Since 9/11, more than three hundred Americans—born and raised in Minnesota, Alabama, New Jersey, and elsewhere—have been indicted or convicted of terrorism charges. Some have taken the fight abroad: an American was among those who planned the attacks in Mumbai, and more than eighty U.S. citizens have been charged with ISIS-related crimes. Others have acted on American soil, as with the attacks at Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon, and in San Bernardino. What motivates them, how are they trained, and what do we sacrifice in our efforts to track them?
Paced like a detective story, United States of Jihad tells the entwined stories of the key actors on the American front. Among the perpetrators are Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born radical cleric who became the first American citizen killed by a CIA drone and who mentored the Charlie Hebdo shooters; Samir Khan, whose Inspire webzine has rallied terrorists around the world, including the Tsarnaev brothers; and Omar Hammami, an Alabama native and hip hop fan who became a fixture in al Shabaab’s propaganda videos until fatally displeasing his superiors.
Drawing on his extensive network of intelligence contacts, from the National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI to the NYPD, Peter Bergen also offers an inside look at the controversial tactics of the agencies tracking potential terrorists—from infiltrating mosques to massive surveillance; at the bias experienced by innocent observant Muslims at the hands of law enforcement; at the critics and defenders of U.S. policies on terrorism; and at how social media has revolutionized terrorism.
Lucid and rigorously researched, United States of Jihad is an essential new analysis of the Americans who have embraced militant Islam both here and abroad.
— Washington Post, Notable Non-Fiction Books in 2016
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Americans for ISIS
Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into [the hearts of] the enemies of Allah.
On the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, nineteen-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan sent an e‑mail to the U.S. State Department inquiring about the application he had made for a passport, which had “still not arrived.” Two weeks later Khan paid $2,679 for flights from Chicago to Vienna and then on to Istanbul for himself and his two younger siblings. He had planned meticulously, saving up the money for the tickets while working at a local big-box home supply store, assembling tourist visas for Turkey, and packing sleeping bags and clothes for the trip. Khan had met someone online who had provided him with the number of a contact in Istanbul who would help to get him and his siblings to the Turkish-Syrian border, and from there on to the region occupied by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Accompanying Khan would be his seventeen-year-old sister, Mina, and his sixteen-year-old brother, Khalid, all three excited to make their pilgrimage to the Promised Land. Mina planned to marry an ISIS fighter, while Khan himself planned to serve in a combat role perhaps, or with the group’s police force. As he contemplated the trip, Khan doodled in his notebook a picture of a fighter with the legend “Come to Jihad” in Arabic behind him, as well as the distinctive ISIS flag: white Arabic letters on a black background. Meanwhile, Mina watched Saleel Sawarim (The Clanking of the Swords), one of a series of one-hour videos showing summary executions of ISIS’s enemies. She later tweeted that she had watched it, including emoticons of a smiley face and a heart.
Earlier that month, on September 2, 2014, American journalist Steven Sotloff had been executed by ISIS following a brutal imprisonment. The beheadings of both Sotloff and his fellow hostage, James Foley (also an American journalist), were videotaped, carried out off-camera while a black-clad terrorist demanded that U.S. air strikes against ISIS cease. In an unmistakable London accent, the terrorist addressed President Barack Obama, promising that “just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”
According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, the executions were the most widely followed news story of the past five years in the United States, provoking widespread outrage. Yet even as the story developed, the three American teenagers living in suburban Chicago were finalizing their plans to join what they saw as the perfect Islamic state. Hamzah Khan and his siblings saw the soldiers of ISIS not as fanatical, Taliban-style murderers, but as the creators of a utopia.
Khan, who had been six at the time of the 9/11 attacks, wrote a three-page letter to his parents explaining why he was leaving Chicago. He told them that an Islamic utopia had been established by ISIS and that he felt obligated to “migrate” there, grandly extending “an invitation to my family” to join him. He couldn’t bear that his American tax dollars would be used to kill “my Muslim brothers and sisters,” and wrote that he was upset by the depravity of the West, which he described as “getting more immoral day by day.” He didn’t want his own children “to be exposed to filth like this.” Writing in capital letters, Khan instructed his parents to “FIRST AND FOREMOST, PLEASE MAKE SURE NOT TO TELL THE AUTHORITIES.”
Khan’s siblings also wrote letters. His brother wrote that the “evil of this country makes me sick,” citing the deaths of innocent Afghan children in attacks by American drones. His sister wrote of her longing for death and the afterlife. Both begged their parents not to call the police, seeming to understand that joining ISIS was viewed as a crime by American authorities.
The infatuation the Khan teenagers felt for ISIS was hard to square with their upbringing. Their father, Shafi, and mother, Zarine, had come to the United States from India as college students, and both readily embraced life in America, which they viewed as a “paradise.” Even now, Zarine says, “Everything is so organized. The people are so nice. You know everything is by the rules.” Her husband, Shafi, explains, “There’s a lot of opportunities. You can do anything you want. You can be a lawyer. You can be a doctor. You can be a businessman. You can study whatever you like.” While he earned a degree in environmental science from Northeastern Illinois University, Shafi worked as a gift store supervisor at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport before going on to work for an Islamic charity. Zarine stayed at home with their five children. They became U.S. citizens.
The household in which the Khan children grew up was observant but not extreme. The Khan parents went out of their way to shield their children from elements of American culture they deemed too permissive, such as television shows that featured profanity. When the kids were young the TV broke, and it was never replaced. Zarine wore a veil, and all the Khan children attended Islamic schools; this was partly because the education there was better than in the local public schools--in India, Zarine and Shafi had attended Catholic schools for the same reason--but also because the Khan parents wanted their children to grow up as practicing Muslims. When Hamzah turned thirteen he spent more than two years learning to recite the Koran from memory, a feat that entails memorizing some six thousand Arabic verses.
Yet even as Zarine and Shafi respected Muslim traditions, they raised their children to be Americans. The children grew up playing basketball and reading Marvel comics and Tintin books. They shopped at Walmart and went on a vacation to Niagara Falls. The whole family pitched in to do yard work. During high school Hamzah volunteered at the local mosque but also read Japanese manga. He was a fan of TV shows such as The Walking Dead and CSI and had a girlfriend. When Kim Kardashian was visiting Chicago, Hamzah took a selfie with her. Like many Chicagoans, he was a big fan of the Bulls and the Bears.
After high school Hamzah started studying engineering at Benedictine University. The Khans were then homeschooling Mina, who planned to be a doctor. As for so many other Muslim American families, the American Dream seemed to be working its magic for the Khans.
On October 4, 2014, Hamzah Khan rose before dawn to say the first of the five daily prayers with his father. When they returned from the local mosque at around 6:00 a.m., Shafi returned to bed and Hamzah and his brother and sister launched their plan. They folded up comforters in their beds to make it appear that they were still sleeping there, gathered their freshly issued U.S. passports and tickets to Vienna and Istanbul, and took a taxi to O’Hare Airport. Their contact in Turkey was a shadowy ISIS recruiter they had met online, Abu Qa’qa, with whom they had arranged--communicating anonymously via the smartphone messaging applications Kik and WhatsApp--to travel to Raqqa, Syria, completing a five-thousand-mile journey from the heart of the Midwest to ISIS headquarters. At last their dream of jihad was becoming a reality.
They didn’t make it. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials stopped the Khans at O’Hare. Around noon, FBI agents arrived at the Khan house, where Shafi opened the door. One of the agents asked, “Do you know where your kids are?” Shafi replied, “They are upstairs sleeping.” The agent said, “No, they’re at the airport. They were trying to board a plane.” The Khans were in shock: Hamzah always told them where he was going, even if it was just to the nearby Walmart. The only untoward behavior the Khans had lately seen in their three teenagers was their inordinate attachment to their phones, which the parents didn’t monitor with the same vigilance as they did their home computers.
At first Hamzah told FBI agents that he and his siblings were going on vacation to Istanbul to see the famous Blue Mosque, but over the course of a marathon eleven hours of interviews he revealed their plan to meet with members of ISIS. A search of the Khan household soon turned up the incriminating letters the Khan children had written to their parents. Hamzah faced up to fifteen years in prison for trying to provide “material support” to ISIS in the form of his own services. At seventeen years old, Mina faced the possibility of being charged as an adult.
The Khan kids had never been in trouble with the law; nor did federal prosecutors allege that they planned any acts of violence. Hamzah seemed motivated more by the desire to join ISIS’s “perfect” Islamic state than by the prospect of fighting in ISIS’s overseas campaign; Mina told FBI agents that “none of us will ever hurt anybody.” But to federal prosecutors, the Khan siblings were knowingly trying to join an anti-American death cult recently designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the Obama administration.
Three months after the Khan teenagers were arrested, some three hundred supporters gathered in a suburban mosque on a frigid Chicago night to raise money for their defense. It was a representative cross section of the Muslim American community: computer engineers from India, doctors from Pakistan, South Asian cabdrivers, Albanian businessmen, and a sprinkling of more fundamentalist students wearing black turbans in the style of the Taliban.
The Khan family had retained Thomas Durkin to defend their oldest son. Durkin, a professorial sixty-eight-year-old lawyer and a former federal prosecutor, had represented a range of clients few would defend, including neo-Nazis and one of the key plotters of the 9/11 attacks. He greeted the congregation with a rousing Salaam Alaikum (“Peace be upon you”) and, in a strong Chicago accent, warmed up the crowd with jokes about his Irish-Catholic background. Durkin then turned serious, saying that if Hamzah Khan had been an Irish Catholic instead of a Muslim American, the FBI would have contacted his parents about the online activity of their son.
This was close to what had happened in the case of Shannon Conley of Denver, exactly the same age as Hamzah Khan, whom FBI agents met with repeatedly beginning in late 2013 to talk her out of her plan to join ISIS. The agents suggested that she work for a humanitarian organization instead. These interventions failed; Conley was arrested at Denver International Airport in April 2014 while trying to board a flight for her trip to Syria and was sentenced to four years in prison the following year. With the Khan children, no attempts were made by the FBI to intervene or alert their parents. Instead, the FBI had mounted an investigation that could put Hamzah away for a crime he had not actually succeeded in committing.
Durkin described his client as a true believer who thought he was going to join the perfect society. In that sense, Hamzah was similar to an earlier generation of idealistic Americans who flocked to Spain in the 1930s to show their solidarity with the antifascists fighting Franco. In the absence of social media, Durkin said, Hamzah would never have been persuaded by ISIS’s message. He was, in short, a misguided kid who needed to be defended against both the U.S. government, with its unlimited resources and scant respect for the rights of Muslim Americans, and the siren call of ISIS’s slick propaganda. The congregation applauded loudly.
Next up was Fisal Hammouda, an Egyptian-American cleric sporting a well-trimmed short beard and a smart gray suit. Hammouda’s task was to drum up money for Hamzah Khan’s defense. Financing an effective defense of an alleged terrorist in federal court, where terrorism cases have a conviction rate of 99 percent, is no small matter. The cleric first made the point that America “is our home,” but then segued into claims that 9/11 had been an “internal demolition job” calculated to justify a war in Afghanistan in which a million people were killed. The cleric also said that mosques across the country were riddled with government “infiltrators.” Durkin and the other members of his legal team looked uncomfortable.
After shouting, “Hamzah Khan is our son!” the cleric said that one hundred thousand dollars was needed to fund Hamzah’s defense. He began by asking for a ten-thousand-dollar donation, which was met with a long silence. No one in the mosque had that kind of money to give. When he lowered the ask to five thousand, a couple of hands went up, greeted by loud cries of “Takbir!” and “Allahu Akbar!”--Arabic phrases signifying the greatness of God. Smaller donations trickled in, and by the end of the evening many tens of thousands of dollars had been promised.
On January 12, 2015, Hamzah pleaded not guilty at the federal courthouse in Chicago. Outside the courthouse Zarine said, “We condemn the brutal tactics of ISIS and groups like them. And we condemn the brainwashing and the recruiting of children.” Fighting back tears, her husband standing beside her, Zarine addressed herself to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “We have a message for ISIS, Mr. Baghdadi and his fellow social media recruiters: Leave our children alone!”
In 2014, ISIS made alarming strides toward becoming the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” it claimed to be, having seized large regions of both countries, including population centers such as Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. The group assumed some of the conventional trappings of a state, implementing its own police force and ambulances in the cities it controlled, and even issuing its own license plates. It also imposed Taliban-style rule (a draconian implementation of sharia, or Koranic, law that has involved throwing homosexuals to their deaths from tall buildings, lopping off the hands of thieves, beheading women accused of “sorcery,” and enslaving and raping minority women) over some eight million Syrians and Iraqis. Within several months of conquering Mosul, ISIS had drawn to its banners a dozen or so affiliated terrorist groups around the Muslim world, stretching from the coast of North Africa to the mountains of the Hindu Kush.
Al-Qaeda, ISIS’s rival for the leadership of the global jihadist movement, could only dream of such success. Originally an al-Qaeda offshoot, ISIS had splintered from the group in early 2014 over a number of tactical differences. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden saw the establishment of the caliphate (the sharia-ruled Promised Land to which the Khan siblings thought they were traveling) as a distant goal, whereas ISIS had a more aggressive timetable, claiming its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be the successor of the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Islamic world. And while al-Qaeda believed that killing Muslims, at least, was generally to be avoided, an integral part of ISIS’s bid for dominance was the mass murder of anyone and everyone who didn’t follow its precepts to the letter.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Americans for Isis 1
Chapter 2 All-American Al-Qaeda 20
Chapter 3 Who Are the Terrorists? 44
Chapter 4 Lone Wolves 56
Chapter 5 Pre-Crime 85
Chapter 6 Leader-Led Jihad 105
Chapter 7 Jihadinamerica.Com 131
Chapter 8 Exporting Jihad: Americans Abroad 160
Chapter 9 Tracking the Terrorists 199
Chapter 10 The Boston Bombers 221
Chapter 11 Future Jihad 244