Syed Farook, Sr., a Pakistani immigrant, struggled to adapt to life in America with his family. Though he wore traditional Pakistani garb, he was not an observant Muslim, and he drove trucks for a living. He often had trouble paying the bills. The family filed for bankruptcy at one point and almost faced foreclosure for its home in Riverside, Calif. As the New York Times reported in December, he was also a drinker and an abusive father.
Syed, Jr., was, like his mother, more religious, referring to his father as “an unbeliever” during one theological dispute. When his father urged him to hang out with his friends more and perhaps dance with some girls, the younger Syed insisted that a good Muslim man only dances with his wife.
This past December in San Bernardino, Calif., Syed, Jr.—along with his wife Tashfeen Malik, a Pakistani immigrant he met online—killed 14 people at a training session and party for the county health department where he worked. They left their infant daughter with her grandmother, and the couple was later killed by police—after Malik pledged allegiance to ISIS on Facebook. Unbeknownst to their neighbors, the couple, who mostly kept to themselves, had been hoarding rifles, handguns, 4,500 rounds of ammunition, and 19 pipe bombs at their suburban home.
Farook and Malik were similar in many ways to other self-radicalized American jihadists, as the phenomenon is described by Peter Bergen, a national security analyst for CNN, in his new book, United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, 330 individuals in the United States have been charged with some type of jihadist crime. Many appeared to be “ordinary Americans,” Bergen writes: middle-class, well-educated, second-generation immigrants. But these individuals’ apparent pursuit of the American Dream masked a more sinister reality.
Mitchell Silber, a former top official at the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, noted in a 2007 report that some sort of personal calamity often provided these Americans with a “cognitive opening” to embrace fundamentalist Islam and later jihad, whether it was losing a job or family member, or experiencing discrimination or a sense of shame about the perceived mistreatment of Muslims by Western militaries. Among those families that were immigrants, their assimilation into American society and the West did not go as planned.
What Bergen calls “Binladenism” seemed like an exciting alternative to alienated, distraught Americans who considered turning to jihad: By defeating the enemies of Islam, holy warriors could eventually help usher in a restored caliphate to rule the Muslim world (Bin Laden thought this would take generations to achieve, while ISIS is working on an accelerated timeline). It was a chance to become a hero, and be part of something larger than yourself.
Also crucial to the appeal of Binladenism was the advent of online jihadist propaganda. Among the 330 U.S. militants charged with or convicted of engaging in jihadist activity, more than 80 were influenced by the sermons and writings of American imam-turned-al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, which were easily accessible online. A few American jihadists even talked with him online or met with him in Yemen. Despite Awlaki’s death via a U.S. drone strike in 2011, his radical preaching continues to inspire jihadists globally (Syed Farook was an avid follower).
Within the counterterrorism community, there is a long-running debate about whether “leaderless jihad”—attacks on American soil by homegrown militants and “lone wolves”—is a more potent threat to U.S. security than “leader-led jihad,” i.e., more sophisticated and lethal attacks on the homeland that are directed by a foreign terrorist group. Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former CIA officer in the Middle East, argued in a 2008 book that the threat from homegrown jihadists had eclipsed that of al Qaeda, principally due to the pervasiveness of online terrorist propaganda and the “social bonds” formed by disaffected youth. The attacks by lone wolves such as Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan in 2009 and the Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston Marathon in 2013 later provided evidence for his claim. Yet analysts such as Bruce Hoffman disagreed, countering that plots organized by foreign jihadist groups would always result in more casualties and thus have a more destabilizing effect on Western societies. The 2005 bombings on London trains, directed by al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, killed 52 people. Foreign-led plots by “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and by Faisal Shahzad in Times Square in 2010, though unsuccessful, could have killed hundreds.
The debate has important implications for U.S. foreign policy. If homegrown terrorists are the chief threat to national security, perhaps it is best to prioritize a law enforcement approach at home and avoid military entanglements overseas like Iraq and Afghanistan. Conversely, the specter of devastating, mass-casualty attacks suggests that it would be unwise to not eliminate safe havens for terrorist groups overseas.
Bergen sides with the “leaderless jihad” camp, asserting that the “real threat from ISIS” is that of lone wolf attacks, and adding that another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 is “quite unlikely.” He notes, however, that several ISIS militants are from “visa waiver” countries in Europe and can therefore “travel to the States for up to three months without first obtaining a visa, providing their names do not turn up on a watch list.” There is “only so much the feds can do” to track militants without a criminal record in the United States, he says. And then consider the recent comments by James Clapper, director of national intelligence, who said that ISIS, hungry for propaganda victories after some recent battlefield setbacks, “would like to use chemical weapons against us.” Not reassuring.
Ultimately, it seems plausible to suggest that both homegrown jihadist terrorism and the foreign variety are serious threats that require discrete solutions. The longer the Obama administration and its successor wait to uproot ISIS’ caliphate, the more disaffected youth will become radicalized by propaganda, the more refugee flows will destabilize Europe, and the more anti-American regimes in Iran and Russia will capitalize on the chaos for their own ends.
Equally difficult but necessary is addressing the appeal of jihad in America, and the conditions that fuel it. Like many members of the media and political establishment, Bergen bemoans the fact that Americans’ obsession with Islamist terrorists at times can distract from “the far more serious issues the planet faces,” such as climate change and gun violence in America. Noticeably, he does not mention immigration. To suggest to elites that maybe, just maybe, the integration of some Muslim immigrant families into American society is not going so well—leaving them prone to radicalization—is to elicit mockery. In the meantime, U.S. immigration procedures are on autopilot, with scant attention devoted to who arrives and why.
Would it not be rational to craft a U.S. immigration and refugee policy that favored high-skill over low-skill immigration, and that considered the economic and social prospects of families who, like the Farooks and Tsarnaevs, might have a difficult time in America? This does not require a Trump-like blanket ban on Muslims, but rather a sensible balance between American interests and extending a hand to the aspirational and persecuted. With well over 300 individuals charged with terror-related crimes in the United states since 2001, such measures seem only reasonable.