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Who Are America's 'Homegrown Terrorists'?
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Who Are America's 'Homegrown Terrorists'?

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Who Are America's 'Homegrown Terrorists'?

Who Are America's 'Homegrown Terrorists'?
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United States of Jihad

Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists

by Peter Bergen

Hardcover, 387 pages |

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United States of Jihad
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Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists
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Peter Bergen

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CNN's Peter Bergen describes how the Internet and social media have been used to radicalize and recruit Americans to jihad — and how some new jihadists then use those same tools to draw in others.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A lot of what you think you know about homegrown jihadists in America may be wrong. My guest, Peter Bergen, has been reporting on jihadists who were born in the U.S. or grew up here and how they were radicalized. He's compiled a database of people in the U.S. who have been charged with a jihadist crime to help understand how they were radicalized and how they might have been stopped. He's written a new book called "United States Of Jihad." It traces the history of how militant Islamic groups came to recruit lone wolfs in the U.S. Bergen describes how the Internet and social media have been used to radicalize and recruit Americans and how some Americans became innovators in the jihadi use of digital media. Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and is the author of four previous books about terrorism. He's also vice president of New America. In 1997, working as a producer for CNN, Bergen produced bin Laden's first TV interview in which he declared war against the U.S. A documentary called "Homegrown," based on Bergen's new book, will debut on HBO next Monday. Peter Bergen, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

PETER BERGEN: Thank you.

GROSS: Let's start with an interesting comparison. Compare the number of deaths in the U.S. by a militant Muslim terrorist with the number of deaths by right-wing extremists.

BERGEN: Well, since 9/11, the foundation that I work at, New America, we've been compiling deaths caused by jihadi terrorists. And at a certain point, we started thinking, hey, why don't we also - there are anti-government fanatics who've also killed people and violent neo-Nazis. And so since 9/11, 45 people have been killed in the United States by jihadi terrorists while 48 have been killed by people animated by, you know, anti-abortion, neo-Nazi, anti-government fanaticism.

GROSS: And compare the amount of investigative power that we have on each of those.

BERGEN: Well, I will say I think that the FBI is fairly concerned about the issue of anti-government violence. It's hard to make a direct comparison, but I know that the Department of Justice, for instance, has recently appointed a sort of additional senior official to really examine this problem because, you know, whether it's the attack in Charleston where the perpetrator wanted to start a race war or whether it's the standoff that we saw in Oregon, there are other forms of political violence than jihadi terrorism in the United States.

GROSS: But on the whole, Americans are much more preoccupied with jihadi terrorism on American soil, even though the number of deaths since 9/11 - there is more of them caused by right-wing and anti-government extremists.

BERGEN: Yeah, I mean - and some of that isn't surprising. I mean, 9/11 was a sort of hinge event in American history, and all jihadi terrorist plots or attacks are kind of filtered through that lens. But the fact is is that, you know, we had a neo-Nazi shout hail Hitler after he killed three people in Kansas City at a community center in 2014. If he shouted, Allah akbar, what was already a pretty big news story would've become an even bigger news story, I'm sure. So, you know, that's just kind of just the environment we live in.

GROSS: Let's look at another comparison, the number of Islamic extremists who have attacked Americans on American soil, the number who come from other countries and have come here for the attacks versus the number of attackers who are American-born or are American citizens and grew up here.

BERGEN: You know what's interesting, since 9/11, we tend to think that terrorist attacks against the United States must be conducted by foreigners because on 9/11, it was 19 foreign-born Arab hijackers recruited by al-Qaida. In fact, every lethal terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11, whether in Fort Hood or Boston or San Bernardino, has been conducted by American citizens or legal permanent residents. And so some of the hysteria about refugees coming into the country and performing acts of terrorism is very overblown. Certainly about 10 refugees have been involved in relatively minor jihadi terrorism crimes, like material support for a terrorist organization. And - but really, if you were concerned about lethal attacks, it's been American citizens or American residents.

GROSS: Now why are these two comparisons that we've discussed important in understanding and addressing the larger problem of Islamic extremism in the U.S.?

BERGEN: Well, I think some of what we've been discussing, Terry, is sort of - is obviously is good news. I mean, if we'd had this conversation in 2002 and some - you had somebody on your program who predicted that a decade and a half after 9/11 that only 45 people would be killed by people animated by Osama bin Laden's ideology, that would've seemed like a wildly optimistic claim. And of course, every one of these deaths is a tragedy, but they aren't national catastrophes on the scale of 9/11 or anything close or even on the scale of what we saw in Paris where 130 people were killed by - who had been trained by ISIS and Syria. So I mean, you know, I think terrorism isn't only about numbers because, of course, people react to terrorists, and we don't - our fears are not entirely rational. We're walking around with the same brain that we walked around the jungle in, you know, with 20,000, 30,000 years ago, and fear is a pretty dominant part of our sort of basic emotions. But, you know, that said, if you bring some rationality to the problem, terrorism is really a relatively minor issue, and we've done - the United States government has done a pretty good job of keeping us safe through their whole variety of measures. I - just to give you one example, you know, on 9/11, there were 16 people on the no-fly list. Today, there are 47,000, and there's a much larger list of a million and a half people that if you got on a flight to the United States, you'd be put into the first - secondary screening because you are deemed to have some kind of even relatively small association with a potential association with a terrorist group. So, you know, I think the good news is that we've really managed the threat, we, the United States. And also the American Muslim community is a largely - pretty well integrated in a way that is not the case in Europe. If you look at the perpetrators of the Paris attacks in November or you look at the Charlie Hebdo attack, I mean, these people who perpetrated these attacks grew up in these rather grim (unintelligible) suburbs, which are like the projects, the French projects. They are - many of them serve time in French prisons. One of the most astonishing statistics is less than 10 percent of the French population is Muslim, yet almost as much as 70 percent of their prison population is Muslim. So we're looking at a very different problem here in the United States than you're looking at in Europe.

GROSS: OK, so knowing what you know and having access to this data bank that you created on jihadis in the U.S., what are your impressions of the rhetoric we've been hearing about terrorism and about Muslims coming to America in this presidential campaign?

BERGEN: Well, the rhetoric is massively overblown, which is hardly surprising since it's a presidential campaign season. And the two, you know - and it's interesting. If you look at the data, Terry, on what are the main issues that the electorate is interested in in December, polling suggested that 24 percent of Republicans thought that terrorism was the number one issue facing the nation. Only 9 percent of Democrats felt the same way. But certainly, if you look at also polling data about fears and worries, about terrorism, you find that, you know, very large numbers of Americans are concerned about the possibility of another terrorist attack. So, you know, even if those fears are fundamentally, I think, somewhat irrational, I mean, obviously, there will be other terrorist attacks going forward but, I mean, nothing on - I'm talking about major terrorist attacks that kill, mass casualty attacks, so it's quite unlikely. So in the political season, which, of course, this has been a big issue, you know, you had Ted Cruz saying that we should bomb Syria, carpet bomb Syria to destroy ISIS, which makes no sense at all since ISIS is closely embedded in the civilian population of major cities in Iraq and Syria. We had Donald Trump, of course, saying we should ban all Muslim immigration. You know, I mean, this is - you know, neither of these responses make any sense.

GROSS: You've made a lot of comparisons based on the information in the database that you've compiled. Have you made comparisons to general gun violence and the number of people killed by that, by nonideological, nonjihadi, nonpolitical gun violence?

BERGEN: Well, one of the kind of conclusions in the book is, you know, terrorism is statistically a very minor problem in this country. Yet, you know, you're - in any given year, you're somewhere between 3,000 or 5,000 times more likely to be killed a fellow American with a gun than you are to be killed in the United States by a jihadi terrorist. I mean, those numbers speak for themselves.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen, author of the new book "United States Of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists." He's also CNN's national security analyst. We'll be back after we take a very brief break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen. He's national security analyst for CNN and author of the new book "United States Of Jihad." And it's about homegrown terrorism. And he's been writing about this for years. I mean, he interviewed bin Laden years ago. So the demographics of homegrown terrorism are not what you'd think. They certainly aren't what I would have thought. And you can say this with some authority 'cause you have a database that you're keeping about people who we now know are homegrown terrorists or would be terrorists. And so, you know, I would've thought that these are people who either came from the kind of background, either because of poverty or because of ethnic heritage, who felt very alienated from American culture and felt that they were shut out and they were angry as a result and wanted to express that anger or that they came from extremist families and were brought up that way. But those things just aren't true. Is there a typical profile that you've managed to find, any pattern that you've found in why an American-born person would become a jihadi?

BERGEN: Well, you know, that's sort of the big puzzle of the book. And, I, you know - I spent two and a half years researching it. And I don't claim to have a particularly brilliant answer to the why question because the more you look at each individual case, the more individual the case becomes. And there's a wonderful quote from the philosopher Immanuel Kant - from the crooked timber of humanity, not a straight thing is made. And I think it's almost the motto for this book because when you really look at why somebody, you know, decides to kill a number of his fellow American citizens - and of course the perpetrators are usually hes - you know, it often becomes a very complicated answer to that question. It's not, you know, yes, there is some sort of a bin Ladenist ideology in there. But often there's personal disappointments, a desire for recognition, seeking to belong to something, seeking a cause. But of this three - we looked at 300 cases plus of Americans convicted since 9/11 of some kind of jihadi terrorism crime ranging from the relatively minor to the major, such as murder. And the profile we found was average age 29, a third married, a third kids, as educated as normal Americans, mental problems actually at a lower incidence than the general population. And so you're looking at middle-class - these are not young hotheads of the popular imagination there. You're looking at kind of middle-class, married, you know, late 20s. And in fact, when we came to that conclusion, we didn't know that the San Bernardino attackers, one of them is 27, one is 28. They were married, they had a child. The male perpetrator had a job earning $70,000 a year. They were very much solidly part of the American middle class. And so why did they turn to violence and kill 14 people just arbitrarily? You know, that's a really big puzzle. I mean, you could try and explain it by they were influenced by al-Qaida's ideology and ISIS's ideology, that they objected to American foreign policy. But lots of people object to American foreign policy and don't go and just arbitrarily kill 14 people attending a Christmas office party. At the end of the day, that's fundamentally, I think, inexplicable. And it may get to the nature of evil itself, which is it's often pointless and often inexplicable no matter what the scale, you know - whether we're looking at the crimes of the 20th century or whether we're looking at the smaller crimes that we see in our own country.

GROSS: What's really just so hard to comprehend about the San Bernardino shooters is that they had an infant.

BERGEN: Yeah.

GROSS: Like, to imagine wanting to martyr yourself when you have an infant - it's just unimaginable to most people.

BERGEN: I agree. You know, and what is quite unusual is that the, you know, that the wife was involved in murdering other people. We are beginning to see some kind of a weird form of this Islamist extremist feminism in which these Islamist extremist groups are recruiting females. And I've also assembled - myself and my research team have assembled another database where we look at every named foreign fighter who's gone to Syria to participate with ISIS or one of the other jihadi groups. And we've found that about a fifth are women, which is unprecedented. When you look at the past jihads, whether it was the Afghan war against the Soviets in the '80s or the fighting - the Bosnian Muslims fighting against the Serbs in the '90s or (unintelligible) jihad, women were fundamentally not involved at all. But here, we're seeing women volunteering to go to Syria and sort of embed themselves with ISIS.

GROSS: You print in your book a couple of, like, recruiting photographs that ISIS has used. And one of them is a man with a beard and a white shirt and tie and a black flag - you know, an ISIS black flag is behind him. And he's with a woman who's totally shrouded head-to-foot in white, except you can almost kind of see two slits for her eyes. And the slogan on this is marriage in the land of jihad - till martyrdom do us part. And then there's another one in which there's, like, a group of women totally shrouded in black. And they're all carrying what looks to be automatic weapons. And this is from a social media Tweet trying to recruit women. And I kept thinking, who wants to be - who voluntarily wants to be the woman covered from head to foot to join an organization that sexually enslaves women?

BERGEN: Indeed. I mean, it's a puzzle. And in fact, I'm glad that you mentioned the photographs, Terry, because I think those are both pretty telling. The women with the AK-47s fully shrouded are sitting on top of a white BMW as well. And the message on the tweet is chilling in the Khilafa, i.e. chilling in the caliphate. And the message that they're trying to give - obviously with some success because we've had literally hundreds of women from the West leaving otherwise pretty comfortable middle-class backgrounds, including American citizens, who have traveled to Syria, to join what they think of is an Islamic utopia. And all the things that we find absolutely aberrant - the enslaving of the Yazidi women, the crucifixion of people who they think are sorcerers and, you know, beheadings of homosexuals - and the list goes on and on. You know, for some reason that may be seen as part of their appeal. The women who are going, who are from pretty much every Western country, are not turned off by this. And in fact, they often go there with a specific goal of getting married to some ISIS fighter that they regard as a very important holy warrior. And so you're seeing a lot of marriages taking place.

GROSS: And I can only imagine what happens in the marriage and what role the woman plays.

BERGEN: Well, I don't think it's very big outside the home.

GROSS: Yeah, no, exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But what about all the machine-gun posts - are women actually becoming warriors in the fight?

BERGEN: No. I mean, well, there is - in Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS and Syria, there is a women police force that is sort of being deployed to basically to enforce ISIS rule over the female population and probably do things like search women and stuff that men would not be allowed to do. But otherwise, ISIS is, you know, a highly misogynistic organization and women are not being educated or they're not having a role outside the home.

GROSS: So do you feel like you've been able to get into the mindset of any of the young women from the U.S. who have tried or succeeded in joining ISIS?

BERGEN: You know, probably not. Luckily, the scale of the problem for the United States is much, much smaller than what we're talking about in Europe. I do profile in the book a group of three Chicago-based teenagers - 19, 17 or 16 - who all decided to join ISIS - two boys and a girl. I was able to talk to their parents, and I was able to obviously read a fairly voluminous kind of court documentation about the case. And in this particular case, these kids are grown up in a Chicago suburb, Bolingbrook - all very bright. And they had become truly convinced through social media, through reading social media and then also they were in direct message contact over Twitter with people in ISIS - that ISIS had created this Islamic utopia. And I think that they really believed that the caliphate - that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared in 2014 - they believe that really was the case and that there was an obligation for them as servant Muslims to go to the caliphate and be part of this wondrous experiment. Luckily for them, they were arrested at an airport because one of the other findings of the database of western foreign fighters who've gone to Syria is half of them are dead. Six percent of the women are dead even though they're not on the front lines because the Syrian conflict is so dangerous. And, you know, it's a very violent war. And, you know, of course, these kids face, you know, major legal problems. And the older brother, whose name is public because he was 19 at the time, you know, faces up to 15 years in prison. I think that's a very, you know, a ridiculously long sentence for something that actually never happened, which is his attempt to join ISIS. But, you know, he will face several years in prison likely after some kind of plea deal with the government.

GROSS: Well, and the young woman you were mentioning, the sister in this group of three siblings, she was dreaming of martyrdom.

BERGEN: Yes. I mean, and she was also, you know - she expected to marry an ISIS fighter. And the, you know, the average age of these Western foreign fighters, the ones that are being recruited, whether they're female or male, is very low. The women - the average age is 19. And from the United States, we're seeing teenage women going. We had three from Colorado who went and they were arrested, luckily for them, again, at Frankfurt Airport and sent back. But some people are getting through. We've had a 20-year-old from Alabama who's playing a fairly prominent role in ISIS propaganda.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst and author of the new book "United States Of Jihad" about homegrown terrorists. After we take a short break, he'll tell us about an American who joined the jihadi group al-Shabab in Somalia and was assassinated by them and live tweeted his own assassination. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross back with Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst and author of the new book "United States Of Jihad." It's about how Americans are radicalized and recruited to become jihadis. This is his fourth book about terrorism. He produced the first TV interview with Osama bin Laden in which bin Laden declared war on the U.S. That 1997 interview was for CNN. So you're focusing in your book on homegrown terrorists, terrorists who became jihadis living in the United States and mostly who are radicalized through the Internet and social media. It's no coincidence that this is happening. You trace it to a larger strategy, back to 2004, when Abu Musab al-Suri published his book on leaderless jihad called the "The Call For Global Islamic Resistance." So what was his strategy of leaderless jihad, and how does that connect to what we're seeing today?

BERGEN: Well, Abu Musab al-Suri is someone I got to know pretty well because he's a Syrian. Very bright guy, lived in London. He actually was the person who took myself and correspondent Peter Arnett and the cameraman, Peter Juvenal, to interview bin Laden for his first TV interview. And he presented himself at the time as sort of a journalist who was interested in jihadist topics. Well, of course, he was something quite other. I later found out that he was running a training camp in Afghanistan after - before 9/11, and then he wrote this 1,500-word magnum opus which you've just described.

And basically, the point of that magnum opus was, you know, we need to stop forming up these very big organizations with training camps that - of the kind that can be detected by the United States and bombed from the air as it happened in Afghanistan. We need to kind of socialize the idea that people should take their - the jihad into their own hands and form small groups or just act alone, and - because that way, the government can't detect the organization. It's much harder to detect a lone wolf than it is somebody who's associated with a larger organization who's having planning meetings and making phone calls to people in the organization. And so that is really how the jihad has really developed in the United States. So we're not seeing the formation of large groups anymore, probably because people are concerned about government informants. We're not seeing groups like al-Qaida or ISIS sending, you know, people into the United States in any large number as what had happened on 9/11. What we are seeing is people self-radicalizing.

GROSS: So there's a few Americans who have been key in English-language jihadi websites that have been very important in radicalizing Americans and other English speakers. And I'm thinking specifically of Anwar al-Awlaki, who is known in part because he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, and Samir Khan, who was born in Saudi Arabia but moved to Queens, N.Y. when he was 7. So just tell us a little bit about each of their roles in using the Internet to radicalize English speakers.

BERGEN: Yeah, well, sure. It's of course, you know - in a sense, you know, there's a certain irony here, which is that the jihad became more Americanized because Americans began playing a bigger role in it. And it's perhaps also ironic - the Internet, of course, was, you know, essentially an American invention - that the English-language jihadism is really also an American invention. Anwar al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico. He rose to become the most important cleric in the English-speaking world of jihad. And, you know, what was new about him is he spoke in colloquial American English. And he wasn't a boring guy like many leaders of al-Qaida, who just would drone on. One of his great quotes was jihad is becoming as American as apple pie. He was able to talk to the English-speaking world in a way that was accessible. It wasn't in Arabic. And many of the cases of the West, you find Anwar al-Awlaki's lectures.

And then he recruited an acolyte called Samir Khan, who grew up in Charlotte, who founded, really, the first English-language jihadi website when he was living in Charlotte. Then he moved to Yemen, and then he founded the first English-language webzine called Inspire. And Inspire magazine, which is accessible to anybody who's listening to this, pretty much, is a - you know, it was a snazzy, well laid-out, good graphics kind of - even with a little bit of humor."How To Make A Bomb In The Kitchen Of Your Mom" was one of the lead articles in the first issue. That magazine has turned up in almost every terrorism case you can imagine, including in the Boston Marathon case where they used bombs that were partly derived from Inspire magazine.

And this was really kind of revolutionary because anybody or anywhere in the world could now have access to a lot of English-language material previously only accessible on password-protected forums in Arabic. And they also had access to bomb-making recipes, and the idea was to inspire jihad in the West. It was there basically to take Abu Musab al-Suri's ideas and really operationalize them.

GROSS: And you profile in your book someone who was inspired by them and by their organizing on the web, their use of the web to radicalize people and turn them into jihadis. So this person who was inspired by him, his name was Zachary Chesser. And what did he develop in terms of online jihadi organizing?

BERGEN: Well, he really - he did - I think that he was probably one of the first people to really see the promise of Twitter and social media in the English-speaking jihadi world. He's a very bright kid who, you know, in a different world might have become big in Silicon Valley. He grew up in Virginia, Civil War buff when he was 9 years old. Family very, you know - government lawyer and somebody worked for the government, so very solidly middle-class background. And converted to Islam as a result of dating a Somali girl, and became and more radicalized, and began to see himself as a leading ideologue on the Internet. And I was able to have a pretty extended correspondence with them. He's now in a supermax prison in Florence, Colo., but he sent me, like, a 100-page letter that laid out how he got to where he is today. And he - why he was imprisoned, in part, is because he was inciting violence against the creators of the "South Park" animated show.

On the show, the creators of "South Park" had labeled one the characters prophet Mohammed. They in fact dressed him in a bear costume, so it didn't really look like the prophet Mohammad, but that was sufficient enough to incite into rage Zachary Chesser and others in his circle. And he incited his readers, many of whom of course shared his jihadi views, to go and kill the creators of "South Park."

GROSS: And even in trying to go after the creators of "South Park," Trey Parker and Matt Stone, he used social media to, you know, incite acts of violence against them, which fortunately never succeeded. So in your book, you profile several people who, you know, who are Americans and became or at least tried to become jihadis, and one of them is an Alabama native named Omar Hammami.

BERGEN: Yeah.

GROSS: And he became a leader of al-Shabaab, which is the Somali branch of the jihadis, and then he became a target of al-Shabaab. And there's several things that are really interesting about this story. One is that his wife is Somali and she refused to go with him. I mean, her parents were Somali refugees and, like, she's like, I'm not going back - I'm not going to Somalia. I know what it's like there.

BERGEN: Right.

GROSS: So he just leaves his family behind and tries to go, and succeeds in going. And you have a photo of him with a deputy leader of al-Shabaab during a press conference in 2011 in Mogadishu. And you have a photo from 1999 of him on a high school date, and it looks like one of those studio photographs where everybody gets to be in the same backdrop. He's wearing white pants and a blue blazer, she's wearing a corsage on her wrist. They're posed holding hands and facing the camera. Behind them is, like, a hazy purple backdrop and what looks like stardust. (Laughter) You know, it looks like it's, like, a prom photo or something...

BERGEN: ...And she's one of those - yeah, it is a prom photo. And she's - she was one of the most, you know attractive, popular girls in the class, and he was also one of the cool guys until he converted to Islam. You can imagine converting to Islam and making a very public show of it in rural Alabama - particularly after 9/11, but even before that. And Omar Hammami is a very - was a very bright kid. And he and another very bright kid, his best friend, Bernie Culveyhouse, they both went down this road of radicalization. And what's fascinating they're both the same age, they both got married to Somali women in Canada, they then moved from Canada to Egypt, and they all - they did everything together for years, and they radicalized together. But Bernie Culveyhouse, when the moment came to go to Somalia, he said no. You know what? I have a wife and kid. I'm going to go back. And now he works in Silicon Valley and he's got, you know, three kids, and he's living a very, you know, normal life.

Omar Hammami went to Somalia, became a leader of Shabaab, got involved in some kind of dispute with them about their tactics, and ended up being assassinated by Shabaab. And it gets back to this why question, which is, you know, you can kind of explain how people radicalize and what happened along the road, but, you know, why people make this decision ultimately is a little bit hard to disentangle exactly. It's, you know, it's a - fundamentally, it's a - you know, if you go to Somalia, it's the most dangerous - at the time that Omar made this decision, it was the most dangerous country in the world.

GROSS: And then he basically picks a fight with al-Shabaab's leaders. He's criticizing them on social media, which is a dangerous thing to do, and they shoot him and he live-tweets his own shooting. Do you want to read a couple of those posts from your book?

BERGEN: Oh, sure. So this is what I describe in the book as probably the first live-tweeting of an assassination attempt in history. And he, Omar Hammami, who tweets as Abu American - first tweet says (reading) just been shot in the neck by Shabaab assassin. Not critical yet. Second tweet says (reading) sitting in tea place, then three shots behind to left. Pistol, I think. They ran. And then finally, (reading) no windpipe or artery. Peroxide, gauze and pressure. A perimeter has been made. And then a little bit later in the day, (reading) they're sending forces from multiple directions. We are few, but we might get back up. Abu Zabair - who's the head of Shabaab - has gone mad. He's starting a civil war. And then finally, after the failed assassination attempt -(reading) I awoke in the morning to hear that I was surrounded. We ran to a hall behind the house and waited. And shortly thereafter, Shabaab killed him.

GROSS: That's amazing, live-tweeting your own assassination.

BERGEN: It really is.

GROSS: I mean, if you want talk about social media and jihad - that's just so...

BERGEN: (Laughter) And you - I mean, Terri, one of the interesting things about this book is that this was the first book I had where social - you know, a lot of these people that I wanted to interview are either dead or in prison. And of course, social media is a tremendous - and imprison in such a way that they can't talk to the media - and social media, of course, is a tremendous boon for me as a reporter because, you know, it allows - you know, Omar tweeted, like, 1,700 times before he died. He also published a 127-page biography on the web. And both of those were vital to get inside his head. I couldn't talk to him. I did speak to his family, to his father, but social media has been a real boon for this kind of reporting project because it allows you to kind of get, you know, to some degree, a real-time sense of what somebody is like.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen, author of the new book "United States Of Jihad," investigating America's homegrown terrorists. Let's take a short break, and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen. He's CNN's national security analyst and author of the new book "United States Of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists." He's been writing about jihad for decades. He interviewed bin Laden in 1997. You write about the impossible choice that some parents who know that their child is being radicalized have to make, you know.

BERGEN: Yeah.

GROSS: Why don't you describe that choice?

BERGEN: Well, if a parent knows that their kid is suddenly becoming infatuated with ISIS, they face a very difficult choice, which is, you know, do I - what do I do? If I go to the FBI and it turns out that, you know, my kid has developed a plan to join ISIS, that's a material support of a terrorist organization charge, where the charge is 15 years, and that's even without any indication at all of potential violence. And on the other hand, if I let this thing develop, you know, my kid really wants - decides that ISIS is the - sort of creating this perfect state in Syria, I run the risk of my kid suddenly disappearing and going to Syria, where they would very likely end up dead. And that is a very tough choice for parents. You know, when that choice represents itself - in the case of the three kids from Chicago that I profiled, the FBI didn't give - the parents didn't discover their kids were radicalizing, and the FBI didn't tell them, the parents, that their kids were radicalizing. And the parents' view, the Khan family, is that if the FBI told them about this, they would've talked to their kids and would've talked them off the ledge. So I mean, I think there is some beginning understanding in that the high levels of the U.S. government that when somebody is, you know, a teenager and is radicalizing but isn't necessarily thinking of violence, they probably should be some other kind of off-ramp that doesn't involve a potential 15-year prison sentence. Partly that is to encourage families to come forward and partly just because 15 years in prison from really having a bad set of ideas, you know, isn't really fair.

GROSS: So this way, parents would be able to inform the FBI and - without sending their child to prison.

BERGEN: Or, you know, that there would be a short prison sentence and supervised probation, you know...

GROSS: Right, OK.

BERGEN: ...If there was no allegation of violence. Because the Khan kids who I profiled in Chicago, there's no allegation permit - they'd never been involved in violence, and there's no allegation from the government that they were planning acts of violence. They really believed they were going to join this Islamic utopia. But material support for a terrorist organization, which is a frequently employed - we've had, you know, a couple hundred of these cases at least since 9/11. Material support can include yourself if you decide to go. Material support can also, of course, involve money, if you send money. But the, you know - it's regarded as a serious crime, and, you know, 15 years is a very serious sentence, particularly for somebody who's 19.

GROSS: But in that case, the parents didn't seem to even know their children were being radicalized.

BERGEN: No, they had no idea. They had no idea. They say that if the FBI had given them at least a heads up, saying, look, three of your kids are infatuated with ISIS that they would've been able to intervene, yeah.

GROSS: You have to wonder about that in the sense that, like, how many radicals of any persuasion are talked out of being radical by their parents (laughter). Doesn't...

BERGEN: Right.

GROSS: Yeah.

BERGEN: Or, well, but - yeah, I mean, or by anybody. I mean, I agree. I mean, that's, you know - it's a problem. I mean, there's a woman that I also met - discussed book in the book. Her name is Shannon Conley. Now, she was - she was a 19-year-old from Denver, Colo. She dreamed of joining ISIS. And the FBI went to her four times and said look, you know, this a bad idea. You're going to go over there, it's dangerous. You know, this is not good idea. She was not dissuaded. And I - you know, most people listening to this program, if you got a visit from the FBI on any issue, you'd be dissuaded, right? But a 19-year-old - you know, these are immature kids. And they - she was infatuated with ISIS. So I mean, I take your point. But the point - I mean, the fact is, is that it seems that there should be something better than just this binary choice, you know, you - if - you're going to get 15 years if you're going down this path. It seems that there should be some other kind of option.

GROSS: And just one more thing. You know, ISIS, as you point out in your book, like, Hitler tried to cover up his crimes against humanity.

BERGEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ISIS puts it on social media. They do videos of their beheadings. They're bragging about it, and they're using it as a recruitment tool...

BERGEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Effectively, oddly. So do you watch the beheading videos?

BERGEN: I have not, and I think ISIS is being kind of careful in some cases not to actually show the whole thing. But I haven't, and I don't plant to.

GROSS: Because...

BERGEN: Just because I don't want to. I mean, there's just no need for me to do so. But, you know, it gets to a larger point, Terry, you know, the reason ISIS has been successful hitherto is their big message is they're winning. And, you know, there's a million different ways they explain that. I actually think at this point they just lost Ramadi, that major Iraqi city. They've had to half their salaries because they're running low on money. U.S. attacks on their money supply, their oil supply have been fairly effective. And, you know, the one way really to defeat them is as their territory shrinks, their claim to control a caliphate, a geographical and theological entity - you know, that claim will decline over time. That's going to take, you know, some years I think. It's not going to happen, you know, even by the end of this year. They're still probably going to hold on to significant parts of territory, but I think the momentum is turning against them.

GROSS: Well, Peter Bergen, thank you so much for talking with us.

BERGEN: Well, Terry, thank you very much.

GROSS: Peter Bergen is the author of the new book "United States Of Jihad." A documentary called "Homegrown," based on his book, will debut on HBO next Monday. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Yid," a new novel set in Stalinist Russia, that she describes as a comedy about atrocity. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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