The jihad’s American recruits

In recent years, the phenomenon of American “homegrown” jihadis has gained significant public attention. In 2009, the United States experienced more homegrown jihadi terrorist activity than in any year since the 9/11 attacks. There were thirteen such cases in 2009, representing at the time over one-quarter of the publicly reported cases of jihadi radicalisation and recruitment since 9/11. Ten such cases were noted in 2010: though a decline from 2009’s number, this still represented more homegrown jihadi terror cases than the United States had seen in any other year.

Commentators and the public have many questions. How much of a threat do homegrown jihadi terrorists pose? Will this phenomenon continue to grow? What is drawing those who were born and raised in the US to the support for militant Islam? Numerous op-eds, television segments, and think tank reports have attempted to provide answers. J M Berger’s Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam is a worthy contribution to the discussion, a strongly researched book that is unique in comprehensively telling the story of more than thirty years’ worth of Americans who have been draw to Islamic militancy.

In 1979, armed militants seized Islam’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Followers of Juhayman al-Otaibi, their ranks included two African-Americans, one of whom died after security services stormed the building. These two men are likely the first known American jihadis.

Though Mr Berger’s Sunni-centric narrative notably skips David Belfield (Dawud Salahuddin), a convert to Islam who assassinated a foe of the new Iranian theocracy at its behest in July 1980, it goes on to explore key global events that shaped the jihadi movement in America. The Afghan-Soviet war was one such event. This conflict sent shockwaves through the Arab world and created the “Afghan Arab” phenomenon—Arab foreign fighters who flocked to the subcontinent to help the Afghan cause. But Americans also fought the Russians, including Mohammed Zaki and Clement Hampton-El, who was convicted as a conspirator in the New York City landmarks bombing plot that also netted Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman.

One American, Mohammed Loay Bayazid (also a veteran of the Afghan-Soviet war), was present at the founding of al Qaeda, and took several pages of notes to memorialise the event. Other Americans were recruited to the organisation in the pre-9/11 days, when few US policymakers and authorities recognised the growing threat.

Ali Mohamed, who relished his role as a spy for al Qaeda while serving as an instructor on the Middle East for the US Army at Fort Bragg, made little effort to disguise his radicalism. He told his superior officer that Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who had been gunned down by a jihadi militant, “was a traitor and he had to die”; he also boasted of how he spent his leave taking part in jihad in Afghanistan. His superior officer’s eight-page report outlining concerns about Mohamed “disappeared into the black hole of army bureaucracy.” Nor did Mr Mohamed’s proclivities cause alarm when, in a ninety-minute panel discussion for the military, he plainly stated that, as a Muslim, he was obligated to ensure that the abode of Islam would dominate non-Muslim lands.

Similarly, FBI agents who favored an aggressive approach to investigating jihadi activity in the US in the 1980s “were ignored at best and even reprimanded when they persisted.” Hence, surveillance photographs taken in one investigation in Calverton, New Jersey, “were filed away, only to emerge years later—after several of the participants had been implicated in terrorist acts.”

Other events that shaped America’s recruits to jihadism include the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. Foreign mujahideen fighters joined that conflict, and as Mr Berger recounts, the Salafi scholar Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips set about identifying American Muslim soldiers (some of whom he helped convert during the Gulf War) who were close to finishing their military commitment. These veterans, including some who had served in special forces, formed a training brigade. “Most of the trainers apparently left after instructing a small group of (mujahideen),” Berger writes, “but some stayed to fight.”

After the New York World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, and a group centred around Omar Abel Rahman was convicted of conspiring to bomb an array of city landmarks, the jihadi network in the United States had to be rebuilt. There were further changes to its composition following the 9/11 attacks due to a government crackdown, as well as technological developments such as the migration of propaganda from newsletters, handouts and tape recordings to the Internet.

Mr Berger’s voluminous research includes interviews with officials in the US and Bosnia, and with jihadis themselves. He obtained thousands of pages of primary source documents through the US Freedom of Information Act, as well as from the National Archives and the court records of key criminal cases.

Jihad Joe does have its shortcomings. Though Mr Berger’s understanding of American jihadis is truly impressive, his understanding of the relevant history and context is sometimes lacking. For example, he attributes the downing of a US Army Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia in 1993 to al Qaeda—something that al Qaeda leaders have claimed, but for which the objective evidence is far from conclusive. Moreover, he writes that following the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Bosnia-Herzegovina, “Bosnian Jews and Christians were permitted to maintain their practices, resulting in a cosmopolitan mix of religions that worked successfully for centuries.” This casual discussion of the area’s long-term foreign occupation ignores the trauma that Bosnian Serbs felt was inflicted upon them, and thus fails to provide insight into one driver of that conflict. And Mr Berger’s claim that the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was somehow unique in “steep[ing] himself in theological arguments before turning toward action” doesn’t square with my own research, which suggests this is not so rare.

Nonetheless, Mr Berger deserves at least some credit even in these areas. Unlike many narratives about the conflict in Bosnia, he aspires to balanced discussion; and unlike many of the luminaries that dominate the field of terrorism studies, he does take theological issues seriously.

Jihad Joe is a worthy contribution. The book should be read by anybody with an interest in American-born jihadis, and will be looked upon as a key resource by future researchers.

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