United States of Jihad.

Peter Bergen (1962- ) is an American, but he was raised in London and got his university education at Oxford with an MA in History. When he graduated, the Cold War was in flower, so, in 1983, he went to Pakistan to make a documentary about refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The film, “Refugees of Faith,” saw the light of day on British TV. This helped him land a job with ABC News (1985-1990). Then he moved to CNN (1991-1998). Here he won the Overseas Press Club Edward R. Murrow award for best foreign affairs documentary for the program “Kingdom of Cocaine” (1994); and produced Osama bin Laden’s first television interview, in which he declared war on the United States to a Western audience.

Since then, Bergen has bounced back and forth between journalism and teaching gigs at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and lesser universities. In the gaps, he wrote Holy War, Inc. (2001); The Osama bin Laden I Know (2006); The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda (2011); and Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad (2012). Now he has written a new book, based on his study of more than 300 cases of “home-grown” American militants.[1] What did he find?

Bergen organized his inquiry around a series of simple and direct questions.

First, what’s a “jihadist”? A jihadist is someone who embraces the idea of creating a conservative Sunni Muslim (Salafist) version of a “caliphate” that runs from Morocco to Indonesia. Thus, essentially it is a war for control of the “Dar al Islam,” rather than a war against the “Dar al Harb.” Why then terrorist attacks in the West? Because, the United States and other countries are seen as propping-up the existing order in the Muslim world.

Second, why do some Americans become jihadists? The social profile of American jihadists is puzzling. Most are well-educated, many have wives and children, and some are from middle or upper class backgrounds, rather than all of them being the “losers” often portrayed in the media. However, conservative Islam does not accept a distinction between church and state. So, to have become a Salafist for religious reasons can easily turn one toward political activism.

Third, how does the government seek to counter them? Here Bergen draws a distinction between earlier “leader-led” jihadists who were inspired and launched from abroad, and more recent “leaderless” or lone-wolf jihadists.

It is easier—although not easy—to disrupt terrorist attacks that begin abroad. Broadly, the attackers need visas and airplane tickets. This creates barriers to success. The State Department or the airline security screening might catch them before they board. More likely, there are flight attendants who didn’t sign up to get blown to shreds over the Atlantic by some psychotic misogynist, Thank You Very Much.

It’s more difficult to prevent attacks by domestic “lone wolves.” Many of them are “remotely-inspired” through the Internet.[2] Islamist web-sites have followed the same steep upward curve as have every other form of e-commerce since the 1990s. There were a dozen terrorist-affiliated web-sites in 1990; in 2006, there were more than 4,000; today, who knows? One of them is “Inspire,” started in 2010 by Samir Khan. It urges aspiring jihadists to launch attacks in their own country in order to short-circuit surveillance of people going abroad. Multi-lingualism—but especially the spread of English as the world’s second language—facilitates communication across national boundaries. Cosmopolitanism becomes its own enemy.

Fourth, how has terrorism changed American society? In a sense, this question is beyond Bergen’s ken—or his deadline. However, we can take as an indication his reliance on sources in the EffaBeEye and the National Counterterrorism Center, while critics point out his lack of consideration of the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the role of local police departments. In short, 9/11 spawned the growth a huge and intrusive national security bureaucracy.

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

[2] Anwar al Awlaki was in touch with Major Nidal Malik Hassan, who murdered 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood.

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