What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How do Americans become enemies of their own state?

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and San Bernardino mass shooting, homegrown Islamic extremism has become one of the country’s most pressing national security concerns. Author Peter Bergen set out to document how and why Americans become enemies of their own state in his book, “United States of Jihad.” Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Bergen to learn more.
Transcript:

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now the newest addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf, a look at Americans inspired by radical jihadism.

    Margaret Warner has that.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Terrorism expert Peter Bergen has spent two years studying hundreds of radicalized Americans, seeking to understand what drives a minority of U.S. Muslims to wage terror attacks against their fellow citizens.

    He also takes a hard look at how law enforcement has done in identifying and averting this danger. The result is his new book, "The United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists."

    It's being released, along with an HBO documentary based on it, "Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma."

    Peter Bergen, welcome.

    So, how big a threat is this, this homegrown terrorism?

    PETER BERGEN, Author, "United States of Jihad": Well, I think it's a persistent low-level threat.

    We have been in the United States quite lucky; 45 Americans have been killed by jihadi terrorists in the United States, all by homegrown militants, since 9/11. Each one of those deaths, of course, is a tragedy, but it's not a national catastrophe anything on the scale of 9/11.

    So, to some degree, the threat has been managed, but it will persist at a low level for a long time.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Was there one thing you found in your reporting that united all these cases, where you have an American Muslim who decides that he wants to kill other Americans?

  • PETER BERGEN:

    One of the things that's striking is they're overwhelmingly Americans. They're not foreigners coming into this country to do terrorist attacks.

    They tend to be middle class, average income, similar to the average American. They tend to be as well-educated as the average American. A third are married. A third are kids, average age 29. These are not the young hotheads of popular imagination.

    And, in fact, if you look at the San Bernardino case, which, of course, the most lethal terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11, they were married. They had a child. The guy was earning $70,000 a year. They were basically living the American dream.

    So, it's a big puzzle. Why would you then kill your fellow Americans? And I can't say, even after two-and-a-half years' study, that I can answer that question. I try, but each case is individual.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Yes.

    So, let's take a couple of the more obscure cases.

  • PETER BERGEN:

    Yes.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    There was a young man named Carlos Bledsoe, African-American, from a conservative Christian upbringing, shoots and kills a U.S. soldier at a military recruiting base in Little Rock. It seems so unlikely.

  • PETER BERGEN:

    He was typical in the sense that he comes from a relatively prosperous family in Memphis.

    He went to college. He dropped out. He adopted a very fundamentalist form of Islam. He decided to go to Yemen, which is a hotbed of jihadism. He seems to have got radicalized there in prison, came back, and killed an American soldier.

    He said in court to the judge that, you know, he was guilty, he was sort of objecting to American foreign policy.

    Now, is that an adequate excuse? Of course not, because lots of people don't like American foreign policy. They don't kill people as a result.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Zachary Chesser.

  • PETER BERGEN:

    Yes.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    I had never heard of him. He starts out — as a kid, he wants to be a U.S. soldier. He ends up finally being arrested and convicted of trying to threaten the creators of "South Park." But he seemed to follow a similar pattern, especially on the isolation.

  • PETER BERGEN:

    There is a sort of pattern where people adopt these fundamentalist views, and they kind of increasingly seek out like-minded people. They kind of withdraw from society. They often marry somebody who shares exactly their views outside their previous social circle.

    They — you know, they basically are part a self-reinforcing echo chamber of people who share their own views, and then some may turn to violence.

    Now, Zachary Chesser, he was inciting violence in a very real way against the creators of "South Park." He could have been something very different. He could have been a Silicon Valley kid. He was one of the first people to really use the Internet for jihadist purposes.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    That's right. He became a big English-language jihadist blogger. And…

  • PETER BERGEN:

    Right. Yes.

    If he hadn't had a Somali girlfriend and got interested in Islam, he could have had a very trajectory.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    This book focuses a lot on homegrown and self-radicalized terrorists. But there are Americans who are actively recruited.

  • PETER BERGEN:

    Well, luckily, it's not very big now, but we have had lots of Americans who have gone and become important members of al-Qaida.

    Think about Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a well-known community leader and mosque leader in Northern Virginia, who went on to become a leader of al-Qaida in Yemen.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Right.

  • PETER BERGEN:

    There are several examples of people who have taken senior leadership positions in these groups who happen to be American.

    There was an American at the first meeting of al-Qaida in 1988 who was a person taking notes. He was a guy from Kansas city. So, there have been Americans in al-Qaida or these groups from the beginning.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    How effective has U.S. intelligence and law enforcement been in containing, of thwarting this threat?

  • PETER BERGEN:

    We have not had any kind of major terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11.

    But people get through. Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, who was sort of on the radar at the FBI, the FBI sort of dropped the ball. Carlos Bledsoe, the guy who killed a soldier in Arkansas, he was also on the FBI's radar.

    But the FBI, they can't keep cases against people open indefinitely.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Just for what they say.

  • PETER BERGEN:

    Just for what they say.

    And unless we have a machine that can read people's souls, we're not going to know when somebody who is an ultra-fundamentalist becomes a militant who is going to take the law into their own hands.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    One of the little-known facts is that FBI and law enforcement and intelligence have concocted more terrorist plots in this country than all the outside organizations like al-Qaida combined.

  • PETER BERGEN:

    Yes.

    The FBI has done 30. Al-Qaida and other associated groups have done 10. And depending on your perspective, you can say that's law enforcement overkill.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What's the evidence on whether these alleged perpetrators were really committed terrorists or on a path to go there?

  • PETER BERGEN:

    Some of these cases look a little like entrapment to, I think, the outside observers.

    But the FBI is pretty careful to always say, are you really sure you want to go through with this? And the perpetrator usually says yes.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, Peter Bergen, author of "The United States of Jihad," thank you.

  • PETER BERGEN:

    Thank you, Margaret.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you can find more of our book conversations on our Arts page at PBS.org/NewsHour.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest