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All-American jihad: Peter Bergen on the homegrown terrorism threat

Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is seen giving the middle finger to a security camera inside his jail cell on July 10, 2013, three months after his arrest.
Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is seen giving the middle finger to a security camera inside his jail cell on July 10, 2013, three months after his arrest.
United States Attorneys Office via Getty Images

Why would someone in the United States ever take up the cause of violent jihadism to attack his or her fellow citizens? It's a question Americans seem to be asking more lately after San Bernardino, the Boston Marathon bombing, and Fort Hood. America's problem with homegrown jihadism is relatively quite small, but it's not nothing, either. Where does it come from, how much of a threat is it, and what can or should be done about it?

Peter Bergen's new book United States of Jihad tries to answer these questions. Bergen has been writing about jihadist terrorism for years, having famously produced Osama bin Laden's first Western television interview in 1997. In his latest book, he profiles bin Laden's few but concerning progeny in the US: seemingly regular, everyday Americans who, inspired by the ideology bin Laden made infamous, have chosen violence.

I called Bergen to talk about who these Americans are, what motivates them to become terrorists, and just how big a threat they really pose. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jennifer Williams: Why did you decide to write about this subject now?

Peter Bergen: The genesis of the book is the aftermath of the Boston Marathon attack, which killed three at the marathon and then a police officer later. I think it underlined the fact that the threat from organized groups like al-Qaeda, and now ISIS, to the United States has sort of been displaced by people who are homegrown militants.

Since 9/11, every lethal terrorist attack in the United States conducted by somebody inspired by bin Laden's ideology has been conducted by American citizens, and in two cases American people [who were] permanent residents. So these are people who are Americans, or as American as anybody else.

So that poses an interesting question, which is: Why is it that 15 years, a decade and a half, after 9/11, are Americans still signing up for an ideology that at the end of the day has as one of its goals killing other Americans? Which is a form of treason. It's an interesting psychological question.

And I can frankly say that after two and a half years of looking into a lot of stories and different people, there is no one particular explanation. There are plenty of people who are opposed to American foreign policy, who have disappointments in life or their families split up or any other number of things you can point to that can cause the reaction in some people. But for the vast majority of Muslim Americans, this is not the road taken.

For the book, I was able to create a database of some 300-plus Americans charged or convicted of some kind of jihadist terrorist crime, ranging from the relatively trivial to the serious ones such as murder, and was able to draw some conclusions from that about who these people are.

And it turns out they're pretty much like anybody who's going to be reading this story in the United States. They're as educated as any American, they have average incomes, they are often from the middle class, they're married at a reasonably high rate, they have kids, they're the average age of 29 — so they're not the sort of young hotheads of popular imagination, necessarily.

And by the way, that's very consistent with the academic research on the question of terrorism. Terrorism's been largely a bourgeois endeavor beginning with the Russian anarchists of the 19th century to the Baader-Meinhof gang in the '70s in Germany, and with the leadership of al-Qaeda it’s actually more than just middle class, it's actually sort of the 1 percent: Think of Osama bin Laden the Saudi billionaire, or even Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda today, who is from one of the more prominent families in Egypt.

Because on the surface of it, it looks like Maj. Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, was just inspired by [that ideology]. He was in touch with Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, the cleric who was born in New Mexico. So certainly you have this ideology.

But if you look at where he was in life, he was unmarried and probably had never had a relationship. He was about to turn 40. His parents both died pretty young. He was about to deploy to Afghanistan, which he was quite frightened about, and in the words of his cousin Nader Hasan, who basically grew up with him like a brother and who is a successful lawyer in northern Virginia, he basically went postal and sort of dressed it up in a garb of Islam.

So obviously the ideology plays some role here. But it's usually not a sufficient explanation, because somebody like Jahar [Dzhokhar] Tsarnaev, who is the younger brother in the Boston attacks, his knowledge of Islam was incredibly superficial. He certainly wasn't an Islamic scholar. Nor really was Carlos Bledsoe, who killed an American soldier in Arkansas in 2009.

So one of the reasons that in the book I get into these cases in some detail is that the more that you get into it, the less clear-cut everything is. And in a way, ultimately these questions might be better answered by novelists than by mere nonfiction writers. But I am a nonfiction writer, so I try to understand.

JW: In the book, you raise a really fascinating and, I think, underappreciated point about these terrorists' motivations. You write that "even the perpetrator himself often cannot really explain the ‘why’ in any meaningful way." I think there's this perception that these people are "true believers" in the jihadist ideology. But what you're saying is that in some cases, perhaps even the majority, the perpetrators themselves may not even fully understand either the ideology or how their specific actions fit into a broader strategy. Is that correct?

PB: I think you've seized on what I thought was kind of … you know, in a way it's like, why read my book if I can’t really answer the "why" question completely?

But I think the "why" question isn't fully understood by some of the perpetrators or can't be fully explained. And I think that kind of gets to the nature of evil to some degree, which is that it's usually both inexplicable and pointless. We can kind of explain why Hitler conducted the Holocaust, but we can't explain it in any way that would make sense to reason. We can explain what he thought and what he did, but at the end of the day it's ultimately an inexplicable act.

I'm obviously not comparing jihadist terrorism to the Holocaust; it's a very different range. But what I'm saying is that when we see people conduct an act of murder, we can sort of explain, "Well, in the background they had family problems or they had disappointments in life." But so does practically everybody on the planet, so why is it that 0.01 percent will go and kill somebody based on some combination of ideology, disappointments, grievances, whatever the sort of stew is?

And I think the more you know about it, the more complicated the answer to that question becomes.

David Coleman Headley, whom I profile in the book and who played a key role in the Mumbai attacks, I speculate that his motivation appears to be that he was a sociopath, and basically he kind of enjoyed all this. I mean, he certainly wasn't a highly observant Muslim. He was cheating on his wives, he was partying with the Bollywood elite, he was a major drug dealer at one point. He just seems to be somebody who kind of enjoyed what he was doing because it was fun. And of course, he was also motivated by a great hostility toward India, based on some childhood experiences, but I don't think those were particularly religious in nature.

Then at the same time you have Omar Hammami, who was a quite observant Muslim who drifted further and further toward fundamentalism, and then militancy. And one of the interesting things I mention in the book is that along the way he had this childhood friend from high school, Bernie Culveyhouse, who kind of went down the same path but just decided not to jump over the bridge and get into jihad in Somalia because he had a wife and a kid.

Now, so did Omar — they were in exactly the same position, and they just chose a different route. At the end of the day, they basically had very similar backgrounds and sets of cards. The difference was Bernie's father had abandoned him when he was a kid, and he wasn't going to do that to his own kid. For Omar, apparently that barrier wasn't sufficient.

JW: Should we in the US be more concerned about homegrown threats or about threats directed by al-Qaeda or ISIS from abroad?

PB: Well, the good news is that we've managed the issue down to a point where we're not seeing a lot of group formation anymore. If you go back to the immediate post-9/11 years, you saw groups of guys getting together to plan attacks, whether it was the Virginia paintball case or there was a case in North Carolina involving Daniel Boyd, and they weren't necessarily associated with al-Qaeda or any other group.

But we're just not seeing that, and I think that's partly because the FBI operations are well-advertised and if you’re inclined to do something, you’re no longer going to do it with a group, because you're concerned about an FBI informant.

So the kinds of cases we're seeing are one like the married couple in San Bernardino, who can practice perfect operational security. So can two brothers in Boston doing the Boston Marathon bombing. They don't have to worry about an informant. The cases we're seeing tend to be individuals or pairs of people, and that's mostly good news because we're not seeing groups of guys forming for large-scale terrorist plots.

We’re not seeing people who are really trained by al-Qaeda or ISIS. The last time that there was really a serious al-Qaeda plot, which I outline in the book, is the Najibullah Zazi case, which involved three people. And that was back in 2009. We're seven years later. They were trained in Waziristan, where the CIA drone program has pretty much put al-Qaeda central out of business.

And while there are Americans who've gone to train in Syria, we, as far as publicly, only know of two who've come back: One was arrested, and the other went back to Syria to conduct a suicide operation. So the scale of the threat is so different from what it is in France, where you have hundreds — over a thousand — of Frenchmen who have gone to Syria, and hundreds who have returned. They have networks they can plug into in Belgium and France where they have access to heavy weaponry. They are very angry at the French state and people. None of those things pertain to the United States in the same way.

There's a sort of paradox here: Americans are more concerned about terrorism now than at any time since 9/11, yet really the actual threat is contained and managed. But as a political matter, no one's going to say that who's running for office. Even though it's true, and any sensible person knows that we've managed this problem pretty well, no politician is going to say we have this thing pretty well under control, because the political costs of something very minor happening later, which can somehow be associated with ISIS or al-Qaeda, are very large.

Two things are true: The problem is going to be persistent, yet at the same time we've managed it into a situation where it's pretty contained and low-level, and that's why the main threat is homegrown militants who are often very hard to detect.

The good news is that there's a certain kind of ceiling to their capabilities in terms of what kind of damage they can do. And as you point out, it’s orders of magnitude lower than what it would have been on 9/11.

JW: So as a society, as a country, how should we think about the homegrown threat? How should we think about resilience, for example, or about how to best respond when an attack does occur?

PB: The problem, of course, is that we're not all rational human beings. We still have this brain that was extremely useful for getting around in the forest 20,000 years ago. Fear is very front and center, and so when the fear part of our brain is aroused, it tends to muffle our rationality.

Because from a rational perspective, fear of terrorists doesn't make any sense at all. I say this in the book: You’re 5,000 times more likely to be killed by a fellow American with a gun than you are by jihadist terrorists. So what you should be fearing is somebody killing you with a gun.

And yet the point of the attack at the Boston Marathon or at the San Bernardino office party, to the extent that those people really had a plot, was to send the message that you can basically be killed by a terrorist anywhere at any time. Certainly that was the plan in Paris, where they killed people at the concert hall and the restaurant and the soccer stadium.

So you and I can agree that the fear of terrorism is kind of overblown and overwrought. But then if you look at the polling data, it's clear that people just don't have the same reaction to this issue.

And of course it's temporary, and it's sparked by — you know, the Metrojet was brought down in October, and then there were the Paris attacks in November, and then San Bernardino in December, and people react to recent events. When there are no events for several months, that fear will subside.

But we live in a 24/7 news environment, and these are real and interesting news stories and they get a lot of coverage. And it's hard to second-guess the news producers who are covering this. After all, when you have the biggest attack on civil aviation since 9/11 with the Metrojet attack, or the biggest lethal attack in the West for over a decade with the Paris attack, or the most lethal attack in the United States since 9/11 with San Bernardino, these are all very big news stories.

I do have a section in the book about the expert versus the lay evaluation of risk. The lay evaluation of risk is a lot more emotional, and unfortunately there's not much we can do to fix that. I think President Obama has occasionally given speeches that aim to reassure people and say that this sort of threat is managed, it's contained. But people aren't persuaded, and if you look at polling data, Republicans in particular regard terrorism as a very major issue in the 2016 election.

Another point I make in the book is that we suffer from historical amnesia in America. Hijackings were almost routine in the 1970s in the United States, some of which were ordinary crimes and some of which were terrorism. But there were more than 100 hijackings in the 1970s. And there were terrorist attacks by the Weather Underground, Black Panthers, Puerto Rican nationalists. I mean, there were quite a few; they were very routine. That's all sort of subsided.

JW: We don't really think of that as a period of terror in this country, but it was.

PB: It was. There was a lot of political violence against civilians, which is essentially terrorism, and that's all gone away. This is the problem: 9/11 was one of the hinge events of American history, and so everything is filtered though that experience and we're never going to be able to turn the clock back.

For almost anybody who was an adult at the time, and also the people who weren't adults at the time, it's probably the most memorable event in their lives, short of getting married or having a baby. And so we filter everything we learn about this through that big event, and minor plots or incidents take on a bigger life because of this huge thing that happened in the United States.

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