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The Abyss Gazes Back


The United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists by Peter Bergen (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016); 400 pages.

It took only a few hours after two Islamic State suicide bombings ripped apart the departure hall of Brussels Airport and subway cars in central Brussels for Sen. Ted Cruz to offer a “do something” solution to the threat of home-grown terrorism lurking in America’s midst. Taking to Facebook, the Republican presidential candidate said enough was enough: “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” The “constitutional conservative,” however, wasn’t done. “The days of the United States voluntarily surrendering to the enemy to show how progressive and enlightened we can be are at an end. Our country is at stake.”

Flipping through the opening pages of Peter Bergen’s United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists, you come across Friedrich Nietzsche’s oft-quoted warning, in all caps: “WHOEVER FIGHTS MONSTERS SHOULD SEE TO IT THAT IN THE PROCESS HE DOES NOT BECOME A MONSTER. AND IF YOU GAZE LONG ENOUGH INTO AN ABYSS, THE ABYSS WILL GAZE BACK INTO YOU.” Bergen isn’t subtle. A chronicler of jihadi terrorism for nearly two decades now, he knows there will always be Cruzes to whip up the fear that al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other jihadi groups are somehow a supernatural force with the power to destroy America and that civil liberties — particularly for American Muslims — are a luxury Americans can no longer afford, rather than rights to vigilantly defend.

Bergen, to his credit, understands this mindset truly has the power to smother the freedoms and natural rights the U.S. government was instituted imperfectly to protect. Which is why his book — in many ways a string of case studies of Americans who either planned to attack the United States at home or who left to fight overseas — is an antidote to election-year fear-mongering, even if its title reads as alarmist. After analyzing the stories Bergen presents, one doesn’t exactly fear that those men, and they’re almost always men, could radically alter American life. They are the ideologically inspired equivalent of mass shooters, certainly scary but no threat to national security.

The men Bergen profiles can be broken down essentially into three types — the lone wolf, the leader-led terrorist, and the foreign fighter. The lone wolves include men such as Carlos Bledsoe, a convert to Islam who murdered a U.S. service member and wounded another at a U.S. military recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, or Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who murdered 13 people at a military-readiness center in Fort Hood before he was to deploy to Afghanistan. The leader-led terrorist is best exemplified by Najibullah Zazi, who plotted with two other friends at the direction of al-Qaeda to detonate suicide vests inside the New York subway system. And then there’s the jihadi Che Guevara, Omar Hammami, the product of a Syrian immigrant father and an Alabaman Christian mother. A fascinating character, Hammami, a bright and gifted young man, traveled to Somalia to fight for al-Shabaab, an Islamist group. He quickly emerged as a skilled propagandist on social media but later died at the age of 29 because of in-group fighting, a victim of his own zealotry and success.

Reading about the men who would die for their ideals, no matter how false or barbarous, reminded me of Orwell’s perceptive analysis of why the German people fell for Nazism:

[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags, and loyalty-parades…. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

The many people featured in the United States of Jihad all seem to be looking for purpose, so much so that they will sacrifice themselves quite literally in a blaze of glory. In a martyrdom video for al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Floridian of American and Palestinian descent, described life stateside:

I lived in America! I know how it is. You have all the fancy amusement parks, and the restaurants, and the food, and all this crap and the cars and you think you’re happy. You’re not happy, you’re never happy. I was never happy. I was always sad and depressed. Life sucked…. All you do is work forty, fifty, sixty hours a week.

Abusalha then drove an explosive-laden truck into a Syrian restaurant where government forces congregated, killing himself and others.

However distressing it is to see so many young people choose a totalitarian ideology that abhors liberal values, it’s vital to keep perspective. As Bergen concludes at the end of his study, jihadist terrorism and militancy isn’t an existential threat but a “persistent low-level” one. The events in San Bernardino or Brussels don’t change that. Rather they confirm it. Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union the threat is not. Capability matters much much more than intent.

No easy answers

Bergen, however, can be a frustrating and contradictory narrator at times. His in-depth case studies on the lives of American jihadists show that there is no profile for those who will engage in terrorist atrocities. But to make sense of how such men of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and classes made a choice to engage in ideologically driven violence, Bergen looks to a repudiated theory of violent radicalization pushed by Mitchell D. Silber, the former director of intelligence analysis at the New York Police Department.

According to Silber and the 2007 report he co-authored, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, the jihadi terrorists he studied went through four stages on the path towards violence after experiencing a “cognitive opening,” which could be mundane occurrences, such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. While Silber was careful to say that not all people will linearly travel this pathway toward violent radicalization, the report certainly gives that impression and identifies many constitutionally protected activities as precursors to terrorist violence. These behaviors, according to the report, included “[giving] up cigarettes, drinking, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes”; “[wearing] traditional Islamic clothing, growing a beard”; and “[becoming] involved in social activism and community issues.” The report also singled out a long list of “radicalization incubators”: “Though the locations can be mosques, more likely incubators include cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, non-governmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores.”

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the NYPD’s Intelligence Division had already begun a program of suspicionless surveillance against the city’s Muslim communities, mapping and spying on the very places Silber described as terrorism incubators in the pursuit of people who were, well, Muslims. The program, which Sen. Ted Cruz would apparently like to see go national, was a failure of epic and unconstitutional proportions. According to the division’s commanding officer in 2012, the work of its Demographic Unit didn’t lead to opening a single investigation. (Full disclosure: I work for the American Civil Liberties Union, which recently settled with the New York Police Department over the Intelligence Division’s dragnet surveillance of New York Muslims.)

After the Associated Press revealed the full extent of the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance and mapping program in 2011, a coalition of New York-based civil-rights groups concluded in its report “Mapping Muslims” that “the NYPD’s flawed radicalization theory was in fact a blueprint for a policy of profiling and suspicionless surveillance.” Bergen, however, condemns the NYPD’s “fishing expeditions” against Muslim communities, while holding up its intellectual foundations. That is cognitive dissonance exemplified.

Taking stock

A stinking corpse sits in the room that Bergen and the legion of positive reviewers won’t acknowledge, much less seriously consider. And that’s the role U.S. foreign policy plays in this macabre dance between the U.S. national-security state and jihadist movements worldwide, which leaves civilians on all sides as potential collateral damage.

Leaving his suburban home in Chicago for ISIS-controlled territory, 19-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan left a three-page note for his parents decrying that his tax dollars were going to kill his “Muslim brothers and sisters.” His younger brother, in his own note, decried the drone strikes that kill innocent Afghan children. Faisal Shazad, who failed to detonate a car bomb near Times Square in 2010, also cited drone strikes as one motivation for his unsuccessful attack. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and Najibullah Zazi were motivated by the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holed up in a dry-docked boat in a suburban backyard, the lone surviving Boston bomber scrawled on the vessel’s inside his reasons for unleashing the attack that killed three and injured more than 260 people as police surrounded his location. “The U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians, but most of you already know that,” wrote Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. “As a [Muslim] I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished.” And on it goes, around and around, one atrocity in retaliation for another.

While the pathway to violent terrorism and militancy is a complicated one — always an almost impenetrable mix of the personal and the political and the ideological — there is a common grievance worth examining that is almost entirely absent from most if not all “serious” discussions of jihadi terrorism: The part U.S. policies play in stoking it. Bergen notes it, but he never confronts the legitimacy of the grievances. And because of that, his book concludes on an over-optimistic prediction that jihadism “will likely take many, many years before it withers and dies.” That, unfortunately, will not occur as long as the United States continues to finance and arm repressive authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East, occupy large swaths of majority Muslim lands, and, with almost divine vengeance, vaporize its enemies from the sky. And considering the current presidential candidates, a change in U.S. foreign policy doesn’t seem probable any time soon. It may indeed become much more violent, not less, to the detriment of international stability and civil liberties at home.

Despite its serious flaws, Bergen’s United States of Jihad is a level-headed examination of one type of violence inside the United States today and a reminder that the existential threat to the United States isn’t jihadi terrorism, but Americans’ reaction to it. Monsters, it should never be forgotten, lurk inside all of us. And unfortunately there are people on the campaign trail who want America to unleash its inner beasts rather than hold them at bay. The abyss in 2016 beckons.

This article was originally published in the September 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Matthew Harwood is a writer living in northern New Jersey. His work has appeared at The American Conservative, the Guardian, Reason, TomDispatch, among others. He is senior writer/editor at the American Civil Liberties Union.