The FBI’s worst fears that hidden homegrown terrorist groups could take root in this country were fanned here in the summer of 2005, when four young Muslim men were charged with conspiring “to levy war against the United States” via deadly attacks on military installations and synagogues in Southern California.

The men belonged to what Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales called a “radical Islamic organization” named Jamiyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS), or Assembly of True Islam. They were discovered before they could carry out their alleged plans.

Although Gonzales claimed an intelligence victory, the FBI had only stumbled upon JIS. Numbers on a cellphone dropped during a gas-station holdup led local police to an apartment and a computer with documents that authorities said outlined a terrorism spree.

None of the four — three U.S.-born citizens and one Pakistani immigrant — fit a terrorist profile. They had no ties to foreign extremists or radical imams, and their public behavior had drawn no attention. JIS was also news to officials at the California state prison where a man accused of founding the group was serving a lengthy sentence for robbery and allegedly was directing JIS operations from his cell.

The discovery was an ominous surprise to federal law enforcement, whose senior officials now regularly refer to the case in speeches warning of the homegrown threat.

But the high-profile indictments, announced at news conferences in Los Angeles and Washington, were unsettling to Southern California’s half-million-strong Muslim community for a different reason.

“They’re not Muslims,” declared Shakeel Syed, head of the 75-mosque Islamic Shura Council of Southern California and a government-approved chaplain who has visited the four men in jail, where they await trial this year. “They don’t know anything about Islam.”

Self-styled converts with the apple-pie surnames of Patterson, Washington and James, the Americans are “gangbangers, basically,” Syed said dismissively, “petty criminals” incapable of responding even to his standard Islamic greetings. The Pakistani, described by Syed as a clueless 21-year-old, “I felt sorry for.” . . .

When Muslims ask “What should we look for?” Mudd advises them to “think of every 15-to-26-year-old ostracized from the congregation,” saying, “I need you to tell me when you see this.”

But Hussam Ayloush, head of the Southern California branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, warned that Muslim youths already feel singled out in this country. “I don’t think the looks, how many times a person prays, how strong their political views are should indicate anything. The red line for me, when I start noticing, is when someone starts justifying terrorism . . . when they say the West is killing Muslims” and that’s the only way they could respond.

U.S. military involvement in the Middle East and what American Muslim youths perceive as challenges at home to their religion and patriotism have placed them, far more than their parents, in “a real identity crisis,” Ayloush said. Increased radicalization “is possible,” he added. “Now, it’s not real, but I see it on the horizon.”


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