March 23, 2016

Fact vs. Fiction: America's Homegrown Terrorists

By Amila Golic, Program Officer

Since 9/11, more than 300 Americans have been prosecuted on terrorism charges related to Islamic extremism, and over 250 have joined terrorist groups abroad. The San Bernardino shootings in December 2015 and the devastating Boston Marathon bombings are just two examples of the rising number of attacks carried out by homegrown terrorists across the United States. 

But who are these Americans joining terrorist ranks? And what has the US government done to address this phenomenon? 

Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst and vice president of New America, seeks to answer these questions in his latest book, United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists. Speaking to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on March 16, Bergen shared the results of his research, which focused on court documents, interviews with family members, and interviews with the perpetrators themselves. He and his team sought to develop a profile: what does a homegrown terrorist inspired by Islamist militant ideology look like? 
Bergen explained to the Council audience that the average homegrown terrorist is 29 years old. A third are married, a third have kids. Their average income and education level is similar to that of other Americans. As in the case of the husband-and-wife team responsible for the San Bernardino shootings—the husband Syed Rizwan Farook was born in the United States, held a well-paying government job, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, was a legal permanent resident—“they are ordinary Americans,”  said Bergen. 

Important to note here, Bergen emphasized, is the lack of this phenomenon’s relationship to refugees: “All the rhetoric we’ve heard about refugees in the political campaign—it’s complete nonsense. Refugees have had almost no role to play in this. Every lethal terrorist attack that has been carried out since 9/11 has been carried out by an American citizen or by an American legal permanent resident.” 

Arriving at the profile of the average attacker is one matter, but getting at the why behind it is quite another. Bergen described a similar combination of factors manifesting across the cases. For one, the individuals expressed religious extremism in their cherry-picked version of Islam. They also voiced an objection to American foreign policy, often relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the conflict in Syria. They sought the kind of belonging that global ideologies like ISIS promise. Finally, they suffered profound personal disappointments. 

The significance of each factor differed across cases. That gets at one of Bergen’s core arguments: that each case is individual, reflecting singular personal experiences and existential crises. “When you dig into each of these cases, these decisions are so personal, you need a novelist to explain them.”  

Army Major Nidal Hasan, responsible for killing 14 people in Fort Hood, Texas, had a limited social circle, was a mediocre psychiatrist in the army, and was afraid of being deployed to Afghanistan. 

“He dressed up his attack in Fort Hood in the garb of Islam...He wanted to be—as we all do—a hero in his own story. And for him this was his way out,” underlined Bergen. 

What can be called the limit of the average extends to the entire phenomenon of homegrown terrorism itself, because, at the end of the day, said Bergen, “these violent acts are meaningless and at a certain point they become inexplicable.” There is no unified theory about why people go down this path. 

At some point it ceases to be about Islam, too: “I know more about Islam than [Boston bomber] Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and I know very little about Islam,” said Bergen. “If you asked him to explain why he did what he did, it would be a superficial answer.”
Moving beyond the granular focus, Bergen also addressed the broader context and implications of homegrown terrorism.

His major pronouncement is that there will be no major terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 or the November 2015 Paris attacks on US soil anytime soon. The security apparatus that has taken root in America since 9/11 is vast and the coordination between homegrown terrorists and overseas groups like ISIS is limited. 

“On 9/11, there were 16 people on the no-fly list. Now, there are more than 47,000...On 9/11, the FBI and CIA barely talked to each other, now they’re well-integrated...On 9/11, there was no national counterterrorism Department of Homeland TSA.” 

Bergen also drew a strong contrast between the threat of homegrown terrorism in the United States and in Europe. In France, one out of every ten Frenchmen is a Muslim, yet “70% of the prison population is Muslim. This is a highly criminalized, ghettoized, marginalized group.” In contrast, American Muslims are well-educated, well-integrated members of American society. Many more European Muslims have gone to Syria to join ISIS. But while “you can drive from Paris to Damascus, you can’t drive from Damascus to Chicago.” 

Europe is also haunted by a rise of fascism that threatens to exacerbate the societal isolation that is part of what drives Muslim extremists to attack their fellow citizens.  

“The American dream has been a firewall against these ideas. Not completely, because we’ve had these 300 cases. But there is no comparable British dream, EU dream, French dream,” Bergen noted. 

Bergen concluded by saying homegrown terrorism is a phenomenon that can be contained and managed. In some sense, it has already been. But his optimism is muted. Despite everything, he said, “Someday, someone will get through.” 

Homegrown terrorism in the United States should therefore be understood as a “persistent, low-level threat that will likely go on for a long time,” said Bergen. He then suggested that to stop it we should recognize Muslim communities as an antidote. Indeed, it is often members of the Muslim community who tend to inform on those in their midst who become radicalized. Law enforcement can partner more effectively with these communities, and even enlist defectors of the cause who could serve as a resource to those who may be tempted by radicalism in similar ways.

But this requires a decrease in the distrust of Islam and Muslims that a majority of Americans continue to express—a development that, given the current political climate, and despite the reams of data that analysts like Bergen have amassed—may be out of reach for some time to come.  

About the Author

Amila Golic joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2015 and serves as a program officer. She previously spent time at the OECD in Paris, working on private sector development projects in Southeast Europe; at the US Embassy in Montenegro, in its political and economic sections; and at Grant Thornton LLP in Chicago, where she was a marketing associate. She holds a BA in english literature from Yale University and an MA in eastern european studies from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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