United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists
Peter Bergen. New York: Crown, 2016. 387 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. $28.00.
Reviewed by John Nagl
Anything Peter Bergen writes on terrorism deserves careful consideration. Four years before the attacks of 11 September 2001, Bergen had the foresight to understand that Osama bin Laden was a serious threat and the courage to track him down to his lair in Afghanistan for the interview in which bin Laden declared war on the United States on camera.
Nearly 20 years later, Bergen’s prescience remains impressive, as does his body of work chronicling the war that was declared in his presence. Bergen’s The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda (Free Press, 2011) is the best single-volume history available of America’s long struggle against radical Islamic extremism, including the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In United States of Jihad, Bergen turns his attention to the homegrown threat of Islamic extremists reared in America. In the process he tells a broader story: about the evolution of Islamic jihad “from a top-down enterprise masterminded by a few core groups to a decentralized system of recruitment and inspiration that took advantage of new technologies to propagandize far beyond the Middle East.” Al Qaeda was industrial-age jihad, hierarchical and relatively easy to understand and dismantle. The new threat is information-age jihad, less capable of 9/11-scale attacks but as hard to pin down as drops of mercury on a marble countertop. This is the threat we face today and for the foreseeable future, and Bergen explains it expertly.
Since 9/11, 330 people in the United States have been charged with supporting jihad; 80 percent were American citizens. This is a vanishingly small percentage of the five million Muslims in the United States, but a concern nonetheless, particularly because the most damaging terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 have been the work of American Muslims, as demonstrated in the early morning hours of 12 June in Orlando, Florida, when Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others.
The first American jihadi Bergen profiles, and the most important, is Anwar al-Awlaki, an Islamic cleric from Falls Church, Virginia. Raised in New Mexico and Minnesota, he lived a double life as the spiritual leader of the 9/11 plotters while maintaining a façade of moderation that led to interview requests from Pentagon officials. Awlaki was, above all, the originator of the concept of “leaderless jihad,” which Bergen describes as “the greatest strategic innovation of post-9/11 militant Islamists” who would follow his example to recruit and train “lone wolf” jihadis after the effective demise of al Qaeda.
Bergen chronicles not only the evolution of radical Islamic terrorism strategy, but also of American efforts to understand and counter that strategy, generally praising our successes in that arena while warning that it is impossible to perfectly defend against leaderless jihad. The FBI and newly formed National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC, closed in on Awlaki in the months after 9/11, prompting him to flee first to London and then to Yemen. Imprisoned there for his participation in an al Qaeda plot, like previous jihadis he was radicalized by his time in confinement. Upon his release, he established a blog at www.alawlaki.com and posted his sermons on YouTube, becoming the English voice of jihad and a major target of American counterterrorism efforts. Killed by a drone strike in Yemen on 30 September 2011, Awlaki was the first American citizen intentionally assassinated by that means.
Awlaki had studied engineering at Colorado State College, which gave him something in common with more than half of American jihadis—some time attending college, often studying technical subjects. Terrorism is a bourgeois endeavor, with most terrorists coming from the middle and upper classes. In one of his best sentences, Bergen notes that asking “Who becomes a terrorist” is much like asking “Who owns a Volvo.”
Major Nidal Hasan grew up in Virginia, his father a lawyer, his mother a vice president for wealth management at Wachovia. He was a Boy Scout who wrestled and played football, graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in biochemistry, and ultimately earned his medical degree and a commission as a U.S. Army officer. After the deaths of his mother and father he became more religious, falling under the sway of Anwar al-Awlaki (like more than 80 of the 330 American jihadis Bergen studied). Hasan was promoted to major, given orders to Fort Hood, Texas, and assigned to deploy to Afghanistan—his greatest fear. On 5 November 2009, Hasan fired more than 200 bullets into soldiers preparing to deploy, killing 12 soldiers and a civilian and wounding 32 others. Police shot Hasan twice, paralyzing him. He defended himself at his capital trial and received a death sentence.
Hasan’s rampage was, at the time, the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11 until 2 December 2015, when Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people attending a Christmas party at the San Bernardino County Health Department, where Farook worked as a restaurant inspector. They were killed by police in a shootout four hours later—lone wolves inspired by Islamist propaganda on the Internet, just as Hasan had been.
Bergen takes some pains to note that the threat of domestic terrorism, while real, pales in comparison to the threat of non-terrorist gun violence. An American is about 5,000 times more likely to be killed in domestic gun violence than in an attack inspired by radical Islamic extremism. Still, the threat is unlikely to disappear, even as the FBI, NCTC, and domestic law enforcement agencies such as the New York Police Department continue to refine their counterterrorism intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities. Future jihad is likely to be leaderless—low-level, persistent, all but impossible to predict and prevent. This is the new reality of modern terrorism.
The Heart of Hell: The Untold Story of Courage and Sacrifice in the Shadow of Iwo Jima
Mitch Weiss. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2016. 413 pp. Illus. Gloss. Index. $28.00.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel Robert S. Burrell, U.S. Marine Corps
In his most recent book, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Mitch Weiss recounts the saga of the men of the U.S. Navy Ship Landing Craft Infantry (Gunboat) 449, which took part in the invasion of Iwo Jima in February 1945. The first half of The Heart of Hell reconstructs the backstories of 8 officers and 19 seamen who served on LCI(G) 449 as well as the circumstances of four loved ones who supported the crew from the home front. In the book’s second half, Weiss details the crew’s involvement in Operation Detachment—the seizure of Iwo Jima from the Imperial Japanese Empire, an operation that became one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. The battle was particularly brutal for LCI(G) 449, which lost two-thirds of her crew—20 killed and 21 wounded.
Weiss’s primary sources include newspapers, periodicals, and action reports from the National Archives; personal letters of the crew and their friends and families; and interviews of the same. At times, he supplements the minutiae of the crew’s daily operations with strategic context drawn from popular secondary sources. The book also includes photos of most of the crew members from a variety of private collections, providing excellent reference points for the reader to identify with the characters.
The author’s creative account, generously salted with imaginative details but lacking citations, presents a story rather than a history. Weiss occasionally quotes entire paragraphs from the crew’s letters, but for the most part, it is impossible to ascertain the sources of his narrative. Other than in his final chapter, the epilogue, Weiss makes little historical argument; his primary objective is to bring the tale of LCI(G) 449 vividly to life using the words, thoughts, and actions of her crew.
This book joins other popular accounts such as James Bradley’s Flags of Our Fathers and Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers—stories of ordinary Americans who tried to save a world teetering on the brink of catastrophe, epic struggles of the men and women of America’s “greatest generation.” The Heart of Hell, however, falls short of these powerful tales. First, Weiss focuses on too many characters at once. In the first 50 pages, he introduces officers Nash and Herring, Nash’s girlfriend Dorothy, and six sailors: Lemke, Blow, Bozarth, Hallett, Banko, and Johnson. The introductions continue until the reader is juggling more than 30 names, and the narrative simply becomes over-crowded.
Second, in some areas Weiss adds unnecessarily gruesome details that do not advance his narrative. Take, for example, the author’s disturbing description of action off Iwo Jima on 17 February: As LCI(G) 449 approaches the shoreline, she receives three direct hits from the Japanese guns over a period of minutes, incapacitating ship and crew. Weiss describes the macabre scene in graphic detail and at length, with comments such as “the deck was like a killing floor at a slaughterhouse, slippery with body parts, entrails, and blood.” His description includes a leg from one man flying over the head of another and a sailor tripping over the charred head from a decapitated corpse. There is nothing particularly glorious in the destruction suffered by the men of LCI(G) 449, all the more saddening in the fact that the gunboats themselves caused little damage to Japanese defenses.
Finally, The Heart of Hell should not be considered an authoritative source on larger historical arguments such as Pacific war strategy and racial integration of the armed services.
Despite these caveats, however, I recommend Weiss’s book to World War II enthusiasts, particularly those interested in the naval contest over the Pacific between the United States and Imperial Japan. Young naval officers and midshipmen may find the 1945 sailors’ lifestyle and duties on board this gunboat particularly interesting, as well as the battle actions of the crew, including Lieutenant (junior grade) Rufus Geddie Herring, who received the Medal of Honor for his actions on that frightful day.
Inside Reagan’s Navy: The Pentagon Journals
Chase Untermeyer. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2015. 337 pp. Index. Notes. Illus. $35.00.
Reviewed by Captain W. Spencer Johnson IV, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The diary entries of the Honorable Chase Untermeyer provide critical and personal insights into the Navy of John Lehman and Jim Webb from 1983 to 1988. Inside Reagan’s Navy: The Pentagon Journals disappointingly does not directly address the hallmarks of Navy achievements in those years, such as the development of the Maritime Strategy; the procurement of new ships, aircraft, and weapon systems; the creation of the 600-ship Navy; naval operations in response to crises; or other major developments during these critical years of the Cold War.
Instead, this book provides highlights of the personalities and leadership characteristics of secretaries Lehman and Webb and other senior leaders in the Navy and Marine Corps. It also elaborates on several policy issues that Untermeyer worked on: strategic homeporting and how the promise of ships assigned within congressional districts and states was used politically to garner money and support for the Navy from congressional delegations, the academic reform of the U.S. Naval Academy to allow more humanities in the curriculum, the initial response to the AIDS epidemic, and the development of seagoing roles for women in the Navy.
Lehman initially held Untermeyer at arm’s length from his inner circle of protégés, a factor that both dismayed a sensitive Untermeyer and motivated him to earn the Secretary’s trust and with it greater access to decision-making circles. Untermeyer reserves observations and criticisms, often biting, of senior leaders, both civilian and uniformed (the “admiralty”) to the pages of his diary, which often reflect his sense of insecurity and the lack of trust in those with whom he dealt. He refers to all flag officers as “pols” and manipulators with agendas of their own.
The palpable tensions between the Secretariat and the uniformed service leaders and the Office of the Secretary of Defense are clearly laid out. Lehman is depicted as asserting his authority by maintaining a near-chokehold rein on Navy and Marine uniformed leadership. He kept tight budgetary control over resources, personally approved the assignment of all flag officers, and even influenced senior-officer promotion lists to ensure that communities were represented to his satisfaction and certain people selected—even if it meant adding numbers to the list. All policy decisions—even the type of fabric to be used in Navy uniforms—were approved by the Secretary.
Untermeyer quotes Lehman referring to a tacit agreement with the uniformed leadership in which “I get them their money and they leave me alone to run the Navy.” Lehman was said to think that only strong civilian vision and leadership could produce a strong naval establishment. If left to its own devices, the uniformed leadership would soon bring the opposite result. By contrast, Jim Webb is seen as giving far more latitude to the uniformed leadership to formulate and execute service policy, much to the dismay of the holdovers from the Lehman era.
Filled with social trivia, the diary entries give name-dropping details of luncheons in the Secretary’s dining room. On social occasions, Untermeyer lists attendees, describes the menus, and notes the music that was played. While he writes he never flaunted his four-star status, his journal details all honors paid him on official visits, how he is piped aboard ship (“Navy”), the number of rings his aides wear on their aiguillettes (four), and the number of guns fired in salute (17). He even records a perceived slight when, landing on board the carrier USS Saratoga (CV-60) to embark a waiting helicopter for transfer to the USS Ticonderoga (CG-47), neither the CO nor XO were on hand to greet him—even though sideboys were paraded in his honor. He likens himself to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, both of whom were Assistant Secretaries of the Navy at one time.
This book is not a history of the Cold-War Reagan Navy. It gives unique insight, however, into the personalities and official workings of the Navy Secretariat from 1983–85 and how one former lieutenant (junior grade) “stayed by his desk, never went to sea, and rose to be a ruler of the King’s Navee.”
New & Noteworthy Books
The Tattie Lads: The Untold Story of the Rescue Tug Service in the Two World Wars and Its Battle to Save Cargoes, Ships and Lives
Ian Dear. New York: Conway, 2016. vii + 312 pp. Intro. Gloss. Append. Biblio. Index. $40.00.
The Royal Navy Rescue Tug service’s contribution during World War II has received little attention. Thanks to rare access to archives in 2014, author Ian Dear explores possible reasons the service was given short shrift and reveals the Rescue Tugs’ fascinating history for the first time.
On the Psychology of Military Incompetence
Dr. Norman F. Dixon. New York: Basic Books, 2016. Paper. Reprint of 1976 edition. 528 pp. Intro. Notes. Biblio. Index. $18.99.
This classic study of military leadership, reprinted and updated to incorporate contemporary examples, includes a foreword by military historian and author Geoffrey Wawro.
Extraordinary Leaders: World War II Memoirs of an American Naval Officer and an Imperial Japanese Naval Officer
Joseph E. Jannotta, Jr. Bloomington, IN:AuthorHouse, 2015. 262 pp. Notes. Sources. Maps. Illus. Biblio. $28.99.
Letters the author’s uncle, a landing craft infantry large commander, wrote home during the U.S. advance across the Pacific are juxtaposed with the diary entries of a Japanese naval officer stationed on Bougainville, in the Northern Solomon Islands.
John Jordan, ed. New York: Conway, 2016. 208 pp. Illus. Notes. $60.00.
Conway’s definitive annual naval review combines original research, book reviews, warship notes, and images and illustrations.