United States Of Jihad

Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists

United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists. Named one of the best non-fiction books of 2016 by the Washington Post. Adapted for the HBO documentary, Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma


New York Times Editors’ Choice

“Mr. Bergen writes with authority and range… His profiles of jihadists… leave the reader with a harrowing appreciation of the banality of evil and an unnerving sense of missteps made by the authorities… Mr. Bergen’s detailed accounts of terror plots (both executed, foiled or failed) make for chilling reading.”

“Excellent… Bergen’s book is the best one-volume treatment available on the current state of jihad in America.”

“Peter Bergen is a skilled and sensitive reporter with unparalleled access to the law-enforcement and intelligence communities… He has written what in effect are two books about terrorism. Both are valuable. One is a riveting, thoroughly researched account of the evolving state of the threat as a growing number of American citizens join the ranks of foreign terrorist movements—and of how U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies are addressing the constantly shifting threat. The other is a skilled defense of… the Obama administration’s anti-terror effort: one that attempts to steer between the perceived extremes of panicky overreaction and a failure to acknowledge how politically and socially devastating terror attacks can be.”

“Peter Bergen… one of America’s most prominent terrorism experts, makes a compelling and often unsettling case that, in the years since Sept. 11, 2001, Islamist terrorism in the United States has metamorphosed… The transformation of domestic jihadism has not only dispersed the Islamist terrorist threat but in a perverse process of cultural intermingling has partly Americanized jihad itself. The ‘soft power’ appeal of American culture is often considered to be one of this country’s most enduring assets, but the new admixture of jihadi terror and pop culture savoir faire potentially turns this idea on its head… Bergen takes a generally skeptical view of the growth of the post-9/11 national security state and of the fear-mongering about Islam that has increasingly transfixed the darker crannies of American politics. This skepticism, I think, is not only strategically and morally sound but also borne out by the facts.”

“There’s drama in the cases Bergen relates… He makes a highly reliable guide on the road to the present day.”

“Disturbing and topical… [United States of Jihad] is an engrossing and edifying book… It is to Bergen’s immense credit that, without downplaying the threat of Islamist terrorism—home-grown or directed at America by groups abroad—he refrains from overstating it and attempts to maintain perspective… The author deserves kudos for simultaneously recognizing the potential of secular Muslims—who are too often ignored—to change people’s attitudes.”

“Bergen pulls you in with snappy, conversational writing… exploding some of the easy assumptions about jihadists in the United States.”

“Bergen’s book provides sobering reading in a feverish U.S. political climate.”

“Bergen has been at the forefront of reporting on terrorism for more than 20 years. In this innovative and illuminating work… Bergen explores nearly every aspect of terrorist activity, from ISIS’ use of social media to the FBI’s development of behavioral profiles that identify potential terror activists. Both balanced and galvanizing, Bergen’s meticulous portrait of violent extremism is required reading for anyone who truly wants to understand the nature of the evolving threats from within and without.”

Portraits of the Terrorists Next Door

The New York Times
January 26, 2016 Tuesday
Late Edition – Final

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Peter Bergen reports in his new timely book, 330 people in the United States have been charged with some kind of jihadist terrorist crime, and a startling four out of five of them were American citizens or legal permanent residents.

Many assumptions about these militants, Mr. Bergen asserts, do not hold up: Most jihadists in the United States were not young hotheads without family obligations, and the decision to turn to terrorism, for the most part, was not rooted in some traumatic life experience. According to Mr. Bergen’s research, their average age was 29, and more than a third were married — many with children. In addition, more than one in six supporters of the Islamic State in this country were women.

American jihadists, Mr. Bergen says, are ”on average, as well educated and emotionally stable as the typical citizen.

”They are ordinary Americans.”

Mr. Bergen’s latest book, ”United States of Jihad,” is a kind of anatomy of ”homegrown” terrorists. Some are well known to the public, like the Boston Marathon bombers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev; others are lesser known, like Zachary Chesser of Virginia, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to providing support to the Shabab, the Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, and to inciting violence against the creators of ”South Park.”

The author of four books on terrorism (including ”The Longest War,” a succinct but wide-angled look at Sept. 11, the evolution of Al Qaeda, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), Mr. Bergen writes with authority and range, drawing on his many sources in the intelligence community, and putting recent developments like the San Bernardino, Calif., attacks in context with larger dynamics in the war on terror. His profiles of jihadists — like those of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Terry McDermott’s 2005 book, ”Perfect Soldiers,” leave the reader with a harrowing appreciation of the banality of evil and an unnerving sense of missteps made by the authorities.

Parts of this volume will be familiar to readers who follow the subject. The sections about Anwar al-Awlaki — an American-born cleric who evolved from an online jihadi propagandist into a senior operative in Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, and who was targeted and killed by a United States drone strike in 2011 — remain highly indebted to The New York Times reporter Scott Shane’s revealing and impressively detailed 2015 book, ”Objective Troy.”

Like Mr. Shane, Mr. Bergen looks at the potent role Mr. Awlaki would play (in life and posthumously) in inspiring other jihadists. He also deconstructs the arc of Mr. Awlaki’s radicalization and provides a similarly detailed account of the paths that other American-born or American-raised militants would take.

Nidal Hasan, who grew up middle class in Virginia, enlisted in the Army and became, in Mr. Bergen’s words, ”the deadliest lone wolf of all,” killing 13 people at Fort Hood. David Coleman Headley, who had run a video store in Manhattan and worked as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, took part in plotting the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 160 people.

And Samir Khan, a typical Long Island teenager ”keen on video games and girls,” became a radical jihadist blogger. After moving to Yemen, he started Inspire in 2010, an English-language webzine whose jauntily titled articles about explosives (”Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom”) and preparing for holy war (”pack light” and use a backpack, not a suitcase) seized the attention of a new generation of Western terrorists like the Tsarnaev brothers.

Mr. Bergen refrains from trying to speculate about his subjects’ motivations, but points out that many militants share ”a desire for recognition or belonging.” Cited here is a 2007 report by two New York Police Department intelligence analysts that suggests that some kind of personal difficulty (the loss of a job, the death of a family member, the experience of racism) often created a ”cognitive opening” for the turn toward radical religious belief. Another theorist mentioned by Mr. Bergen has argued that the bonds of friendship and kinship are often more important than ideology in creating jihadist groups, underscoring the power of social networking as a recruiting tool.

By understanding the stages of radicalization of many would-be terrorists, Mr. Bergen explains, law enforcement hopes to spot potential threats and intervene before the ”jihadization” process is complete — or at least before a plan is carried out.

There have been cases of militants returning from abroad to attempt serious attacks in the United States: Faisal Shahzad, for instance, who was trained to make bombs by the Pakistani Taliban and left a (faulty) car bomb in Times Square in May 2010. In Mr. Bergen’s view, however, a bigger threat in the United States is posed by lone-wolf terrorists, ones inspired by the Islamic State or Qaeda affiliated groups over the web.

Mr. Bergen does a nuanced job here of pointing out the difficulties of tracking lone wolves and the significant warnings missed by law enforcement. He also offers a judicious assessment of controversial F.B.I. sting operations, using often unsavory informants, and the overreach by intelligence agencies in their surveillance efforts.

The problem for counterterrorism officials in recent years, he writes, was not that they lacked information ”but that they didn’t adequately understand or share the information.” In fact, he notes, cases like those of Mr. Hasan and Mr. Headley (in which early heads-ups were dismissed or overlooked) ”argue not for the gathering of ever-vaster troves of information” — like the collection of telephone metadata by the National Security Agency. They instead argue, Mr. Bergen writes, for ”making smarter judgments about information collected through established, legal means.”

In contrast ”to the most overreaching counterterrorism efforts,” Mr. Bergen adds, ”many routine policing and intelligence initiatives have dramatically reduced the threat posed by terrorists.” On Sept. 11, 2001, there were 16 people on the United States’ no-fly list; by 2015, there were more than 40,000. He writes that more Joint Terrorism Task Force ”fusion centers” have helped law enforcement agencies coordinate efforts, and that ”the relatively small number of successful jihadist attacks in the States” since Sept. 11 indicate that ”American defensive measures” (like T.S.A. airport checks) have been working as deterrents.

Mr. Bergen’s detailed accounts of terror plots (both executed, foiled or failed) make for chilling reading, especially for the 83 percent of American voters who said in a recent Quinnipiac University poll that a major terrorist attack in the United States in the near future is ”very likely” or ”somewhat likely.”

These sorts of fears, Mr. Bergen contends, are exaggerated, and he supplies some sober perspective. While he says that it will be ”many, many years” before jihadist terrorism ”withers and dies,” he believes that it does not pose an existential threat like World War II or the Cold War. Rather, in his view, it represents a ”persistent, low-level threat” that should not be allowed to ”crowd out” other serious issues like climate change and gun violence.

In the years after Sept. 11, he says, ”an American residing in the United States was around five thousand times more likely to be killed by a fellow citizen armed with a gun than by a terrorist inspired by the ideology of Osama bin Laden.”

Kirkus Starred review

A frightening survey of Islamic terrorists bred on American soil.

As a reporter, CNN national security analyst Bergen (Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden—from 9/11 to Abbottabad, 2012, etc.) won enormous respect for interviewing Osama bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks. Now he describes a foggier threat to national security: terrorists born and raised in the U.S. He opens with Mohammed Hamzah Khan, an Illinois teenager who attempted to fly to Turkey in order to join the Islamic State group. Like most of the author’s subjects, Khan and his younger siblings seem like well-adjusted Americans, yet Khan dreamed of living in the Islamic State group’s “Islamic utopia.” Bergen recounts the familiar stories of John Walker Lindh and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but his most startling chapters focus on little-known jihadis like Zachary Chesser, who threatened the creators of South Park, and Carlos Bledsoe, who fired on U.S. servicemen. Throughout the book, the violence seems random and unpredictable. Some characters, like imam Anwar al-Awlaki, appear moderate and peaceful, but they harbor grim secrets: al-Awlaki hired sex workers, wrote militant manifestos, and worked with al-Qaida. A lesser author might have written an anti-immigrant rant, but Bergen approaches the problem of “domestic jihad” as a puzzle to be solved, carefully peeling back the complex layers of the Muslim world. “Of course, only a tiny minority of Muslims are willing to do violence in the name of Allah,” he writes, “and Muslims as a group are certainly no more violent than the adherents of any other religion.” Thorough research reveals how interwoven these conspirators are, and the clerics who inspire violence on the Internet seem nearly as dangerous as the actual perpetrators. Despite the bleak subject matter, Bergen remains optimistic. Terrorism is “a persistent low-level threat that will likely take many, many years before it withers and dies,” he writes, yet a “message of understanding, mutual respect, and open dialogue seems like a good way to move forward.”

Thoughtful and sensitive, Bergen’s book faces a nightmare scenario head-on.


A riveting, panoramic look at “homegrown” Islamist terrorism from 9/11 to the present

Since 9/11, more than three hundred Americans—born and raised in Minnesota, Alabama, New Jersey, and elsewhere—have been indicted or convicted of terrorism charges. Some have taken the fight abroad: an American was among those who planned the attacks in Mumbai, and more than eighty U.S. citizens have been charged with ISIS-related crimes. Others have acted on American soil, as with the attacks at Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon, and in San Bernardino. What motivates them, how are they trained, and what do we sacrifice in our efforts to track them?

Paced like a detective story, United States of Jihad tells the entwined stories of the key actors on the American front. Among the perpetrators are Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born radical cleric who became the first American citizen killed by a CIA drone and who mentored the Charlie Hebdo shooters; Samir Khan, whose Inspire webzine has rallied terrorists around the world, including the Tsarnaev brothers; and Omar Hammami, an Alabama native and hip hop fan who became a fixture in al Shabaab’s propaganda videos until fatally displeasing his superiors.

Drawing on his extensive network of intelligence contacts, from the National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI to the NYPD, Peter Bergen also offers an inside look at the controversial tactics of the agencies tracking potential terrorists—from infiltrating mosques to massive surveillance; at the bias experienced by innocent observant Muslims at the hands of law enforcement; at the critics and defenders of U.S. policies on terrorism; and at how social media has revolutionized terrorism.

Lucid and rigorously researched, United States of Jihad is an essential new analysis of the Americans who have embraced militant Islam both here and abroad.


“Guided by evidence and deep experience, Peter Bergen has become one of America’s most important analysts of Islamist militancy and terrorism. Here he again provides a timely, sober, fact-based study of the diverse and fragmentary character of homegrown violent jihadists. He places the scale of the threat into accurate perspective, without minimizing its dangers. Every American should read this book.”
STEVE COLL, author of Ghost Wars and Private Empire

“It is hard to imagine a timelier book than this one. Peter Bergen does what he does best—telling mesmerizing stories that weave together exhaustive research to illuminate a critically important subject. He shows us that the Americans among us who turn to jihad are not who we imagine them to be, suggesting ways in which we can be simultaneously more humane and more secure.”
ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER, author of The Idea That Is America; president and CEO of New America

“With his latest book, Peter Bergen shows once again that he has become the premier chronicler of jihadism in the twenty-first century. Read it and come away with a new understanding of America and of terrorism.”
THOMAS E. RICKS, author of The Generals and Fiasco

“Nobody burrows deeper into the horrifying world of organized terror, uncovering harrowing stories of near-misses and fatal attacks, than Peter Bergen. And nobody analyzes this fraught subject with such calm, careful rigor. His portrait of the terrorists next door and the agents who hunt them is worthy of Homeland—except that it’s all too real.”
FRANKLIN FOER, author of How Soccer Explains the World; former editor of The New Republic