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‘United States of Jihad’: A look into homegrown terrorism

National security expert Peter Bergen investigates domestic cases of terrorism in the US since 9/11

“Since 9/11 the FBI has organized more jihadist terrorist plots in the United States than any other organization,” national security expert Peter Bergen writes in his new book, “United States of Jihad.” He backs that startling claim by noting that Al-Qaeda’s core group in Pakistan attempted six attacks here, its Yemen branches mounted two and the Pakistan Taliban and Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate attempted one each. But the New York Police Department staged three plots, and the FBI orchestrated 30 — in sting operations.

Bergen’s book provides sobering reading in a feverish U.S. political climate in which politicians seek to paint Syrian refugees and other Muslims entering the country as potential threats. Americans remain more afraid of terrorism than they ought to be, Bergen has said in interviews promoting the book,“You’re 5,000 times more likely to be killed by a fellow American with a gun than you are to be killed by a jihadi terrorist in this country.”

Of the 330 people charged with terrorism-related crimes since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bergen reports, 80 percent were U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Many of them were influenced by U.S. born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who became a key figure in Al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate and was extrajudicially executed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. Eighty of the 330 people convicted had Awlaki’s writings or sermons in their possession, or cited him as being an influence. Seven more had been in contact with him directly, some even traveling to Yemen to meet him. 

But psychological profiles found no abnormalities and few common features among those charged with such crimes, and authorities see a growing threat of “leaderless jihad.” Bergen describes “jihadists” as those who have adopted “Binladenism,” the dogma laid out by the founder of Al-Qaeda. Every fatal “jihadist” attack in the U.S. after 9/11, he says, was carried out by a lone wolf, a person who commits acts linked to an ideology but who operates outside of — or does not receive orders from — a group.

Bergen’s research involved talking to the relatives and friends of arrested suspects, as well as to law enforcement agencies. The causes of radicalization are complex, he writes. There are some similarities in those targeted for recruitment: middle-class background (the poor are generally too busy making ends meet); a “cognitive opening,” an event that makes someone receptive to new ideas; and isolation. The radicalized are generally educated, and many are married with children.

Managing or containing the threat is the best possible solution, according to Bergen. But after 9/11, law enforcement agencies like the FBI and NYPD were told to prioritize preventing terrorist attacks. President George W. Bush told then FBI Director Robert Mueller to “adopt a wartime mentality.” 

Among the difficulties Bergen cites in policing the threat is the exponential proliferation of extremist websites and social media feeds. The first leader of a jihadi group to systematically use a Twitter handle was Omar Shafik Hammami (Abu Mansoor al-Amriki), a U.S. citizen who was leader in the Somali group Al-Shabab. Last week Twitter announced it suspended 125,000 Twitter accounts associated with terrorist activity — many of those, however, are bots.

Bergen dismisses as “nonsensical” efforts to deny any connection to Islam by those who commit violence in its name, in the same way one cannot claim that Christian beliefs about Jerusalem’s sanctity had nothing to do with the Crusades or that the growth of illegal Israeli settlements overtaking Palestinian land “is not rooted in the beliefs of certain Jewish fundamentalists about the God-given rights” of Jews to live there.  

Still, he challenges profiling tactics by law enforcement, calling them “controversial and sometimes ineffective responses to the threat.”

Early this year, the NYPD agreed to ban targeted surveillance of Muslims, which Bergen said “netted little for its efforts.” The author also takes issue with the FBI’s use of informants — generally not “a savory bunch” — who in 2011 alone committed some 6,000 crimes according to the FBI’s own statistics.  The stings have also caught “hapless” would-be jihadists who “were coaxed to execute ‘plots’ that never would have happened” without the assistance of law enforcement, Bergen writes.

“The problem for counterterrorism officials during [Barack Obama’s] administration was not that they lacked information, but that they didn’t adequately understand or share the information they already possessed, derived from conventional law enforcement and intelligence techniques,” he said.

Of the 72 plots to launch attacks in the U.S. since 2001, 16 involved plans that were not prevented by government action. Of the remaining 56, in 40 cases “traditional law enforcement methods” uncovered the plots.

That emphasis on the effectiveness of traditional police work impressed former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. In her review of Bergen’s book, she wrote, “It is important that we remain resolute and neither lower our expectations nor jettison our values out of some misguided belief that jihad presents easy answers or that conventional efforts must be totally scrapped.”

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