United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists

(Among the topics discussed by Mr. Bergen is the Boston Marathon, April, 2013)

Peter Bergen, prolific author, and CNN national security analyst has written a number of important books dealing with terrorism.  They include monographs on Osama Bin-Laden and three others which were New York Times best sellers.  His latest work UNITED STATES OF JIHAD: INVESTIGATING AMERICA’S HOMEGROWN TERRORISTS is an important addition to two other recent books, Scott Shane’s OPERATION TROY and Charlie Savage’s POWER WARS: INSIDE OBAMA’S POST 9/11 PRESIDENCY.  Bergen builds on the work of these authors in trying to explain why American citizens have engaged in treason against their country by engaging in, or planning acts of terrorism.  Bergen further explores how American institutions and the Moslem community have responded to the terror threat and how this threat on American soil has changed us.  One could argue that Bergen’s book is a who’s who of American jihadism, beginning with the Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, Omar Hamami who grew up in Alabama and fought for al-Shabaab in Somalia, David Coleman Headley who helped plan and carry out the Mumbai massacre, and numerous others.

Bergen concentrates on the 330 militants who have been arrested and charged with terrorism crimes in the United States, 80% of which are American citizens or legal permanent residents.  He argues that they appear to be as average, well educated, and emotionally stable as typical Americans.  According to Bergen their average age is 29, more than a third are married – many with children, and one out of six are women.  There is nothing particularly special about them as they are just ordinary people.  If this is so, then why have so many engaged in terrorism, and why is the “home grown” threat a major source of concern in the intelligence community?  Bergen argues forcefully that it is due to a number of criteria.  First, Moslem outrage at United States foreign policy in the Middle East is a dominant theme.  Anger about American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, American drone strikes in Yemen causing tremendous collateral damage, the bombing of Syria, and U.S. support for Israel all contribute to this feeling.  Secondly, jihadism offers people an opportunity to be somebody, and at the same time belong to something bigger than themselves. What is interesting about this threat to the American homeland is that since 9/11, 45 Americans have been killed by Islamic terrorists, but at the same time 48 Americans have been killed by right wing extremists.

(Anwar al-Awlaki, American born Islamic cleric, October 4, 2001)

Bergen examines a wide range of terrorists who originated on American soil drawing on his vast network of sources in the intelligence world.  He argues that most are second generation immigrants who did not start out as observant Muslims.  However, once they became devout they often left their mosques because what was being preached was not radical enough.  In addition, they would congregate with like-minded individuals and bond by watching jihadi videos, and simulate combat by playing “paint-ball.”  Bonding activities are extremely important in creating a jihadist community with an ultra-fundamentalist outlook. Bergen also dispels a number of myths in dealing with his subject by arguing that most of these jihadist had no formal links to outside terror organizations, further most terrorists began their education in a secular environment, not madrassas.  In reviewing their studies it is clear that there is a strong link between their technical education and their terrorist activities, as 50% of them attended college.  Overall, social bonds between jihadists were more important than ideology.

In presenting his thesis Bergen explores the activities of numerous terrorists, many of which are known to those who follow the news.  The individual who takes up more time than any other is the American born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who was the mentor to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber” who tried to take down a Northwest Airliner over Detroit Christmas day, 2009.  Awlaki is also linked to Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood killer and numerous others.  Awlaki stands out as a sophisticated individual who used his American upbringing and cultural knowledge with his social media savvy to recruit jihadist in the United States and eventually was killed by an American drone in Yemen authorized by President Obama which had sparked an intense debate as to whether it was legal for the United States government to assassinate one of its citizens.  Scott Shane’s book explores this controversy in greater detail than Bergen, but the author does a good job summarizing the most salient points in the debate and points out that “t follow the trail of Awlaki’s influence is to trace the post 9-11 evolution in evolving Americans.”  Of the 330 jihadists charged or convicted in the United States, more than 80 had Awlakis writing and sermons in their possession, and another 7 more corresponded with him or traveled to Yemen to meet him.

(Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston Marathon, April, 2013)

Bergen labels these American terrorists as “lone wolves.”  One of these individuals described is Carl Bledsoe, a native of Memphis, TN who was self-radicalized and wound up killing one marine and wounding another at a marine recruiting center in Little Rock, AK on June 1, 2009.  He follows this with an in depth exploration of the motivations and actions of Major Nidal Hassan, a military psychiatrist whose conversion to fundamentalism differed from Bledsoe in that he was already a Muslim.  But their radical journey had many similarities including their gradual isolation from their families, preoccupation with piety, and what was considered to be a true Muslim.  They both embraced Salafist ideas and practices as do most jihadists, and as they looked at US foreign policy they became obsessed with the idea of Jihad to defend Islam.

26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
The gruesome terror attacks began on 26th November and continued till 29th November, where Indian security services killed 9 out of 10 terrorists and captured Ajmal Amir Kasab, alive to regain control of South Mumbai terror sites i.e. the Leopold Café, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Taj Mahal, the Oberoi & Trident, Cama Hospital and Nariman House.(AP photo)
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
Mumbai was witnessing one of the worst terrorist attacks in the history of India. Leopold Cafe in Colaba was attacked first when five terrorists opened fire at the cafe.(AFP photo)
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
The attack left behind indelible scars… bullet marks on the walls and counter; the mirrors broken; doors with holes and a mini-crater on the marbled floor, caused by the grenade attack.(AFP photo)
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
This was perhaps one of the most heartbreaking scenes for any Mumbaikar. Images tell the story of the barbaric assault by terrorists who held the Taj Mahal hotel to ransom for 58 hours.(AFP photo)
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai


Bergen reviews the close calls that have occurred since 9-11 discussing the case of Najibullah Zazi, who along with two others tried to replicate the London underground bombing of 2005 on the New York City subway system.  He was thwarted by the FBI after receiving a tip from the British intelligence.  Another case is that of Faisal Shazad, who drove a bomb laden van into Times Square in Manhattan on May 1, 2010.  Trained by the Pakistani Taliban, the bomb did not explode due to poor components.  The focal point was not any intelligence, but US drones over Pakistan that did not allow for sufficient training.  The key for Bergen is that these individuals fit the profile he discusses which was also accepted by American intelligence analysts.  But in fairness to law enforcement, Bergen points out the difficulties in tracking lone wolves.

(arrest of Najibullah Zazi who attempted to set of a bomb in Times Square, Manhattan on May 1, 2010)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how the Obama administration has approached the domestic terror threat.  Soon after the failure of the “underwear bomber” over Detroit, President Obama ordered a vast increase in the use of drones and NSA surveillance programs, the most controversial of which was the bulk collection of American telephone Meta data.  After the Edward Snowden fiasco this program was rolled back and Bergen argues it had little effect on preventing terrorism and traditional approaches to intelligence were more reliable.  Today, Republican presidential candidates describe Obama’s approach to the war on terror as rather feckless, however if one examines his role as commander and chief one sees a continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a marked increase in the use of drones as compared to the Bush administration.  According to conservative estimates, by the end of 2015 the Obama administration had presided over the killing between 3-4,000 people in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Bergen aptly summarizes his view as Obama dryly remarked, “Turns out I’m really good at killing people.”  Didn’t know that was going to be a strong suit of mine.”  If you are interested in an in depth analysis of Obama administration practices and their legalities consult Charlie Savage’s POWER WARS.

Another important aspect of Bergen’s narrative is the approach taken by American intelligence agencies.  We witness the development of the NYPD’s separate intelligence department that is almost up to par with the CIA and FBI.  We also witness the continued issue of sharing intelligence and acting in concert for the greater good of the American people.  The major change in the FBI’s approach to terrorism after 9/11 would be its transformation from a crime solving organization into entities whose primary mission was to prevent terrorist attacks.  The NYPD’s creation of a separate intelligence component allowed it to pursue a similar approach.  Over the last decade and a half over 15,000 informants have been employed, and numerous sting operations of suspected terrorists designed to root out terror plots, but this has resulted in an increasing number of complaints of entrapment.  In addition, in 2004 the National Counterterrorism Center was created to connect “the dots” between all intelligence agencies.  Bergen provides an astute analysis of American intelligence policies including their concrete successes, ”near misses,” and failures, including a useful chapter on the Tsarnaev brothers who were responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing in April, 2013.

Bergen correctly arguing that the older of the brothers, Tamerlan fit the NYPD terror profile and radicalized his younger brother, Jahar who was extremely secular and Americanized.  The bombing could have been prevented if not for another case of missed signals, and of a lack of communication between U.S. law enforcement agencies.  If FBI allegations are correct, Tamerlan was involved in a triple murder in Waltham, MA in 2011 and was a dangerous killer long before April, 2013; one must ask how did he not appear on the “no-fly list,” particularly after warnings from Russian intelligence in 2011? Tamerlan would fly to Dagestan in the Caucasus and try and join the Union of the Just, an anti-American Islamist group to fight the Russians, as well as attending Salafist mosque.  By his return to the United States in July, 2012 Tamerlan was fully radicalized.  Both Tamerlan and Jahar came to believe that 9/11 was engineered by the US government to create mass hatred of Muslims.   With these beliefs, it is not surprising they carried out their attack.

The rise of ISIS is not explored until the final chapter of the book.  Here Bergen reviews and synthesizes much of the material that has been presented by Joby Warrick, Michael McCants, Jessica Stern, J.M. Berger, Michael Weiss, and Hassan Hassan.  The use of social media and the virtual world has allowed ISIS to be the next generation of al-Qaeda and attract over 30,000 foreign fighters and claim to have established a caliphate, successes that Osama Bin-Laden could never fathom because of his world view.  Bergen dissects American fears of an ISIS attack in the United States, and despite what occurred in San Bernardino he correctly argues that “lone wolf” attacks are a threat, but they are a minimal threat because of the safeguards that have been put in place.  We must realize that we can never be 100% secure and that there always will be a low level threat in the United States for years to come.   But as Bergen shows in his closing argument, presenting the wife of a murdered victim of the Fort Hood massacre, and her support of an organization created by Nidal Hassan’s cousin to foment better understanding and relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans, there are many ways to fight terrorism.  Bergen has written another excellent book that should be read by all who want to try and understand the problems that contribute to the enlistment of jihadists in America and how that has changed our country.

(Boston Marathon Bombing, April, 2013)

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