In mid-April, President Barack Obama boasted that America and its allies were winning the fight against the Islamic State.
In a rare visit to Central Intelligence Agency headquarters, Obama noted that though ISIS could still inflict “horrific violence,” America’s 11,500 air strikes had put the group on its heels.
“We have momentum,” the president said, “and we intend to keep that.”
Only days before, however, senior administration officials sounded gloomier about the state of the war. While American air strikes and other operations had killed 25,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, incinerated hundreds of millions of dollars that ISIS had stolen from banks and seized from kidnappings and extortion, forced it to cut salaries by a third, and taken back some territory it had seized in Iraq and Syria, the terror group now had roots in 15 countries and continued to expand its reach in Europe, North Africa, and Afghanistan.
Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told senators that despite the progress, America and its allies had failed to stop “the recruitment, radicalization, and mobilization of people, especially young people, to engage in terrorist activities.” In February, James Clapper, President Obama’s director of national intelligence, testified that ISIS remained not only the nation’s “preeminent terrorist threat,” but that al-Qaida and its affiliates were “positioned to make gains in 2016.” ISIS, he said later, was a “phenomenon.”
Is the threat of ISIS to Americans at home and abroad growing or waning? What has prompted its rise and that of like-minded militant Islamists? And most crucially, how can America and its allies defeat them and their seductive extremist ideology?
No shortage of books has appeared on the issue of Islamic terrorism since al-Qaida’s attacks on New York and Washington on September 11. The rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, which evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is compellingly described in Black Flags, Joby Warrick’s riveting account of how ISIS, aided partly by the strategic errors of Presidents Bush and Obama, managed to seize and impose its barbaric, authoritarian rule on a territory the size of Great Britain. Published last year, the book won a Pulitzer Prize.
It was a worthy successor to The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright’s majestic 2006 account of the rise of al-Qaida. Now, new books by Peter Bergen, a CNN national security analyst and professor at Arizona State University who was the first reporter to interview bin Laden for an American broadcast network, and Michael V. Hayden, a former director of the National Security Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency, enhance our understanding of the spread of ISIS and like-minded jihadi groups; the appeal of the extremism underlying them; how law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and American Muslims have responded to the threat of Islamist terror; and how that appeal might be reduced.
There is no more diligent chronicler of Islamic extremism than Bergen. In United States of Jihad, he tries not only to explain how some 330 American citizens arrested on terrorism-related charges since 9/11 joined al-Qaida, ISIS, and other Islamist terror groups, but also to assess the effectiveness of President Obama’s counterterrorism campaign against what he calls “Binladenism,” the violent extreme of the Islamist spectrum. With impressive access to intelligence and law-enforcement officials, Bergen guides readers through the evolution of the threat and the continuing debates among analysts. His sources have strong views about whether the gravest Islamist threat to the homeland comes from al-Qaida or ISIS, or from homegrown terror perpetrated by radicalized young American Muslims acting largely on their own.
As it turns out, Bergen argues, both views have merit. While al-Qaida organized and directed the deadliest-ever attacks in England and an abortive attack to bring down seven American and Canadian jets leaving Heathrow Airport—a plot that could have produced 9/11-scale carnage in North America—so-called “lone wolves” have been the source of “all deadly jihadist attacks in the United States since 9/11,” he writes.
This preoccupies Bergen because such homegrown terrorists are, in many ways, “ordinary Americans.” Four out of five are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Their average age is 29; more than a third are married and have children; 12 percent have spent time in jail (as compared with 9 percent of all American males); 10 percent had mental issues, a lower incidence than in the general population.
Over 40 percent had a social media presence, either to post jihadist content or to use the Internet operationally. Those drawn to ISIS and the war in Syria are even younger than previous generations of American jihadists; their average age is 25, four years younger than al-Qaida recruits. Teenage girls—the youngest 15—make up one of six recruits. Jihadism has become “as American as apple pie,” said Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born leader of al-Qaida in Yemen who was, until his drone death in 2011, the most influential extremist cleric in the English-speaking world.
Despite this jarring assessment, Bergen echoes President Obama’s conclusion that Islamic terrorism poses no “existential” threat to America. And he repeats the invidious comparison between American deaths in car accidents and those from domestic terrorism, noting that in any year since 9/11, Americans are 12,000 times more likely to die in traffic mishaps than in terrorist attacks. True enough—more Americans die each year slipping in bathtubs than are killed by terrorism, too. But cars and bathtubs, unlike jihadists, are not trying to kill Americans.
Bergen seems ambivalent about law enforcement’s counterterrorism efforts. He applauds the FBI’s dramatic psychological and bureaucratic shift from prosecuting terrorists who have already killed to preventing the next attack, but he scoffs at some of their efforts. While al-Qaida’s core group in Pakistan has mounted six plots and its Yemen branch has staged two, he observes, the FBI has engineered 30 sting or “disruption” operations, many involving “hapless deadbeats” whose “cockamamie” schemes had “never gotten past the drawing room stage.”
Some of the disrupted plots that Bergen describes clearly involved mentally unstable people. But before 9/11, FBI agents or police officers might well have dismissed the notion that 19 foreign extremists, armed mainly with box cutters, speaking little English, and mostly ignorant of life in America, could board U.S. passenger jets and fly them into iconic buildings.
Bergen also criticizes the New York Police Department for conducting alleged “fishing expeditions” after 9/11, which, he claims, violated the rights of the city’s Muslims. Associated Press reporters won numerous prizes, including the Pulitzer, for writing more than 30 stories on the NYPD’s ostensibly overzealous surveillance. Bergen concedes that the NYPD’s monitoring of mosques and other sites open to the public was probably legal. (In January 2016, the NYPD settled two lawsuits without admitting wrongdoing or paying anything for alleged violations of privacy or civil rights.)
He also acknowledges that Michael Sheehan, who served after 9/11 as the NYPD’s top counterterrorism official, had disclosed the broad outlines of the department’s surveillance in his own 2008 book, Crush the Cell (still required reading for those interested in the NYPD’s counterterrorism program). Since 2001, according to Sheehan, the NYPD had been searching for Islamist extremists on “college campuses, in coffee houses, and in book stores.” But contrary to Sheehan’s claim that the NYPD’s effort is the nation’s most effective, Bergen believes that it “didn’t yield much of anything.” Perhaps the NYPD was unwilling or unable to disclose the specifics of its achievements to Bergen. The disruption of 16 documented plots against the city, however amateurish some might have seemed, suggests that the department has been doing something right.
Bergen finds hope in the interfaith dialogue between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and in Muslim-American clerics who encourage fellow Muslims to denounce extremism among their own. And he’s positively enthusiastic about a program run by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit that focuses not on detecting signs of Islamist radicalization, as the NYPD has tried to do, but on what it calls a “pathway to violence.” The bureau has developed “universal indicators of someone who might engage in violence,” along with “inhibitors that might keep that individual from doing so,” whether they’re jihadis or neo-Nazis.
While Bergen clearly prefers this approach, he is fair-minded enough to quote the FBI’s Art Cummings, a former Navy SEAL who helped develop the bureau’s counterterrorism strategy. Frustrated by the backlash against law enforcement, Cummings noted that the jihadi plots under investigation were “one hundred percent Islamic.” “When the Japanese start killing Americans in acts of terrorism,” Bergen quotes him, “we’ll start investigating the Japanese.”
If Bergen downplays the strategic threat posed by radical Islamists, Michael Hayden sees a movement growing ever stronger. In Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, he defends the intelligence community’s efforts to protect the homeland after 9/11. “We’re actually pretty good at the spy stuff,” he writes. “We need to preserve that capacity . . . our first line of defense.” For Hayden, intrusive surveillance that goes to the limit of what precedent and law allow will be indispensable to keep the nation safe.
Hayden’s account is fascinating, if a bit acronym-heavy. He describes not only the shadowy world of intelligence collection and disruption—a “noble enterprise,” he calls it—but also his battles with reporters and legislators on Capitol Hill. While Bergen is a journalist, Hayden, a retired four-star general, is a policymaker who has led two of the nation’s most vital surveillance and counterterrorism agencies. Asked by two presidents to do whatever it takes to prevent the next 9/11, he has become an intelligence evangelist.
Hayden sees his memoir as part of his mission to convince an increasingly skeptical public that controversial programs undertaken after 9/11 on his watch were justified and unfairly assailed—often by legislators who defended them in private only to profess outrage after journalists disclosed them. (He takes special aim at Democratic California senator Dianne Feinstein, who headed the Senate Intelligence Committee when her party had a majority.) But Hayden acknowledges that public trust in the nation’s intelligence agencies is indispensable, having learned firsthand that the most sophisticated technology is only as good as the public’s willingness to use it.
Hayden takes pride in having revamped the NSA, the nation’s largest and most powerful spy agency. His opening chapter describes how a software failure knocked out the NSA’s entire collection system for 72 nail-biting hours in January 2000. He was determined to eliminate “antiquated technology” and a “leaden bureaucracy,” he writes. He got money from Congress to purchase equipment and upgrade outmoded collection capabilities, and eventually cut a third of NSA’s 450 internal panels and managerial fat.
By December 2005, thanks partly to an unprecedented program to sweep up personal data called “Stellarwind”—the now-notorious collection of “metadata”—the NSA was “cranking out ten potential leads per day,” he claims, “about one in ten of them high confidence.” Though an acting attorney general would later refuse to reauthorize Stellarwind on constitutional grounds—Congress eventually put the program on firmer legal footing—Hayden argues that the NSA’s collection of telephone numbers, times, dates, and locations (though not the content) of the calls of millions of Americans was legal and justified, and that it helped identify who was communicating with terrorists abroad. Launched by President George W. Bush, the program was expanded under President Obama.
Reinventing the CIA in the spring of 2006 proved a tougher challenge. If the NSA needed to be “shaken up” in 1999, the CIA needed to be “settled down,” he writes. Having failed to prevent 9/11 or to find and kill Osama bin Laden, and having botched its assessment of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the agency was demoralized. Congress was also blasting the CIA for holding suspected terrorists at “black sites,” for water-boarding at least three of those suspects, and for subjecting others to different forms of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a euphemism Hayden uses throughout the book to describe actions that many would call torture. Meanwhile, Congress had humiliated the CIA by creating a new top intelligence agency to improve cooperation and information exchange among the 16 intelligence agencies.
Hayden tries debunking congressional and journalistic claims about what the CIA had done before he assumed command. He aims much of his ire at legislators whose moral indignation conveniently surfaced after reporters disclosed the humiliation and inhumane treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which included confinement in cramped boxes, shackling in painful positions, forced nudity, and other abuses.
While he seems resigned to the steady leak of classified information and the fact that “nothing stays secret,” he clearly relishes skewering Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, along with some reporters who broke those stories, questioning at times not only their methods but their motives. Critics have hit back. Senator Feinstein, for one, has posted a 38-page rebuttal of Hayden’s claims about the value of information extracted through what many Americans consider torture. Others have challenged the effectiveness of such programs as Stellarwind.
Hayden’s basic argument is that fighting terrorism requires America’s intelligence and the national security community to play at “the edge” of what the law allows and that the “past policies” subsequently criticized by many “were not mistakes at all, but were a central reason why the country had not suffered an attack.” He offers little evidence to support these claims, however. He also emphasizes the importance of aid from allies—including Israel’s assassination of Iranian scientists, which he seems to confirm, and Saudi Arabia’s jihadi rehabilitation center, which he calls the world’s “best.”
Hayden is no fan of President Obama. If Bergen more or less endorses the president’s approach to combating terror, Hayden suggests that Obama’s response to ISIS has been too little, too late, and portrays him as indecisive, “more Hamlet than Patton.” Yes, it was President Obama who increased the drone strikes that Hayden supervised. Such strikes made killing terrorists easier and less “politically dangerous,” he says. But the terrorists’ information—about plots against Americans at home and abroad—died with them.
Mark Bowden and other critics (one suspects Bergen would be among them) argue that revoking the more odious practices at the “edge” has not led to more terrorist attacks in the U.S. Apart from the Boston Marathon bombing and the attack in San Bernardino—both significant intelligence failures—this observation is true. But former NYPD counterterrorism chief Sheehan warns that the danger could grow if America becomes complacent. Jihadists, he argues, have shown an uncanny knack for surviving and adapting.
If ISIS, or even demented lone wolves inspired by it, manage to steal, buy, or make dirty bombs or sophisticated chemical or biological weapons, they could transform a modest terror attack into a strategic blow to America’s psyche. Just because Saddam Hussein turned out not to have WMD doesn’t mean that ISIS and like-minded groups have abandoned their goal of acquiring them.
Read together, Bergen and Hayden’s books suggest that neither panic nor complacency serves the nation well, and that the search for effective ways of defeating terror groups abroad and limiting their appeal at home must continue.
Cross-posted from JudithMiller.com.