National Press Club

Determining homegrown terrorism 'who' easier than 'why,' CNN analyst tells Book Rap

April 2, 2016 | By Heather Forsgren Weaver | HeatherForsgrenWeaver@gmail.com

CNN Security Analyst Peter Bergen, author of United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists listens to an audience question during a Book Rap at that National Press Club on April 1, 2016.

CNN Security Analyst Peter Bergen, author of United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists listens to an audience question during a Book Rap at that National Press Club on April 1, 2016.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

CNN security analyst Peter Bergen knows who becomes the typical homegrown jihadi terrorist but has not figured out the more complicated part of the puzzle -- why.

“The average age is 29, a third of these people are married, a third of these people have kids, their average incomes are similar to the average incomes of average Americans," Bergen told a National Press Club Book Rap April 1.

"Their educational attainments are very similar. They are not career criminals. Their incidence of serious mental illness is below the rate of the normal population so they are saner than the average population.... When you look into the why it becomes more and more complicated," Bergen said.

Bergen, who is also vice president of New America, has written The United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists. In the book, he catalogues more than 300 people convicted or indicted of terrorism-related offenses. What he discovered might surprise many listening to the current political discourse.

Four out of five of the subjects are either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. For example, the Tsarnaev brothers, who bombed the Boston Marathon: Tamerlan -- the older brother -- was a legal permanent resident and Dzhokhar was a citizen. Although not profiled because the book was going to press on the day of the attack, the San Bernardino shooters: Syed Rizwan Farook was born in Chicago and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, was a legal permanent resident.

There are a variety of reasons why Americans turn to jihadi terrorism, including objecting to U.S. foreign policy, wanting to belong to an exciting organization and a personal disappointment, Bergen said. That is not to say that Islam has nothing to do with this, it does, Bergen said. But often the terrorists are not that knowledgeable about the religion.

“This has something to do with Islam, clearly a cherry-picked version of Islam where you select certain passages from the Qur’an, which is not just a book but the word of God, and you use these passages to justify violence but it is a lot more than that really because when you dig into the cases, people in this room probably know more about Islam than [the Tsarnaev brothers] do," Bergen said.

Sept. 11 was one of the “hinge events of American history,” Bergen said.

“As a result, Americans are quite worried about terrorism, probably much more worried than then they should be given that [the] statistical likelihood of being killed by a terrorist is close to zero in this country," Bergen said.

Due to an increase in intelligence and awareness, only 45 people have been killed since Sept. 11, 2001.

“On average, three Americans each year are killed by jihadi terrorists,” Bergen said.

The Book Rap was interrupted due to a fire reportedly in the Corner Bakery and subsequent building evacuation before Joseph Luchok, a member of the Club’s Book & Author Committee and introducer of the event, could present Bergen with the traditional Club mug.