“United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists” was a timely read even before the shooting massacre at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub in June and the bombs that detonated in New York and New Jersey in September.
In his seventh book, journalist and terrorism analyst Peter Bergen profiles men and women who, in the name of Islam (or at least their understanding of the religion), turned on America.
Bergen will discuss “United States of Jihad” in a conversation with local TV journalist Bill Nigut on Nov. 10 at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center.
“The reason I wrote this book is that this is a threat we face because we’ve done a very good job preventing the other kind of attacks since 9/11,” Bergen told the AJT.
These “‘lone wolves,” who are not members of a larger network, though they may claim an allegiance, are a “symptom of that success,” he said.
His book is recent enough to include the December 2015 husband-and-wife shooting spree that killed 14 and wounded 22 at a San Bernardino, Calif., office party.
Bergen, 53, is Minneapolis-born but British-raised and -educated (a graduate of the University of Oxford). He is a national security analyst for CNN, the vice president of the New America think tank in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University.
(Disclosure: I formerly worked for CNN.)
Just 10 days before Sept. 11, 2001, Bergen turned in the manuscript of his first book about bin Laden.
Ninety-four Americans have been killed in the United States by homegrown Islamic militants in the 15 years since 9/11. Pollsters say public fears far exceed the odds of being a victim of terrorism.
“The way for people to manage their fears is to look at the facts,” Bergen said. “This is a problem that has been largely contained. That doesn’t mean it has been eliminated.”
The FBI may be conducting 1,000 investigations of suspected Islamic militants in all 50 states, but a lone individual determined to cause harm with low-tech weapons or legally purchased guns can slip through the net.
And while the political season has been replete with talk of restricting the entry into the United States of Muslims or people from countries where terrorism is endemic, the record presents a different picture.
Since 9/11, 80 percent of the approximately 360 Islamic militants either indicted or convicted in the United States of crimes ranging from sending money to a terrorist organization to murder have been American citizens or legal permanent residents. Rather than the stereotypical “young hotheaded loners,” their average age was 29, more than one-third were or had been married, many were parents, and a small number (increasingly common) were women, according to New America’s research.
“They’re usually people with personal disappointments of one kind or another. This allows them to claim to be soldiers in a cause,” Bergen said of the American jihadists. “They’re looking to belong to something. They’re looking to be heroes in their own stories. This ideology provides them a way to do that.”
They cherry-pick from Islam what they think supports and justifies their actions and discount and disregard teachings contrary to these beliefs.
Among the examples Bergen cited in an interview was Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Virginia-born psychiatrist who killed 13 and wounded more than 30 at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009.
Another was New York-born Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people and wounded 53 at the Orlando gay nightclub after failing in his desire to become a police officer.
Russian-born Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers who bombed the April 2013 Boston Marathon, had dreamed of becoming a boxing champion. Tsarnaev held permanent resident status but approval of his citizenship application had been delayed.
Their radicalization and that of numerous others included absorbing an ideology online.
“I don’t think you can undersell the importance of the Internet,” Bergen said. In the 117 U.S.-based cases that New America studied of people who either traveled to Syria or attempted to (before changing their minds or being apprehended by law enforcement), 88 were active online, and none had been recruited in person.
“United States of Jihad” also focuses on a key figure in this online radicalization: American-born (and American-killed, by a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011) cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, creator of the magazine Inspire, a product of the terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. New America found that in 58 cases investigated since al-Awlaki’s death, links were found to his writings and sermons.
Bergen cautioned that homegrown terrorists should not be taken as representative of the American Muslim community. He also has written about a double standard by which acts committed by non-Muslims (such as the racist-inspired church shootings in Charleston, S.C.) are not labeled terrorism.
Bergen will speak in Atlanta two days after the country elects a new president. Several weeks before the election, he assessed the two major candidates.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, “would be to the right of Obama,” he said. “She’s a hawk, a smart hawk on foreign policy,” with a record that indicates “she is comfortable with the U.S. military and the use of force.”
As for Republican nominee Donald Trump, “it’s hard to discern some sort of serious policy proposals,” Bergen said. “He’s been sort of all over the map. It’s hard to predict what policies he would pursue. It’s easier to know what a Clinton presidency would look like, a little more robust use of American force. With Trump, it’s hard; he has no track record to judge him.”