Sunday, August 13

Bitter Food for Thought

Author Peter Bergen reviewed the cases of over three hundred Americans who “were charged with some sort of Jihadist crime” and translated the lessons, trends and stories he uncovered in the process into United States of Jihad. The book purports to be “an essential investigation of 'homegrown' Islamic terrorism and it was in many ways, a tough read for me. (i.e. I read it in chapter-long chunks instead of sitting down and plowing through and did a lot of swearing in the process.)

There were some components of the book that made it ultimately well worth reading. Insights from law enforcement and military advisors on what makes 'home-grown' and 'lone-wolf' terrorists so hard to spot ahead of time and stop before they can strike were extremely interesting and informative. Peeks into different approaches and concepts of threat management, how they've been applied, and their respective strengths and weaknesses went a long way towards helping me more effectively assess and appreciate where a lot of political moves and law enforcement plans have come from (whether they worked or not).

That said, I seriously struggled with the author's presentation of Islam/Muslims and at several points I was extremely frustrated (and a bit disgusted) by his dismissal and reproof of authors (like Robert Spencer), officials and law enforcement officers/agencies for taking a harder line/less sympathetic approach to individuals seeking to join jihad. Bergen took great pains to interview 'moderate' Muslims and show cases in which they attempted to intervene with family members/friends showing signs of radical or unsafe behavior; likewise, he extensively explored the powerful influence of ISIS media messaging. Nowhere did he address or acknowledge the messier truths that people like Spencer tackle: the Koran explicitly encourages devaluation/subjugation of women and disdain/disregard for any non-Muslim, calls the necessity of reestablishing the caliphate, etc. The 'moderate' Muslims he profiles can ignore those bits if they want, but it doesn't change the fact that those realities exist and the people we've entrusted to protect us have a right to take them into account when trying to do their jobs.

The most powerful and unexpected take-away for me (though it wasn't necessarily the intention of the book) was that many of the American terrorists profiled got started on their path through a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves and a deep longing to do something with meaning. This is a universal desire, and part of a much bigger conversation; I would love to see this explored more somewhere.

At the end of the day, I give this three stars. It was technically well written and it did offer a lot in terms of food for thought. But the author's soft brush around some very real, very hard issues that had a very real place in this discussion (and the way he finished the book with feel-good reassurance about cross-religious partnerships to broaden understanding and communication and how low the statistical likelihood of any one person actually being hurt in domestic terrorist attack) utterly failed to deliver on the “and how do we stop them?” component promised by the book's subtitle and, theoretically, the whole point of doing the research that inspired the book to begin with.

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