Understanding Homegrown Terrorism

State of Play

In the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombing, terrorism expert Peter Bergen had a pressing question on his mind:  Who are these homegrown Islamist terrorists, and what has driven them to a life of jihad?  This week, he released his fifth book, The United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorism, to answer just that. 

Bergen—who produced the first television interview with Osama bin Laden—and his team analyzed data from roughly 330 Americans who have been charged, indicted, or convicted of some act of jihadi terrorism.  Throughout the book, he provides an indepth analysis of different case studies of how individual Americans have become radicalized, and examines the actions taken by U.S. law enforcement and the Intelligence Community.

The Cipher Brief sat down with Bergen to explore how he came to his conclusion—that these jihadists are average Americans, who pose a much smaller threat to the U.S. than our politicians would have us believe. 

The Cipher Brief: What was your motivation for writing this book, and what questions did you seek to answer?

Peter Bergen: The book started off after the Boston Marathon attacks, which obviously were a pretty traumatic event for Americans, even though the deaths were not enormous, relatively speaking.  But it closed down a major American city for days and was covered live by every TV network.  So my editor and myself thought a book about homegrown terrorism, domestic jihadi terrorism, would be interesting. 

At the end of the day, the book is about the puzzle: Why is it that Americans, like the Tsarnevs in Boston, or Nidal Hasan who killed 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas, or the couple in San Bernardino—take your pick from the over 300 Americans that have been accused, charged, or convicted of some sort of jihadist crime since 9/11—why is it that they sign up for an ideology that, at the end of the day, is highly anti-American and, in some cases, violently anti-American, which is a form treason?  That is a psychological question.  In some ways, perhaps a novelist would have done a better job at addressing this question, but I am not a novelist, so I looked at what the facts were in each of these different cases.

There’s a wonderful quote from Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, which is used in the book: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”  I think what is meant by that is that human beings don’t fit neatly into categories, and each person’s story is their own story and is complex. One way I tried to get at that in the book is with Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev, the younger brother of the Boston Marathon bombers.  He wasn’t particularly religious or observant.  Frankly, he was smoking a lot of weed and behaving like a pretty indifferent American college student, and yet he got dragged into the Boston Marathon plot by his older brother.  I am sure if you ask Jahar, one of his motivations would have been the fact that he disagreed with American foreign policy, and in his personal life, his parents were recently divorced and moved back to Russia from where the family originates, and he was failing in school. There are lots of people who are ticked with American foreign policy, there are lots of people whose families break up—in fact, 50 percent of Americans’ marriages end in divorce—and there are lots of people who aren’t doing well in school, but very few of the people in these situations decide to conduct violent attacks. 

So you can try and answer the question why, but it only gets you so far because, at the end of the day, it is sort of mysterious and perhaps ultimately even inexplicable.

TCB: Understanding that each of these 300 case studies that you did are unique on its own, did you have an overall takeaway from your research?  Did anything in particular surprise you?

PB: My research team and I built a database of all the 330 Americans who have been charged, indicted, or convicted of some act of jihadi terrorism. We had the following takeaways: these aren’t a bunch of young hotheads; their average age is 29; a third of them are married; a third of them had kids; and they were as educated as the average American—about fifty percent graduated from high school, ten percent had some graduate study. That right there is surprising.

Also, as far as we could tell, in the cases where we were able to identify where they are from, four out of five were either American citizens born in the U.S. or naturalized American citizens. So, if there’s something surprising, it’s perhaps that these are ordinary Americans in every sense, except they have taken up this ideology and acted on it.

TCB: Since these are largely average Americans who pose this homegrown jihadist threat, what is law enforcement doing well in this area, and where is it making mistakes?

PB: The book outlines cases where law enforcement may have missed the perpetrator, for example, Major Nidal Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter). The San Diego office of the FBI was concerned about emails he was exchanging with Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen. The Washington field office of the FBI said those emails were related to Hasan’s work because he was an Army psychiatrist, so they didn’t do anything about it.

On the one hand, you have somebody like Nidal Hasan, who was living the American Dream—he was an Army Major, a psychiatrist, his family had restaurants in Virginia—and he was missed by law enforcement. On the other hand, you have cases like Matthew Llaneza, who was a schizophrenic bipolar kid from the West Coast who was embroiled in a sting operation. The FBI knew going in that he was schizophrenic and bipolar.

I say those things because I think it’s easy to criticize law enforcement and say that these sting operations are overkill; yes, sometimes they are. Yet, on the other hand, sometimes law enforcement misses people that they shouldn’t. In fact, some of the most notorious terrorists that I outline in the book were the subject of a certain degree of law enforcement scrutiny but not enough. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother, may have been involved in a triple murder in Massachusetts before the Boston attacks, but the case was not seriously investigated.  That was not necessarily the FBI’s fault; it was more a problem of local law enforcement. The problem for the FBI is that the jihadis are often ordinary Americans. There is no ethnic profile. Increasingly, we are seeing females attracted to the ISIS ideology.

I want to make clear that this is not a large-scale problem; it’s a pretty minor problem in the grand scheme of things. Every major jihadist attack in the U.S. since 9/11 has involved a homegrown American militant, but they’ve only managed to kill 45 people. Of course every death is a tragedy, but these are not large-scale terrorist attacks, like the type we saw in Paris in November, or anything close to 9/11.

The challenge for law enforcement is to track people who might be going down this path to violence. I lay out three approaches in the book. One is the New York Police Department’s approach, which asks, what are the signs that somebody is radicalizing? The problem with that approach, according to critics of the NYPD, is that you can easily conflate somebody becoming a fundamentalist with somebody becoming militant, as many of the markers are the same.

The FBI has a separate approach, which really looks at what are the actions along the pathway to violence.  They do not get too hung up on what their ideology is.  This pathway to violence framework is useful when looking for Nazis, as well as Islamist militants. They look at whether you have done paintball training. Are you assembling weapons? Have you made some kind of threat? The FBI looks at these kinds of outward indicators of potentially violent behavior. Finally, because of social media, it is perfectly legal for the FBI to look at public postings, and in a lot of these cases, people are posting publicly their sympathies to ISIS.  That triggers an investigation: an informant is put on the case, usually there is some kind of sting operation, and the person is arrested.

TCB: On the topic of social media, in your book, you provide an interesting discussion about ISIS’ adaptation to understanding how they can win an “information war.”  They have been successful in inspiring lone wolf attacks through social media.  What can be done to better counter their messaging?

PB: I think there is a very simple answer to that. It’s not perfect, but it is simple. Social media companies often have been slow to deal with this problem because some of them are rather young, but all they have to do is enforce their own terms of use.   All these social media companies say that you cannot incite violence against other people, and pretty much all ISIS propaganda is in that direction. Facebook was quick to take down postings regarded as violent. Twitter followed suit, although it is a less mature company than Facebook, so it took a little more time. I think these bigger social media companies understand the problem.  There are people who can flag material that is against their own terms of use, and then it can be taken down.

The problem here is that, at this point, what American social media companies do is becoming increasingly less relevant because ISIS’ main social media platform, Telegram, is based in Berlin. Even if the U.S. government legislated some approach to social media that would involve taking down all jihadi material—which would never happen because of the First Amendment—the Internet is still everywhere. Donald Trump was, at one point, talking about turning off the Internet in Iraq and Syria in an effort to end ISIS social media. The Internet was designed to survive a nuclear attack, so it’s a nonsensical idea. The whole point of the Internet is that it is a distributed network that you can’t take down from any one point.

In terms of dealing with the social media, the U.S. government and U.S. companies do not have the ability to tell companies in Germany what to do. German companies, like Telegram, if they know that ISIS is using their platform in some way and they have some control of that, they should enforce their own terms of use.  Presumably, any legitimate company doesn’t want to be the place where ISIS is propagating its propaganda.

TCB: Do you think there would be any success with a counter message?

PB: There is no harm in counter messaging. I think the real issue is trying to prevent people from joining ISIS, because I think that is a more doable task than trying to counter radicalization, which is a very broad topic.  It is a bit like trying to stop the ocean, and it is hard to discern if you are having any effect.

The main effort should be stopping people from going to Syria to join ISIS or turning people away from ISIS’ propaganda.  To do that, employ people like Imam Mohamed Magid who is based in Northern Virginia or others, who can contest ISIS’ message in theological terms that is bound to have some resonance with the people who are attracted to this, to the extent that they are attracted by the theological message.

TCB: Do you have any other final takeaways that you hope policymakers and private citizens will get from reading your book?

PB: One of the takeaways is that this is a persistent low-level problem that is certainly not existential, and that the U.S. government has really managed and contained.  If, in 2002, somebody said that 15 years after 9/11 only 45 people would have been killed in the United States by jihadist terrorists, they would have been laughed at.  But, because of the variety of things that we have done—Transportation Security Administration, Department of Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center, more joint terrorism task forces—the United States government has made it hard for terrorists to operate.   Add to that knowledge about this problem.  One example is the passengers on Northwest flight 253 that disabled the underwear bomber on Christmas day in 2009 when they saw the smoke coming out of his crotch and noticed there was something wrong with the picture.

Now, as a political matter, you’re not going to hear any of the candidates say that the terrorism issue has been largely contained, because look at the political costs Hillary Clinton has suffered for the four Americans who died in Benghazi. For any politicians actively seeking office, it is highly implausible that they would say we’ve really got this problem managed, even though I think this is actually true. 

State of Play

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