- - Monday, March 7, 2016


By Peter Bergen

Crown, $28, 400 pages

Peter Bergen’s “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists” is a gripping account of the motivations and activities of a tiny proportion of Muslim Americans (including converts to Islam) who have become jihadist terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001 on behalf of global terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS, and the measures the U.S. government employs to counter their plots and attacks domestically and overseas. Mr. Bergen, a prominent journalist on terrorism issues, is the author of several best-selling books on al Qaeda.

Mr. Bergen’s analysis, overall, is sound and revealing, especially when he discloses new details about many of these terrorist plots and attacks, and the way law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, the NYPD and others have attempted to counter them. At the same time, however, his argument that the threat posed by American jihadists (or by foreign jihadists against America) is often hyped and “overestimated” by politicians and opinion makers could have benefited from a closer look.

Mr. Bergen claims that “since 2001 [up to the end of 2015] 45 Americans have been killed by jihadist terrorists in the United States.” Yet, what he does not mention is that during this period, if certain major plots and operations by such jihadists had not been thwarted by U.S. law enforcement agencies or by the sheer luck that their explosives did not detonate, hundreds of Americans would have lost their lives. These include a failed operation by Najibullah Zazi who attempted to conduct a suicide bombing with two associates of the New York City subway system in September 2009, which had been masterminded by al Qaeda in Pakistan; the attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to set off an explosive bomb on board a Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, which had been masterminded by the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda; and Faisal Shazad’s attempted bombing of Times Square on the evening of May 1, 2010, with his explosive-laden SUV car failing to detonate, in a plot masterminded by the Taliban, an al Qaeda-affiliate in Pakistan.

While Mr. Bergen discusses these three aborted operations — and his account of them makes especially gripping reading — he sidesteps the issue of the number of casualties that were avoided. Mr. Bergen points out that since 9/11 “330 people in the United States have been charged with some kind of jihadist terrorist crime ranging in seriousness from murder to sending small sums of money to a terrorist group.” He also notes the rise of anti-Muslim “hysteria” since 9/11. But had he computed the total potential fatalities produced by aborted plots along with the 45 fatalities that he highlights from his listing of “successful” attacks, then the full magnitude of the jihadist threat to America would have been revealed. And this threat, moreover, appears to be escalating rather than declining in lethality, as demonstrated by last December’s mass shootings by ISIS-inspired husband-and-wife team of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino, Calif., which ushered in a new form of “tag team” jihadist terrorists.

Mr. Bergen’s assertion that the jihadist militants in America “are, on average, as well educated and emotionally stable as the typical citizen” can also be challenged by extensive counterevidence. For example, were the mass murderers Maj. Nidal Hassan, Najibullah Zazi, Faisal Shazad, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, and numerous others, really as “well educated and emotionally stable” as the average American citizen (and with Maj. Hassan, in particular, receiving poor performance reviews from his medical school supervisors)?

Nevertheless, there is much to commend in Mr. Bergen’s important book. Readers will benefit from his astute observations, based on numerous case studies, of how American jihadists become radicalized and mobilized into terrorism (and, in particular, how some are self-radicalized lone wolves while others act on behalf of their terrorist group sponsors). The book also deftly offers insights into the methods that the FBI employs to profile the radicalization pathways into terrorism, including possible inhibitors that may hold back the vulnerable from becoming violent extremists. His prognosis regarding what he terms “future jihad,” particularly the emergence of ISIS as the world’s preeminent terrorist organization, is convincing and instructive. Moreover, his discussion of ISIS’ success in exploiting the Internet’s extremist social media sites to radicalize and mobilize its adherents into either becoming foreign fighters in Syria or to conduct terrorist attacks in their U.S. homeland offers a sobering assessment that should not be overlooked.

Joshua Sinai is a Washington, D.C.-based analyst on national security affairs. The second edition of his pocket handbook on active shooter prevention will be published by ASIS International in April.

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