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Review: Peter Bergen’s United States of Jihad and Mark Bourrie’s The Killing Game explore why some people turn to terrorism Add to ...

United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists

By Peter Bergen

Crown, 387 pages, $36

The Killing Game: Martyrdom, Murder and the Lure of ISIS

By Mark Bourrie

Patrick Crean Editions, 273 pages, $32.99

It seems at first the very height of hyperbole to entitle a book United States of Jihad, but Peter Bergen – one of the world’s leading journalists covering Islamist terrorism, and one of very few to have met Osama bin Laden – intends a degree of irony. He writes that the United States has faced three existential crises – the Civil War, the Second World War and the Cold War – and that the “Binladenist” threat, though persistent, barely rates by comparison. Since the catastrophic attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he observes, U.S. counterterrorism efforts have been so effective that jihadis have killed fewer Americans than even the eccentric – and now largely forgotten – domestic militant groups that proliferated in the 1970s.

Bergen’s title hints at two connections between jihad and American identity: one is that, since Sept. 11, successive administrations have put the jihadi threat close to the centre of their security agendas, and the other is that the people who have carried out or attempted jihadi attacks in the United States have usually been U.S. citizens or legal residents. The idea of a utopian, anti-American project, hitched rhetorically and aesthetically to the world’s second-largest religion, has tremendous power to inflame imaginations, emotions and prejudices. Bergen, who has interviewed convicted terrorists, their families and friends and people working across the counterterrorism profession, is the most sober guide to the subject one could hope for.

Early on, Bergen makes an observation that, even today, feels slightly taboo, but which need not. “Islamist terrorism,” he writes, “does have a relationship to the religion of Islam, something that cannot be wished away by claims that Islam is simply a religion of peace, or by the desire not to offend, or because it is too easy to underestimate the strength of others’ religious beliefs in our increasingly secular world.” Having acknowledged a rift between religious and secular spheres, Bergen draws plausible answers to the perennial “why?” that follows jihadi attacks. His answers pertain not to the existential struggles of a state against its enemies, but to an outré solution a handful of individuals have found to their own existential crises.

The “why?” of terrorism is toxic because it invites observers to supply their own answers, which typically reflect their own emotional needs, such as the need to feel safe, to feel in control, to feel one’s own politics validated and so on. Bergen’s case studies undermine this tendency by showing that, in times of personal crisis or ennui, a small number of people find in jihadi ideology an off-the-shelf belief system that changes all the rules of life in a manner flattering to themselves. A striking proportion of Bergen’s subjects are either educated, well-off, not-so-observant Muslims or fresh converts to the faith. It is in rediscovering or discovering Islam through the medium of jihadi ideology that they seek out the bloodiest and most Manichean – and therefore most questionable – passages in Islamic scripture, and implement them as urgent affirmations of faith.

Since Sept. 11, the United States has built a massive security infrastructure to prevent another attack on that scale, and has succeeded. It has learned, too, from its failures and near misses where smaller-scale attacks are concerned. U.S. security officials have honed studies of the various genres of domestic jihad, from “lone wolves” such as Nidal Hasan – the army psychiatrist who shot up Fort Hood, Tex., – to cases of “leader-led jihad” such as Faisal Shahzad, who very nearly set off a bomb in Times Square for the Pakistani Taliban. Some counterterrorism methods, such as the FBI’s use informants to encourage likely characters to pursue jihadi plots, have drawn criticism – Bergen includes a chapter on entrapment and “pre-crime” – but have made it very difficult to form a terrorist cell in the United States.

Bergen presents striking patterns in his accounts of his protagonists’ “jihadization.” Divorce and family breakdown are often in the background. A sudden interest in Sept. 11 conspiracy theories is very often an early red flag. Make what you will of many jihadis’ cannabis habits. (All three factors featured in the story of the Boston Marathon bombers.) But Bergen also has an eye for the human factor, which makes this book, for all its horror, humane. “Jihadization” is usually a great blow to the families of the person involved, and Bergen presents poignant family portraits. His account of the friendship that emerged between Kerry Cahill, daughter of Fort Hood victim Michael Cahill, and Nader Hasan, closest relative of Nidal, makes for an unexpectedly moving conclusion.

It may be a side effect of American success in preventing large-scale attacks that the international jihadi movement – which is in no sense waning – now concentrates its power more than ever on the vulnerable populations of Iraq and Syria and – to a lesser extent – Europe. Whereas al-Qaeda preferred to strike the American homeland if it could, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an offshoot of al-Qaeda’s restive Iraqi contingent, has focused on building an Islamic state. While IS has launched attacks abroad, most notably in Paris last November, it has preferred to use its “state” in Iraq and Syria as a base from which to show up Western impotence with its atrocities against women, minorities, journalists and aid workers.

IS is a utopian, millenarian settler movement. It has attracted tens of thousands of joiners from around the world. Last year, the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consultancy, reported that numbers of foreign fighters joining IS more than doubled from 2014 to 2015, from 12,000 to 31,000. IS also attracts women who hope to have the fighters’ children, and to populate the new “state” – a first for an international jihadi movement. Around a hundred Canadians have joined IS, and their stories provide the impetus for Mark Bourrie’s The Killing Game. A military historian and specialist in media and propaganda, Bourrie sets out to examine the group’s appeal, and the historical precedents for military projects courting foreign fighters.

Bourrie presents patterns recognizable from Bergen’s profiles. Canadians who have joined IS tend to have histories of parental divorce, sometimes combined with an interest in Sept. 11 conspiracy theories. A noticeable proportion were not raised as Muslims, but made precipitous conversions before fleeing to Syria. Like Bergen, Bourrie acknowledges a genuine religious element to the jihadi phenomenon, and details IS members’ theological debates, their religious rationalizations for their cruelty to Middle Eastern minorities including other Muslim groups, and their theories about the religious significance of dreams. Their use of early Islamic punishments, he writes, “is an expression of faith.”

Bourrie’s historical accounts of foreign fighter movements, such as those that fuelled Spanish Republican resistance to Franco, or the Nazi SS make interesting reading in themselves, but don’t necessarily serve the subject at hand. There are connections to explore, for example when Bourrie touches on the history of Nazi propaganda in the region IS now dominates, but he doesn’t delve in. His implied analogies between IS fighters and the Canadian and British soldiers who have gone to fight alongside IS’ Kurdish adversaries feel forced. Bourrie’s Al Gore-ish preoccupation with the influence of violent movies and video games – the latter of which seems to explain his title – harks back to a more innocent era.

There now exists a shelf load of excellent studies on IS, and Bourrie’s is a somewhat eccentric, if entertaining, addition. Hitherto it is one of few accounts with a Canadian focus, and Bourrie produces useful information about Canadian IS converts’ trajectories, their families’ lonely struggles, and the thankless efforts of Canadian Muslims who feel under-supported by the prevailing culture in their efforts to confront jihadi messaging. It is saddening if unsurprising to learn that Canada has turned to censorship, rather than argument, to confront that messaging. Still and all, there is something rather unconvincing and comical about a Canadian jihadi such as John Maguire beginning a threatening missive, “O people of Canada …” Was he consciously channelling the national anthem?

Roland Elliott Brown is a Canadian writer living in London. He has written for Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Spectator, and the National Post.

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