An Interview with Peter Bergen

The journalist and terrorism expert discusses his latest book, United States of Jihad.


Peter Bergen is no stranger to the psychology of terrorism. He conducted the first television interview with Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11, is CNN’s National Security Analyst, and is vice president of the New America Foundation. In his new work, United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists, Bergen analyzes who becomes attracted to radical jihad, and discovers the much more difficult question to answer: Why?

Drawing from extensive research on more than 300 individuals convicted or indicted on terrorism charges since 9/11, Bergen explores their path to radicalism, which is often more complex than the public narrative would have us believe. Starting with an in-depth look at Anwar al-Awlaki’s ascent to notorious al-Qaeda leader (as well as the first American killed in a CIA drone strike) to the San Bernardino killers, he found disenchantment, distortions of American foreign policy, and, above all, the desire for recognition.

What is similar in the majority of cases is that nearly every convicted terrorist identified started out as an ordinary American. According to Bergen, “The American dream, in contrast to the European one, has worked out pretty well for the majority of American Muslims, who are both as wealthy and educated as the average American.” In 2010, al-Awlaki said that, “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie.”

I sat down with Bergen to get his take on what motivates a terrorist, the future of ISIS, and the differences in the lives of American vs. European Muslims.

There’s this interesting dichotomy you present early on in a statement that comes from Imam Mohamed Magid [a Sudanese American cleric at one of America’s largest mosques in Northern Virginia], where he says, “Every time I come from overseas, when I arrive in the airport, always I say: ‘May God bless America.’ There’s no place on the face of the earth, including Europe, to live as a Muslim, to be really expressing yourself as a Muslim, more than the United States.” It’s the same United States that welcomed the Tsarnaev brothers with open arms, allowed them to attend free public schools, and provided them welfare assistance. So we have this majority population of Muslims who feel like Magid, but a handful that turns against the very country that allows them the most elemental liberties.

That’s an interesting observation. I think what Magid said is true. If you’re a Shia in Saudi Arabia, your views are considered heretical. If you’re a Sunni in Syria, you’ve essentially fled your home. If you’re a Sunni in Anbar Province, you regard the Iraqi majority as a Shia government that operates against your interests. In Muslim-majority countries across the world, it’s difficult to wear your religion openly.

One of the most striking statistics I discuss in the book is that while roughly 10 percent of the French population is Muslim, an alarming 70 percent of its prison population is Muslim. You can extend that point to other European countries as well, though it may not be quite as pronounced. In Europe, many Muslims are living in de-facto ghettos, with high double-digit unemployment, which is not the case for the majority of American Muslims. Therefore, it’s not surprising that France has supplied more foreign fighters to link up with ISIS in Syria than any other Western country.

There was a time during the Bush Administration, and even after, when the commonly held belief perpetuated in political circles on both sides of the aisle, and in the media, was that poverty and lack of opportunity were the breeding ground for terrorism. However, your research in conjunction with the New America Foundation found a strong correlation between technical education, a middle-class lifestyle, and terrorism.

Exactly. Look at the San Bernardino couple — both had graduate degrees in technical subjects, and their average age was late 20s, which is close to the overall profile of the 330 cases my research team and I compiled. The dataset we used was every person convicted of a terrorist crime, of which there have been more than 300. The findings showed these individuals are married with kids, have an average income, are employed, are not career criminals, and are not mentally ill. Researcher Swati Pandey and I looked at the educational backgrounds of around 80 individuals responsible for the worst anti-Western terrorist attacks in recent history, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the September 11th attacks, and the Bali nightclub bombing. More than half of them had attended college, many of whom concentrated on engineering or technical subjects, and none of them had attended madrassas.

One of the people I profile in the book, David Headley, a mastermind behind the Mumbai attacks, could be classified a sociopath/psychopath, but he’s actually an outlier. Most of the people I looked at were ordinary Americans. That’s what makes this an interesting question. The “who” is easy, but the “why” is more of a puzzle.

You talk about something that has always fascinated me about the collective dialogue on terrorism in the U.S., which is that some of the falsehoods were repeated so much that they took years to deconstruct, such as the one that there were “sleeper cells of al-Qaeda” lying in wait here in the U.S.

The sleeper cells were an unfalsifiable statement to some degree — where many felt that merely because we hadn’t found them didn’t mean they never existed. Unfalsifiable statements aren’t particularly useful. There were individuals who were recruited by al-Qaeda in the United States, but there were never hundreds of people waiting in sleeper cells. The number of people that al-Qaeda had sent to the states was a handful rather than a large group, and they’ve since all been arrested.

It’s very easy to say the sky is falling, but when the sky doesn’t fall, people aren’t held to account. Another unfalsifiable statement was the idea that Bin Laden had not attacked the U.S. again because he wanted to do something on the same scale of 9/11 — but that was unfounded and never happened.

One of the most startling revelations you make in the book is that, since 9/11, the FBI has organized more jihadist terrorist plots in the U.S. than any other organization — around 30, compared to al-Qaeda’s nine.

It speaks to one of the points I make in the book when FBI Director Robert Mueller meets with President Bush, and Bush tells him he doesn’t want the FBI to fight terror as they had in the past. He directed Mueller to thwart the next attack. Out of this came the question of whether the U.S. should have a domestic intelligence agency — an MI5 equivalent — with an army of informants who conduct sting operation against jihadi terrorists, some of which are in serious planning stages and some of which don’t amount to much.

There’s a lot of debate about the legality of all this, which could be categorized as entrapment in a court of law. Matthew Llaneza, for example, would be in a group home right now being medicated for his schizophrenia had he not had the misfortune of meeting up with an FBI informant and is now in prison. There’s also the group of homeless men who were enticed by a BMW and a Caribbean vacation if they would commit jihad. The judge described the leader of this group as “Shakespearean in his buffoonery.” In other words, he was incapable of organizing anything, let alone a full-scale act of terror.

You note that by the time Obama took office, law enforcement and intelligence gathering had re-strategized and hit their stride in making it increasingly difficult for jihadist-motivated individuals to work in groups, furthering a shift to the lone-wolf mentality. At the same time, jihadist websites, social media, and the magazine Inspire (referenced by the Tsarnaev brothers in the Boston Marathon bombing) have made it easier for lone wolves to access resources and ideas to commit violent acts all on their own, with little detection.

Yes — there’s an Israeli academic who said, “The lone wolf is now part of a virtual pack.” So if you are radicalizing online, you can spend hundreds of hours with other likeminded jihadists around the world and commune with them in a virtual echo chamber. The information we found was that the post-9/11 model of multiple plotters attempting attacks has shifted because law enforcement methods have made that strategy easy to track. The lone wolves that we’re seeing now are part of these larger and more networked virtual communities.

Zachery Chesser, the “world’s foremost Internet holy warrior,” was arrested before attempting to board a flight to Uganda to attend an al-Shabaab training camp, where he had planned to martyr himself on behalf of Islam. Do you think someone like him walks a fine line between delusion and grandiosity?

I quote his mother in the book — she’s a government prosecutor and not at all happy about how her son developed. She believes that without the Internet, his life would have been a different story. The rise of the English-language jihadist Internet — invented by Americans — has given a platform and a voice to that community across the world. People like al-Awlaki, who developed Inspire magazine in English, provided this platform of accessibility to people like Zachery. This kind of material previously only existed in Arabic behind password-protected sites. ISIS now uses a social-media platform in Berlin called Telegram, which operates far outside the legal jurisdiction of the United States.

To even a lay observer, there were very clear signs that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, was a threat long before his infamy. He was retroactively implicated in the violent murder of his three friends and allegedly met with radical extremists in Dagestan in 2012. He wanted to be a famous boxer. You referenced him as having “heroic aspirations but practical mediocrity.” That says volumes.

Everyone wants to be a hero in their own story. It’s a common human impulse — Tamerlan’s dreams of becoming an Olympic-level boxer faded. He was unemployed and unemployable and surviving off his wife’s income. So his heroic self-perception had dematerialized, and the way for him to resolve that was to redeem himself by moving toward Islam and radicalization. Psychologically, violence can be a way out. He used his personal disappointments as justification for murder.

You place terrorists into two major categories — leader-led jihad vs. lone wolves. ISIS has morphed into an amalgamation of the two with “shrewd recruitment, motivational marketing, and top-down direction.” Do you think ISIS will sustain its strength in the next few years in the same way al-Qaeda was able to reinvent itself for so long?

I think ISIS has a dilemma since it’s a geographical entity that controls lots of territory and population, which is much easier to attack than a group that doesn’t have an obvious headquarters and is more dispersed. The momentum is shifting against them. They’re losing money, losing ground. They’ve lost fighters, so collectively the trends are going against them. Will they go out of business? Maybe not. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been around for 13 years despite enormous losses.

What’s harder to eliminate is their motivating ideology. There are two underlying factors, the first of which is a regional civil war that spans Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and beyond, and the other is the rise of large-scale migration from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to Western Europe. This is going to fuel ethnic tensions among European nations, and we will continue to see attacks in Brussels.

Frederick Calhoun, an expert in threat management, notes that each perpetrator “acts unto himself, and his motivations may never fully be understood.” What’s the one thing you want readers to take away from this book, in terms of the general public’s narrative on who the terrorists actually are and what motivates them?

As I began the research, I came across the discipline of threat management — and what I discovered through that is the notion that often the motivations to commit terrorist acts are even something the perpetrator himself can’t explain. I cite Immanuel Kant, who says, “From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” When you really dig in, there were some people influenced by their contempt for American foreign policy, personal disappointments, and invalidations. But lots of people object to our foreign policy, and lots of people suffer disappointments at one time or another, but very few turn around and kill innocent strangers. When you really dig into these cases, the “why” is a very complex question for which there may never fully be an answer.

Another big takeaway is to put these attacks into perspective. These are not national catastrophes, and the likelihood of another Paris attack is very slim. What we’ll continue to see are low-level attacks, or consistent small-scale acts of violence — but we’ve largely managed and contained the 9/11-style threat through a combination of domestic and international law-enforcement collaboration. At the same time, as the law of averages will attest, some attacks will succeed. While we’ve largely managed to contain terrorism, you simply can’t stop everything.

In 2009, U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan killed 52-year-old physician’s assistant Michael Cahill and 12 others in cold blood at Fort Hood, TX, before civilian police officer Kimberly Munley shot and wounded Hasan, thwarting further causalities. I was incredibly moved by the end of your book, when the Cahills meet the Hasans and join forces to advocate against terrorism.

There is hope, and that’s what I wanted to end on.

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