Despite all of the true crime, crime fiction, thriller, and mystery novels I typically read, this book may have been one of the most chilling I’ve read in a while.
In UNITED STATES OF JIHAD, Peter Bergen examines the “homegrown” terrorism epidemic that has been increasingly prevalent in the years following 9/11. Whether associated with a terrorist organization, such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS, or working alone as what Bergen calls a “lone wolf,” more than 300 Americans have been indicted or convicted of terrorism charges.
This meticulously researched investigative novel begins with the story of Mohammed Khan and his two younger siblings. All raised in Chicago and under 20, these American teenagers were all infatuated with ISIS and on a mission to join their forces in Syria. They only made it as far as the airport before being stopped by U.S. Borders & Custom Protection, questioned by the FBI, and sentenced to prison.
In addition to the Khans, Bergen shares the stories of countless Americans who have embraced militant Islamic beliefs. As Bergen explains,
“The term jihadist will be used to describe all those who have espoused the militant beliefs of these groups [such as al-Qaeda]… Jihad has an alternative, nonviolent meaning within Islam as the internal struggle Muslims wage against un-Islamic behavior, but today’s Islamist militants explicitly reject this understanding of jihad and embrace its interpretation as a literal “holy war.” (p. 10)
With great insight from the FBI, CIA, NYPD, and National Counterterrorism Center, Bergen digs into the psyche of the homegrown terrorist, how the government has grappled with this threat, and what we have to watch out for in the coming years.
In some of its most chilling passages, United States of Jihad recounts the days and months leading up to jihadist attacks waged by homegrown terrorists on American soil and abroad. Attacks that are waged not by people living in poverty or who are mentally ill, but by doctors and soldiers. One of the most significant points this novel brings up is the distinction that majority of Islamic extremists are seemingly “good Americans,” born and raised among us, are involved in the community, and hold reputable jobs.
This is something the government struggled with greatly. There was one plot in particular, in which a “lone wolf” operator was planning to detonate a bomb in New York City – I’ll let Bergen’s words speak for themselves:
“This point deserves underscoring: The NYPD, and indeed the whole U.S. intelligence community, was unaware of the most serious Al-Qaeda plot in the State in almost a decade until Zazi’s email alerted them just days before he was planning to carry out the attacks. And the only reason the NSA was monitoring this e-mail was because of a tip-off from the British.” (p. 119)
This book does a good job of outlining the struggle the government faced in finding and prioritizing suspected terrorist activity and communication. This became especially difficult with the growth of the Internet. Making it increasingly simple for jihadists to stay anonymous while also spreading propaganda in various languages. FBI executive, Art Cummings put it this way,
“We used to say that we would never let a terrorist group establish sanctuary ever again in a county like al-Qaeda did in Afghanistan. Well, they don’t need to attach to geography anymore. It already exists. It’s on the Web. It’s pure sanctuary.” (p. 144)
United States of Jihad is incredibly timely and relevant. It gave me a much deeper understanding of the occurrences we hear about so often on the news. One thing that did throw me off is that this book does not occur linearly, which is not a problem. But, with multiple stories told of people with quite similar sounding names, it was sometimes hard to keep the storylines straight. Bergen helped mitigate this confusion by providing thorough context to each story.
The book ends with the introduction of a foundation created by one of the family members of an American terrorist. With the slogan, “No more silence. No more violence.” the Nawal Foundation “serves as a voice for the Muslim-American community dedicated to renouncing any violence in the name of Islam…” This foundation shows that at least some good can come from these devastating attacks.
*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review*