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BOOK REVIEW: Tracing homegrown jihadists

JIHAD JOE: AMERICANS WHO GO TO WAR IN THE NAME OF ISLAM
By J.M. Berger
Potomac Books, $29.95, 280 pages

Last week, 23-year old U.S.-born Brooklynite Betim Kaziu stood trial for purportedly plotting to kill American troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans after becoming indoctrinated in jihadism via extremist Internet forums.

He had been arrested along with Sulejmah Hadzovic, his childhood friend. Both traveled to Cairo in 2009 to arrange further travel to Pakistan to be trained to embark on their jihad. As J.M. Berger’s well-documented book “Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam” informs us, individuals such as Mr. Kaziu and Mr. Hadzovic are only the latest examples of the hundreds of American citizens and legal residents who have taken part in some aspect of the violent global jihad in America and overseas over the past 30 years.

How these American jihadists became radicalized, recruited and trained, and the types of terrorist activities they conducted (and still engage in) whether abroad or in America, constitute the core of Mr. Berger’s important book.

Mr. Berger is well positioned to write about these terrorist operatives, given his background as an investigative journalist who has traveled to conflict regions around the world to produce television documentaries about al Qaeda and its affiliates, including in Bosnia. He also runs the journalism website Intelwire.com from his office in the greater Boston area.

The book is based on Mr. Berger’s research on more than 240 American citizen jihadists (in addition to 41 legal long-term U.S. residents) who constitute a subset of what he guesses may be at least 1,400 Americans who have taken part in some form of military jihad over the past 30 years. Included among these Americans are those who have fought the Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan, been present at the founding of al Qaeda, and fought as jihadists in Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia and Yemen. Especially worrisome, Mr. Berger notes: “Virtually every major terrorist attack against the United States - including 9/11 - has included Americans as willful accomplices.”

Mr. Berger’s comprehensive list - one of the most exhaustive I’ve found in any book on this subject - includes Yemeni Americans, such as the “Lackawanna 6,” from western New York who trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan (but may not have conducted any terrorist warfare), as well as the currently at-large fugitive, radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, and who became a senior al Qaeda leader after making his way to his family’s ancestral home in Yemen in 2004.

A recent addition to al Qaeda’s core in Yemen is North Carolina-raised Samir Khan, reportedly the publisher of the organization’s online magazine “Inspire,” who left the U.S. for Yemen in 2009.

Other jihadi-minded American citizens discussed in Mr. Berger’s book include al Qaeda’s spokesman, California native Adam Gadahn, who made his way to the group’s hide-outs in Pakistan in 1998, and Alabama native Omar Hamami, who arrived in Somalia in 2006 and became a prominent al-Shabab spokesman.

As Mr. Berger reminds us, however, the current wave of American jihadists is but the latest incarnation of a trend that began in the late 1970s, when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan inspired a generation of American Muslims to fight with the mujahideen against the Soviet occupiers. A mujahideen faction led by Osama bin Laden later formed al Qaeda in the early 1980s, which numerous Americans proceeded to join. The conspirators behind the plot to destroy the World Trade Center in February 1993 included jihadi-inspired American citizens.

Mr. Berger’s book provides a useful definition for understanding jihadism that is contextually and behaviorally based: An American jihadist is “someone who travels abroad to fight in a foreign conflict, specifically in the name of Islam,” including “someone who takes part in terrorist activities that are explicitly defined by the participants as a form of military jihad or that are explicitly motivated by jihadist ideology” and who “actively finances, supports, advocates or provides religious justification for explicit military jihad …”

Since 1979, Mr. Berger asks, why have so many Americans “packed their bags, left wives and children behind, and traveled to distant lands in the name of military jihad, the armed struggle of Islam”? In response, he writes, “Their reasons are as varied as their backgrounds - some travel to defend Muslims in peril, and some fight to establish the reign of Allah on earth. Some are channeling a personal rage that has little to do with religion. Others seek a community where they can belong.”

Mr. Berger concludes that although the current wave of American jihadists may be less experienced and trained in terrorist warfare than their pre-Sept. 11 predecessors, the threat they pose is no less dangerous. He adds, “The potential game-changer that lurks ahead is the question of whether the American jihad movement can achieve a critical mass and become a force in its own right, rather than a toolbox for jihadists abroad.”

Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at Virginia Tech.

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