Peter Bergen wants everyone to chill out about terrorism. As he soberly explained at Civic Hall for the New America Foundation, of which he is a director, the CNN national security analyst and expert on jihadists not only promoted his new book, The United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists, but also threw a bucket of cold water on the hysteria that surrounds the topic. Karen Greenberg, who directs the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, began the event by interrogating Bergen about what he means by "Binladenism."
"We're a fundamentally ideological species," Bergen, who famously interviewed Osama bin Laden in 1997, began. "We seek meaning in a world which is often not very meaningful. And the way we often do that is by attaching ourselves to an ideology. What is an ideology? It is a set of ideas that claims to explain not only the present but also the past and also the future."
Binladenism, then, is an ideology that advocates "a Taliban-style theocracy from Indonesia to Morocco. And just like Nazism or Communism," Bergen added, "that nirvana or utopia can only be attained if we could get rid of a few people who are standing in the way." Groups like ISIS are thus a "continuation" of Binladenism: "It's the latest iteration of this set of ideas. The difference between Bin Laden and ISIS is that Bin Laden saw the caliphate as something that was somewhat out there, in the future."
"If you look at ISIS propaganda," Bergen said, "Bin Laden remains a revered figure. It was Bin Laden who propagated these ideas around the world." Another martyr for jihadists is Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born cleric whose sermons still serve as rhetorical fodder for ISIS. In the weeks after 9/11, Bergen said, Awlaki was visiting prostitutes "literally weekly." The Pentagon invited him to speak as "a moderate voice of Islam. It's unclear when he became an al Qaeda sympathizer." Bergen reflected on how "Americanized" jihad had become, citing a reviewer who called jihad "a form of American soft power."
Awlaki was not the only American to become a jihadist. Bergen examines the cases of 330 homegrown terrorists, such as David Headley, who helped plot the Mumbai attacks in 2008. "Understandably, a lot of family members don't want to relive the experience of their kid being wrapped up in a jihadi terrorism case." One such case is that of Carlos Bledsoe, a Muslim convert who killed a military recruiter in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2009. Bledsoe had gone to Yemen, where he was radicalized and ultimately driven to violence.
The "internet jihad" has radicalized many others, like Zachary Chesser, who threatened to kill the creators of South Park for portraying the prophet Muhammad (depicted wearing a bear suit). Chesser is now in the Supermax prison at Florence, Colorado, "a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone," Bergen said. The "paradox of ISIS," Bergen said, is its use of social media, "an American invention. I'm sure the irony of that is not something they appreciate. I don't think they do irony." Two days after he gave his talk, on Feb. 3, Twitter announced that they eliminated the accounts of 125,000 ISIS sympathizers.
"It's easy to criticize the overkill of what the NYPD did" with its well-documented profiling of Muslim communities, or what the FBI did with entrapping mentally disturbed people to commit acts of violence, but the salient fact is that this country has not suffered a mass casualty terrorist attack since 2001. According to research by New America, the number of Americans who have been killed by jihadi terrorists since 9/11 stands at 45, including the 14 people killed in San Bernardino last December. If someone had predicted that the number would be that low back in 2002, Bergen said, "that would have seemed like an absurd and overly optimistic claim."
"The problem has been managed," Bergen said, adding later that no national politician to this day can say that. As far as the mass dragnet of American communications from the NSA goes, Bergen pointed out, it "has been the least fruitful. The things that really work are suspicious activity reports, family members saying something, community members saying something, undercover officers, informants, all things that work in any kind of law enforcement situation."
Engaging people in Muslim communities in the United States, rather than alienating them, is the only way to fight the problem. Trying to stop "radicalization" writ large is like "trying to stop the tide. It's a futile exercise." What is better is trying to stop people from getting recruited by extremist groups to become cannon fodder for the jihad in Syria and other places. Half of the foreign fighters going to Syria, Bergen noted, are killed. "Going to Syria is incredibly dangerous."
"What doesn't work is the NYPD mass surveilling where Muslims pray and go to work. According to one of the senior NYPD officers who was asked in a civil suit if [the program] yielded any leads, he said no." Likewise, "the NSA phone data yielded one case, one person sending $8,500 to Shabaab in Somalia. Now, okay, that's not something we encourage. But if you get all of America's phone data over five years and you only have one case, it doesn't make any sense."
"We should be more worried about gun violence," Bergen said. "We should be more worried about climate change," at which a smattering of applause broke out. Looking at the sweep of American history, Bergen placed the contemporary fear into a content of waves of anxiety about other demographic groups: freemasons, Catholics, Jews, to name a few. "Paranoia is as American as apple pie."