United States of Jihad

Title:                      United States of Jihad

Author:                  Peter Bergen

Bergen, Peter L. (2016). United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists. New York: Crown Publishers

LCCN:    2015034447

HV6432 .B4624 2016

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      September 28, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

First, the radicals mailed 36 mail bombs to government officials, business leaders, and newspapermen. Next, much larger bombs—with more than 26 pounds of explosive were sent to cities throughout the country. Among the victims, one secretary lost her hands, a watchman was killed, and a radical found eternal peace trying to blow up an attorney general’s home. None of the human targets were killed. The government reacted by deporting as many radicals as possible. America has experience with radicals attacking citizens. The bombings stopped the year they started—1919.

Peter Bergen does not suggest that today’s problems with radical terrorists be similarly addressed; he realizes that the underlying circumstances are vastly different. He seeks instead to understand why and how a few American Muslims become “American jihadists,” (p. 11) willing in some cases to kill themselves and their fellow citizens.

Having interviewed 330 militants or jihadists while researching The United States of Jihad, he concludes that they were “ordinary citizens” in ordinary families—before something happened to change their worldview. (p. 15)

To determine what that change was, Bergen reviews the perpetrators involved in known cases of homegrown terrorism, such as the Ft. Hood shooter, the Boston Marathon bombers, and the San Bernardino couple. In the process, he analyzes their backgrounds and the outside influences from al-Qa’ida and ISIS discovered on the Internet, in other social media, and at the local mosque. He also compares these attacks with the attacks originating oversees; for example, the underwear bomber sent by Anwar al-Awlaki, and the ISIS-sponsored attacks in Europe. Bergen explores the mostly effective preventive and follow-up actions taken by the FBI and local police to identify, stop, or capture them.

The United States of Jihad doesn’t provide a silver bullet explanation for why Americans become terrorists. Bergen lists possibilities, like feelings of power and importance, belonging, religious inspiration, and the influence of “social bonds” which is further explained in the book with the insights of former officer and psychiatrist analyst Marc Sageman. (p. 51) Looking to the future, Bergen discusses intervention by family, mosque elders, and law enforcement authorities as sensible paths to prevention, although he admits this is not new and has failed in the past. Perhaps the most curious observation is Bergen’s suggestion that the media and the public overreact to the threat of terrorist attacks, noting the “golden age of terrorism in the states was in the 1970s, not post-9/11 America” (p. 271) and the risk of violent death today is greater from other causes.

Somehow this is a troubling alternative, considering the well-organized, long-range ideological, legal, and political motivations of radical terrorists who seek to impose their will on the entire world.

The United States of Jihad does provide a framework for addressing and even eliminating the homegrown, lone-wolf terrorist threat, but the work will be neither easy nor quick.

[1] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp. ). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov

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