When America began experiencing religious-motivated extremism in the 1990's, officials theorized that the people perpetrating acts of terror were psychiatric cases, loners, angry and destitute, or out of step with society. Bergen asks several questions in this book: who are the terrorists, what is their path to radicalization, and is there a way to short circuit their deadly plans? Looking over hundreds of cases of homegrown jihadism, Bergen chooses several that illustrate some “classic” characteristics and discusses how those cases ended up. He tells us that we may never know why an individual chooses to become a suicide bomber among innocents, but if we recognize the patterns, we might be able to intervene at some critical stage to turn the motivation.
Shortly after 9/11, the work of a long-time CIA psychiatrist contravened most of the then-current suppositions about terrorists, revealing that the majority of “men who joined were middle-class, relatively well-educated, mentally stable and often married with children.” But another man, a radical jihadist himself, thought the top-down bureaucracy of Al Qaeda too inflexible to last and recommended spontaneous operations, or leaderless jihad. No direct affiliation with a terrorist organization has become a prevalent form of successful terrorism in this country in the decades since 9/11, though individuals might receive encouragement, perhaps training, and some resources from overseas, or from websites created overseas. The type of person involved often has some education and appears adjusted until there is a “cognitive opening” (a shock, disappointment, or tragedy) that makes individuals question their place in the world. Gradually they may begin to limit their circle of friends to those who agree with their worldview, may change their appearance, and try to convert others. Only a third of those examined were employed at the time of their change because the radicalism takes over one’s life. Bergen suggests mosques could have an important role in recognizing and defusing Islamic-type radicalism.
There were seventy-two plots against America by homegrown jihadists since 9/11, and Bergen details some of them here. He also points out that the NYPD and the FBI were aggressive in pinpointing nascent aggression and set up stings to get individuals out of circulation.
“Al-Qaeda’s core group in Pakistan has mounted six terrorist plots (of varying sophistication); al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen has mounted two; the Pakistan Taliban and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate have each mounted one. Three other plots were engineered by the NYPD. The FBI has been responsible for thirty.”
Bergen discusses the U.S. administration’s preferred way to deal with terror cells: drone strikes.
“Under the Bush administration, there was an American drone attack in Pakistan every forty-three days. During the first two years of the Obama presidency, there was one every four days. And in 2011 and 2012, just as strikes in Pakistan began to slow, Obama vastly accelerated the campaign in Yemen. Just one drone strike occurred in Yemen under Bush; under Obama the numbers climbed to 120 drone and cruise missile strikes.”Bergen discusses the circumstances and lead-up to the death of the American cleric al-Awlaki and, separately, his son in Yemen. When some American officials expressed concern over the targeting of an American overseas, after looking at the vast body of evidence, they concurred with the decision. Awlaki’s son was “collateral damage,” killed because someone with whom he was travelling was targeted. I have watched Jeremy Scahill’s film, Dirty Wars, which addresses this incident, among others. I do not find myself troubled by the questionable legality of targeting of al-Awlaki, Sr. Collateral damage will always be a stain on us, however, and even if it does not trouble us, it troubles others, and will be something we will be defending forever, as this is the radicalizing element.
Bergen addresses the means of collecting information about possible terrorists and concludes that among homegrown terrorists,
“sixteen [plots] involved a terrorist act that was not prevented by any type of government action, such as the failed attempt by Faisal Shahzad to blow up a car bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010. Of the remaining fifty-six plots, the public record shows that forty were uncovered by traditional law enforcement methods, such as the use of informants, community tips about suspicious activity, and standard policing practices….With regard to the 330 individuals involved in jihadist crime in the United States since 9/11, surveillance of American phone data had no discernible role in preventing acts of terrorism and only a marginal role in preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fund-raising for a jihadist group.”While Bergen’s numbers do not precisely add up, we can take his analysis to mean that the NSA program is not as effective as previously touted, but it may have been something we needed to try to see if it netted information we were missing. It didn’t. We can therefore rest easy that the law has been changed not to allow it with little fear about our ability to stave off threats.
One final thing Bergen raises at the end of the book is the increasing role of women in jihad. The one thing that was different about the San Bernadino attacks is that a woman was involved. He notes that women travelling to the Middle East to join ISIS also have a prominent place in the media surrounding the camps there, tweeting to possible recruits about how cool it is to be part of a movement.
What makes this book special is its exquisite fluency, clarity, and roundedness: it addresses most of the questions ordinary citizens might have about the nature of the threat in America and is so interesting it is difficult to put it down. We get details about events we only marginally understood at the time it was happening. We get the background theory behind administration policies and the radicalization of citizens that make those policies necessary. It is a fascinating look at the work done by law enforcement to try to understand where the limits to privacy begin and end. It’s a terrific, informative read.
I’d heard of Peter Bergen before but I’d never read anything by him before this book. Bergen, with Peter Arnett, was responsible for the first TV interview of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1997. Bergen is now CNN’s national security analyst, a print and broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is also a Vice President at the New America non-partisan think tank based in Washington. Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars was a former president of New America, an institution now led by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among the Living, is a fellow in the International Security Program at New America. Bergen's long list of books on security threats have won many awards, but it wasn't until I heard Bergen interviewed by Trevor Noah on Comedy Central and heard Bergen's laugh that I wanted to look at this book. Call me shallow.
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