WASHINGTON — Abdulhakim Muhammad was born Carlos Bledsoe, played high school football and attended business school in college. He mowed his grandmother's lawn. He also converted to Islam at a Memphis mosque, studied in Yemen and while there fell in with a group of fundamental extremists.
By the time he returned to the United States, federal law enforcement officials say he had been dangerously radicalized as a domestic terrorist. When he allegedly opened fire with an SKS automatic rifle on a Little Rock, Ark., Army recruiting station, he became part of a rising trend — one of 50 Americans arrested on terror charges in the last two years.
From May 2009 to last November, authorities broke up 22 homegrown terror plots, compared with 21 during the previous eight years.
The House Homeland Security Committee opens hearings Wednesday into the terrorist threat in the United States. In the weeks ahead, the panel will hold sessions on the domestic radicalization of American Muslims.
Most of the suspects are being recruited in this country by foreign organizations through the Internet, community activities or in some instances, local mosques.
For al-Qaida, tapping into a new generation of potential terrorists already here is easier and cheaper than finding ways to get attackers into the country, though the result has not approached anything close to the death toll of Sept. 11, 2001.
""The threat is real, the threat is different and the threat is constant,"" Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said recently.
Some suspects have displayed a chilling dedication.
Muhammad, charged with killing one soldier and wounding another, has written the judge asking to plead guilty to capital murder. He is ready to die for al-Qaida.
""I wasn't insane or post-traumatic, nor was I forced to do this act,"" he wrote from jail. The shootings, he said, were ""justified according to Islamic Laws and the Islamic Religion, Jihad — to fight those who wage war on Islam and Muslims.""
The committee chairman, Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., has rebuffed claims from religious and civil rights groups that the hearings will unfairly target Muslim-Americans. He remains determined to blunt what he calls ""the significant change in al-Qaida tactics and strategy.""
""Al-Qaida has realized the difficulty it faces in launching attacks against our homeland from overseas,"" he said Tuesday. ""Thus it has adjusted its tactics and is now attempting to radicalize from within our country.""
Terror consultant Evan F. Kohlmann testified in the 2008 trial of Mohamad Ibrahim Schnewer, a Philadelphia cabdriver convicted and given life for his part in a six-man conspiracy to ""kill as many Americans as possible"" at the Fort Dix Army Base in New Jersey.
Kohlmann said the Internet, videos and other electronic and digital platforms helped drive the plot.
""The information age means you don't need training camps to become a terrorist; all you need is an Internet connection,"" he said. ""The Web is terrorism's new frontier, offering both persuasive inspiration and practical instruction. In fact, these homegrown terrorist cells come at essential zero cost to al-Qaida.""
Only two cases have produced bloodshed since the 2001 attacks — the Little Rock ambush and the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting in 2009 that killed 13 and injured 32.
Other plots were broken up by government informants or undercover agents, though in some cases defense attorneys have complained that authorities helped them plan their crimes and build their bombs, only to arrest them at the last minute.
Some were poorly organized and carelessly planned. Others fell apart by pure luck, such as when a car bomb failed to ignite on a Saturday evening in New York's Times Square. It was placed there by Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen, Connecticut financial analyst and father of two. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life without parole. Yet he left for prison unnerved. ""Allah Akbar!"" he told the court.
Mitchell D. Silber, director of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department, said ""the vast majority"" of Americans who embrace violent jihad do not start out as religious people or very knowledgeable about Islam teachings. But through ""self-identification"" they begin to study Islam, usually after some crisis in their life.
Indoctrination follows, and the individual ""intensifies his beliefs, wholly adopts extremist ideology and concludes, without question, that action is required,"" Silber said. Then ""potential targets are chosen, surveillance and reconnaissance begins"" and finally, ""jihadization"" with an assault rifle or car bomb.
In Hempstead, Texas, a window washer named Barry Walter Bujol was seen visiting his local library to go online and read the latest postings from al-Qaida leaders, such as American-born Anwar Awlaki. He allegedly exchanged e-mails with Awlaki, who sent him an attachment called ""42 Ways of Supporting Jihad.""
Bujol often went to the library after prayer services at a nearby mosque. The father of two young children, he had recently become a devout Muslim. Last year, he was indicted for attempting to aid terrorists; he faces 20 years in prison if convicted.
In Little Rock, Muhammad is scheduled for trial on Feb. 23, despite wishing to plead guilty. Prosecutors hope he gets what he wants — the death penalty. In one of his letters to the judge, Muhammad wrote, ""I await sentencing.""