3 | United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists by Peter Bergen

“Since 9/11, more than three hundred Americans-born and raised in Minnesota, Alabama, New Jersey, and elsewhere– have been indicted or conviected of terrorism charges. Some of taken the fight abroad: an American was among those who planned the attacks in Mumbai, and more than eighty U.S. citizens have been charged with ISIS-related crimes. Others have acted on American soil, as with the attacks at Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon, and in San Bernardino. What motivates them, how are they trained, and what do we sacrifice in our efforts to track them?”

My thoughts on this book are difficult to organize. I felt an array of emotions while reading. Genuine curiosity, as 9/11 happened when I was five and a half and even then, I was capable of realizing that horrific acts of violence were committed. Outrage too, that law enforcement, and politicians, security experts, haven’t found a way to stop all these atrocities before they happen. Since growing up, I can remember so many terrorist attacks and mass shootings motivated by some kind of extremist ideology such as all those in the aforementioned quote, including the Charleston church, Orlando nightclub, and Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, just to name a few. The outrage I felt did fester while reading the entire book, as debates about immigration and gun control are stagnating. It seems as if the political figures who are supposed to be representing and protecting their constituents are becoming immune to the mass killings and gun violence. And third, I felt despair. Despair for the Muslim communities who have escaped the persecution, bombings, gas attacks, drone strikes, starvation, and disease in their homelands only to arrive in Western countries which marginalize and stigmatize them. Despair for all the victims, their families, the state of fear and misinformation we live in. And with that, here are some other musings.

I was taken aback how well researched this book was; Bergen interviewed tens of people including leading counterterrorism experts and theorists, families of terrorists, terrorists themselves, U.S. officials from the White House, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, victims’ families, and Islamic clerics. Though this book could have easily read like a history textbook, going case by case through major cases chronologically, political debates, changing law enforcement tactics, public perception and personal stories were weaved into the narrative to read more like a story… a tragic one at that.

The title of this book is just about as provocative as it gets: The United States of Jihad. One of my immediate concerns when I picked up this book was that it might dismiss Islam and the incredibly beautiful, ancient religion that it is, for some sensationalized microscopic view of Islam as “practiced” by a minute few. Peter Bergen only dedicates a mere paragraph to explaining what exactly jihad means to the vast majority of Muslims, when in fact his entire book book is about how various militants conceptualize jihad. Bergen writes: “Jihad has an alternative, nonviolent meaning within Islam, as the internal struggle Muslims wage against un-Islamic behavior, but today’s Islamist militants explicitly reject this understanding of jihad and embrace its interpretation as a literal ‘holy war.'” This difference in the conceptualization of one term could have been explained in much more detail without forgoing the mission of the book. I think it could’ve served as a significant educational moment for those who read the book, as for decades, American media has failed to show how dynamic and multifaceted the majority of Muslims are, as peaceful individuals. Critically, the notion of an “internal-struggle” of sorts and reconciling one’s religious/spiritual beliefs with scientific teaching and lived reality is not foreign to most people of faith, whether Christian or Sufi.

The book begins in the post-9/11 period– hard to believe the 2001 attacks bore beyond an indelible mark, but one that cut so deep it changed the world order to become more fearful than ever. Bergen writes that “a large majority of Americans consider it the most memorable event of their lives, just as an earlier generation was haunted by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.” This rings true for me, for I remember coming home from elementary school, my parents glued to the TV, calling my aunt who lived in New York City to make sure she was safe. At the time, Binladenism was the dominating Islamic terrorist ideology, which Bergen explains has an ultimate goal of “restoring a Taliban-style caliphate that will stretch across the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco. Evil people and nations stand in the way of this dream: the Jews, Israel, the United States, and any Middle Eastern regime that doesn’t follow Taliban-style rule.” Though this vision of a world order may seem unrealistic and unsubstantiated, Binladenism asserts that there are real world events that contributed and built this ideology: America’s support for Israel and U.S. foreign policy decisions in the Muslim world such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, etc.. In fact, many of the jihadists cite specific policies at their sentence hearings including CIA drone attacks (which not shockingly, kill many civilians) and U.S. military attacks in their ancestral homelands. These Islamist terrorists do not feel their beliefs and attacks are unfounded and indeed, the United States, Russia, and other European nations have committed numerous atrocities to achieve some semblance of control of these nations.

Essentially a “who’s who” of American jihadists, Bergen explains how various Americans came to commit, ideate or support various jihadist attacks both on U.S. soil and other places in the world. One of the most well-known stories is that of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American born cleric who in 2011 was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. Others include Carlos Bledsoe, Nidal Hassan, Omar Hammami and Samir Khan. Bergen seeks to distill what the commonalities in their backgrounds are and concludes that for the most part, they aren’t first-generation immigrants who slip through the grasps of American surveillance undetected. Rather they are mostly second-generation American citizens who did not grow up in a radical environment, but instead became receptive to radical ideology through a “cognitive opening,” or moments in time which individuals become receptive/vulnerable/susceptive to different world views and new ideas, usually spurred by a personal crisis.

It is astonishing how the mainstream use of the internet and social media has transformed the way terrorist organizations disseminate information and teachings, gain and interact with followers and curate images of what the utopian caliphate looks like. From the terrorist magazine Inspire, which numerous American jihadists learned from, to the use of Twitter by disgruntled people to make disturbing posts, it is not surprising how exposure to extremism on online websites and forums can quickly become an echo chamber and the ensuing radicalization of those with “cognitive openings” can result. No longer do individuals need to stumble across a radical imam giving a lecture in a mosque; instead, a quick Google search may reveals troves of information someone may seek comfort or meaning in. To me, it is shocking how little responsibility internet companies such as Twitter and Youtube take to monitor online content for violent, racist, militant messages and instead, leave the judicial system to make the call. There does exist a perpetual struggle between free speech and public safety, but we can and should agree that violent ideologies are not to be tolerated and should immediately be vehemently rejected.

One of the most compelling passages to me was this:

“Americans have long tended to overestimate the threats posed by jihadists while underestimating the sources of other forms of terrorism, generally defined as any act of violence against civilians motivated by ideology. Since 9/11, extremists affiliated with a variety of far-right-wing credos, including white supremacists, antiabortion extremists, and anti-government militants, have killed around the same number of people in the United States as have extremists motivated by al-Qaeda’s ideology. As we have seen, by the end of 2015, 45 people had been killed in jihadist terrosit attacks in the United States, while right-wing racists and antigovernment militants had killed 48.” 

Bergen reminds us that it isn’t Islamic extremism that is the sole ultimate threat to the United States– it is extremism in any and all forms that will breed hatred and result in violence.

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