were integrated into American society, who were born into Islam, not converts... are now falling prey to the ideology and committing to it
Juan Zarate, US Deputy National Security Advisor, 2005-9

Relatives of the five men reportedly found a farewell video message, showing scenes of war and saying Muslims must be defended.

But the lawyer for the families, Nina Ginsberg, maintains it is not a martyrdom video or a call to arms.

"It was not a call to action in terms of 'Go out and kill the people who are killing Muslims'. It could easily have been a call to people to go out and demonstrate in front of an embassy 'You can't kill Muslims like this, you're killing young innocent children who are the victims of your drones, your tanks. '

There has been a rise in home grown terrorism in the US in recent months - the army major at Fort Hood who shot 13 people dead, the man in Chicago accused of helping plot the Mumbai massacre, the self proclaimed jihadi from Tennessee who murdered a soldier outside an army recruitment office.

It is a situation which has surprised Juan Zarate, former US Deputy National Security Advisor.

"You're seeing second, third generation Americans who we had assumed were somewhat immune from this narrative, who were integrated into American society, who were born into Islam, not converts. They are now falling prey to the ideology and committing to it."

A lack of open debate

Mohamed Elibiary, Counter-terrorism advisor
Mohamed Elibiary advocates more open debate in the US

Mohamed Elibiary is a counter terrorism advisor who has advised President Barack Obama's Homeland Security Council on home grown terror. He wants more open debate about the big issues that concern many moderate Muslims, like civilian casualties of US troops.

He says that suppressing discussion is dangerous.

"There's a good chunk of Americans who think if you're holding these discussions then you're not fully on board with the current policy and the current war on terror, so therefore they start questioning your loyalty and patriotism and wondering if you're an enemy within."

So could the young men held in Pakistan have felt inhibited about discussing their concerns in public and sought an outlet online where they became radicalised?

Mohamed Elibiary advocates a subtle approach.

"Not every talker wanting to hit back against the government for bad policies is necessarily going to do something. And you can always steer a good chunk of these youth into mentorship and counselling programmes that can then put their life back on course."

That option is too late for the five Americans in Pakistan. They claim they are being tortured in prison where they could spend the rest of their lives if found guilty.

US men allege torture in Pakistan
18 Jan 10 |  South Asia

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