By Matthew Kredell
CNN national security analyst and bestselling author Peter Bergen previewed takeaways from a new book he is writing on Americans fighting for militant Islam during an Aug. 18 event as part of the USC Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism and the newly launched Safe Communities Institute at the USC Price School of Public Policy.
Bergen explained that the book’s main theme is asking why Americans are joining this jihadi militant cause.
People drawn to terrorism, according to Bergen, often have a desire for fame or recognition, use religious ideology as an excuse for violence and have a politicized view about American foreign policy. The terrorists see themselves as altruists defending Islam, he noted.
“They don’t see themselves as criminals,” Bergen said. “They see themselves as doing something that’s good for other people. They’re helping in defense of the Muslims who are under attack. The people who do these things have suffered none of it themselves.”
Bergen created a database of every jihadi terrorist case since 9/11 and looked at the background of about 300 individuals to present a sketch of the modern terrorist. He was surprised to find these people weren’t young hot heads. Their average age was 29, and half of them were married with kids.
They also weren’t career criminals. Only 10 percent had spent time in prison and eights percent had some kind of mental health issues, both comparable to national averages. They were from a wide range of ethnic groups and educated similarly to the average American, with 10 percent having graduate degrees.
Bergen, who is one of the few Westerners to have interviewed Osama bin Laden, admitted that he thought the al Qaeda leader’s death would be the end of the jihadi movement. Instead, ISIS emerged as a more powerful adversary that is attracting about 1,000 recruits a month, many from the West.
“ISIS is attracting people for several reasons,” Bergen said. “First of all, they’re winning. ISIS believes it is creating an Islamic utopia in the middle of the Arab world, as do its followers.”
ISIS now holds about the same amount of territory as the United Kingdom, controls eight million people and has access to a lot of money because it taxes those people.
However, ISIS has yet to pose a threat in the U.S., and Bergen thinks the improvement in homeland security since 9/11 makes their efforts here unlikely to succeed.
“I think the threat from people trained in Syria by ISIS here in the U.S. is very low,” Bergen said. “Because if you go to Syria, it’s a one-way ticket. We’re creating a database of every Westerner we can find publicly who has gone to Syria to join one of these groups. Half of the men are dead and six percent of the women. It’s really dangerous over there.”
Ultimately, Bergen thinks ISIS will wear out its welcome because it isn’t really defending Islam or Muslims, and it isn’t delivering anything of substance. It has also made a lot of enemies.
“In the short term, they’re going to be around, they’re going to continue radicalizing American citizens who in the 1970s might have joined… some other revolutionary utopian organization that claims they’re going to create heaven here on Earth, except that they won’t,” Bergen said. “Right now, ISIS is one of the few ideologies left standing that says we’re going to create a perfect society and God is on our side, and for some people that’s unfortunately an exciting message.”