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Book Review: JM Berger’s Jihad Joe

Monday, June 20th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — “homegrown” jihad ]



Jihad Joe: Americans who go to war in the name of Islam

by JM Berger

Potomac Books, Inc, 2011, hard back, $29.95


The title by itself is striking — Jihad Joe – and captures nicely the somewhat surreal blend of the normal and the utterly strange that we encounter when we think about “Americans who go to war in the name of Islam” – the subtitle and topic of JM Berger‘s book. And think about them, know a bit about them, we should.

The big question, of course, is Why?

Berger writes early on of young men who gather “to focus their rage through a religious filter” and while noting that jihadists comes from varied backgrounds and travel for varied reasons, correctly zeroes in on the sense of obligation that a jihadist interpretation of Islam imposes:

While all major religions have rules that limit or justify war, a small but significant minority of Muslims believe that under the correct circumstances, war is a fundamental obligation for everyone who shares the religion of Islam. When war is carried out according to the rules, it is called military jihad or simply jihad. [emphasis mine]

The rage may spring from many sources, social, economic, political, but when religion is used to focus it, as Berger nicely puts it, that obligation is what provides divine legitimacy — and the promise of miracles, martydom and a paradisal afterlife – and the sense of serving a higher purpose, to otherwise quieter lives.


Berger starts at the beginning. After a brief mention of the presence of many Muslims under slavery, two early and distinctly American expressions of Islam (the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam), and the beginnings of Muslim Brotherhood activity as Egyptian and other Muslim immigrants brought more orthodox strands of Islam to the States, Berger alerts us to the idea that Americans leaving to fight jihad may have deeper roots than we think.

Bin Laden‘s mentor Abdullah Azzam, for instance, was in the US in the 1980s appealing for Americans to help the mujahideen in their resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – a cause supported by President Reagan, who took tea with muj leaders for discussion and photo op, and by the wily Charlie Wilson of Charlie Wilson’s War. Azzam’s calls for volunteers were successful:

No one kept track of how many Americans answered the call, and no one in or out of the U.S. Government would venture a guess on the record. More than 30 documented cases were examined for this book. Based on court records and intelligence documents, a conservative estimate might be that a minimum of 150 American citizens and legal residents went to fight the Soviets.

Implications for today: this has been happening for a long time, it’s not something Anwar al-Awlaki invented just yesterday — and there have been times when the US was no too displeased at such activities.

Azzam’s appeal was precisely to the sense of a general, compulsory obligation for Muslims – fard ayn in Arabic – buttressed by tales of the miraculous and promises of paradise. I emphasize these points because their appeal is real. The day Al-Qaida was founded, an American was present, Mohammed Loay Bayazid, aka Abu Rida al Suri, and it was his reading of Azzam’s account of miracles among the jihadists in Afghanistan – apparent supernatural protection from and/or paralysis of superior forces, the “odor of sanctity” on martyrs’ bodies – that turned him from a not very pious Muslim into a volunteer jihadist. You can read the stories yourself — Azzam’s book is now available for download, in English, on the web.

I’m focusing in on the religious element because that’s my area, others will comment better than I on the military or historical aspects that Berger deals with. But Berger makes it clear that from its inception, Al-Qaida numbered Americans among its higher echelons, and bin Laden was “strangely enamored of Americans and people who had spent time in the United States” – if only for the very practical reason that their passports allowed them access most anywhere.


The first act of violence on American soil generally attributed to AQ, Berger tells us, was the 1990 killing of Rashad Khalifa in Tucson, AZ. Khalifa was the numerologically inclined leader of a Tucson mosque and translator of the Qur’an whose apocalyptic date-setting (2280 CE) I mentioned in my Zenpundit post Apocalypse Not Yet? a week ago.

Khalifa’s story leads into that of Al Fuqra, a group that Berger describes in some detail, writing of their “rural compounds and small private villages” and their “covert paramilitary training grounds” and noting that while they have been implicated in “at least thirty-four incidents … from bombings to kidnappings to murder … the government has never moved against the group in an organized manner.”

Berger turns next to the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and his followers, soon joined by the AQ-trained bomb-maker Ramzi Yousef, and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center – which failed to topple the towers — leaving the task for Mohammed Atta to complete in 2001 under bin Laden’s command

1992 sees several thousand US troops in Arabia given briefings on Saudi culture – largely a matter of Wahhabist Islam – and four-day passes to visit Mecca at Saudi expense were available for converts. As the Bosnian crisis began to unfold, ex-military Muslims converted by these means formed a natural pool for recruitment as jihadists to defend their Muslim brothers against ethnic cleansing and genocide at the hands of their Serb neighbors.

With the combination of the first WTC bombing and the Bosnian jihad, the “far enemy / near enemy” combo was in place: jihad could draw on both local and global events to fuel its global plans, and find both local and targets to take down…

By the beginning of the 1990s, America was in AQ’s sights, though AQ was barely known to a handful of Americans. The 1993 Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu featured AQ-trained forces, and the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy attacks were soon in the planning stages. In 1996, bin Laden publishes his declaration of war on America, and the CIA put together a first plan to kidnap him…


Anwar al-Awlaki enters the picture around this time, a complex man Berger calls “a study in contradictions” – “a gifted speaker who was capable of moving men to action”.

If the power of religion to focus rage, and the concept of jihad as a compulsory obligation, fard ayn, are two of our first take-aways from Berger’s book, here is a third: rhetoric is the tool that transforms the curious (pious or not so much) into the committed. Anwar al-Awlaki had “a powerful cocktail of skills” but they boil down to this: the ability to talks Islam casually, in the American manner, to American kids — in American English, in a way that appears pious and scholarly, presents jihad as both obligation and adventure, and moves them to action…

Three of the 9-11 hijackers were al-Awlaki contacts… Nidal Hasan, the army psychiatrist who massacred his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood… Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspected “underwear bomber”… Faizal Shazad, the Times Square bomber… the list of those who have known and been influenced by al-Awlaki goes on…

The history of AQ by now is well known, covered in such books as Lawrence Wright‘s The Looming Tower and Peter Bergen‘s The Longest War, so Berger can concentrate on the “home grown” side of things, featuring — alongside al-Awlaki — his clumsier precursor the AQ propagandist Adam Gadahn, and paying considerable attention to another less-than-widely reported aspect of the jihad – the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba group and its ISI-assisted 2008 attack on Mumbai, India, for which the intelligence scouting was done by the Pakistani-American sometime DEA agent David Headley, and the subsequent planning of an attack in Denmark…Berger turns next to Somalia and al-Shabab – but you get the drift, he is offering us a thoroughgoing, fully researched tour of the various Americans and groups joined by Americans across the world, involved in waging jihad, against scattered local enemies, or against the “far enemy” – the United States.


Berger’s work is detail-packed and focused, and a useful resource for that reason alone. But it is also and specifically the work of someone who has read and talked with and listened to the people he is writing about, and his work carries their voices embedded in his own commentary. It thus joins such works as Jessica Stern‘s Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill and Mark Juergensmeyer‘s similarly named and similarly excellent Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence.

Bringing us up to date, Berger offers an overview of jihadist use of the internet, paying special attention to English-language sites – Islamic Awakening, Revolution Muslim — emphasizing the peripheral nature of “forum” activities, but also crediting them as an active doorway to recruitment. Zach Chesser, Samir Khan, Jihad Recollections and Inspire magazine, they’re all here. Read Berger’s recent blog post on “gamification” after this chapter, follow him at @intelwire, and you’ll be ongoingly up to date on his thought…

Berger closes with a look at future prospects. The opening of this chapter – an overview of the history so far covered – speaks volumes:

The journey of the American jihadist spans continents and decades. Americans of every race and cultural background have made the decision to take up arms in the name of Islam and strike a blow for what they believed to be justice.

Many who embarked on this journey took their first steps for the noblest of reasons – to lay their lives on the line in defense of people who seemed defenseless. But some chose to act for baser reasons – anger, hatred of the “other,” desire for power, or an urge towards violence.

In the early days of the movement, it was possible to be a jihadist and still be a “good” American…

Berger neither condemns nor excuses: he sees, he asks, he researches, he reports. His observations of the current situation can thus be trusted to be driven by insight rather than ideology – not the most common of stances, but one we very much need.

He pinpoints as the first element that almost all American jihadists have in common as “an urgent feeling that Muslims are under attack”. Foreign policy implications? Yes indeed – but Berger is also looking to the Muslim community to take an approach less focused on what he terms a “litany of grievances” – valid though some of them may be – which in effect helps perpetuate a “counterproductive narrative” of how the US views and treats Muslims.

Once a narrative that America is at war with Islam is established, the argument for jihad as fard ayn can be made – and all manner of shame, frustrations, rage, violent tendencies, alienation and idealism can be unleashed under the jihadist banner.

Berger’s conclusion:

We must preserve the constitutional rights and basic human respect due to American Muslims while changing the playing field to create conditions in which extremism cannot thrive. These goals are not mutually exclusive – they are independent.

If principle and pragmatism are not enough reason to change the tone of the conversation, there isx one more thing to consider. It would be not only dangerous but shameful to prove that our enemies were right about us all along.

Berger’s is a book to read, certainly — and more significantly perhaps, a book to admire.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I'm thinking about the 211 Sarah Schlesingers who were killed because they were Jewish.

More Books!

Friday, November 26th, 2010

Just picked up a few new reads…..


Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine by Robert Coram

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

Robert Coram, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Boyd ’07, has a new biography of the legendary military visionary and Marine Lt. General Victor “Brute” Krulak, reviewed here by Max Boot and here by Tony Perry (Hat tip to Dr. Chet Richards). Having thumbed a few pages, Krulak appears a complicated man – gifted, dauntless and extremely driven but also possessed of a mean streak, edging at times toward petty cruelty.

Bloodlands I intend to read in a “Hitler-Stalin/Nazi-Soviet Comparison” series along with Richard Overy’s The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Robert Gellately’s Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe , Richard J. Evans’ The Third Reich at War and Alan Bullock’s classic dual biography Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives.  I’d also recommend, for those with the stomach for historiographic commentary, Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century and John Lukac’s The Hitler of History


Human Face of War by Jim Storr

After reading approxmately a third of The Human Face of War by  Dr. Jim Storr, a retired Lt. Colonel, King’s Regiment and an instructor at the UK Defence Academy, I will say that if you are going to read only one book on modern military thought this year, it should be The Human Face of War. It’s that good.

Aside from a reflexive hostility toward John Boyd’s OODA Loop ( though not, strangely enough, toward the substantive epistemology advocated by Boyd that the diagram represented), Storr’s tome is an epistle of intellectual clarity on military theory that deserves to be widely read.


NDU Press recommends, and I concur, this review of The Human Face of War by Col. Colonel Clinton J. Ancker III. Ancker, like Storr, is an expert on military doctrine, so it is a well-informed review by a professional peer.

Cameron on Conflicts of Commands, Part II. – A Guest Post Series

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Charles Cameron, my regular guest blogger, is the former Senior Analyst with The Arlington Institute and Principal Researcher with the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He specializes in forensic theology, with a deep interest in millennial, eschatological and apocalyptic religious sects of all stripes.  Here is part II. of a three part series by Charles, entitled “CONFLICT OF COMMANDS”.


I would like to state quite categorically that I am not in the business of making “moral equivalences” here. I have culled these quotes from a wide variety of sources – from friend and foe alike, moderate and extremist, local and far-flung. The fact that I juxtapose a variety of quotations in which the issue of divided lines of command comes up in no way means that I equate the principled opposition to state brutality of one quotation with the wilder reaches of conspiracist rhetoric in another. Part I has further details and provides my context. Please note too that as an appendix, I have attached two quotes that only indirectly address the issue of conflict of commands – a white supremacist quote, immediately followed by a principled quote about militia movement members “disgust at the genocidal fantasies in white supremacist discourse” – because I believe it is important to be aware just how far the rhetoric of hatred can go, and just how firmly it can be rebutted.        – Charles Cameron

Conflict of Commands II: Quotations

by Charles Cameron

Principle IV, Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nüremberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal, 1950.

The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.


No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other…

Jesus Christ, in the Gospel according to Matthew, 6.24


Archbishop Romero to the Salvadoran military, March 24, 1980:

No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God. Now it is time that you recover your consciences and that you first obey your conscience rather than an order to sin.

Carolyn Forche, “Oscar Romero” in Susan Bergman, ed., Martyrs.


And we call on every soldier working in the crusader armies and puppet governments to repent to Allah and follow the example of the heroic Mujahid brother Nidal Hassan, to stand up and to kill all the crusaders by all means available to him supporting the religion of Allah and to make the word of Allah most supreme on earth.

Operation by the Mujahid brother Omar Al-Farooq the Nigerian, AQAP statement, 26 December 2009


Oath-Keepers’ Declaration of Orders We Will NOT Obey:

Recognizing that we each swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and affirming that we are guardians of the Republic, of the principles in our Declaration of Independence, and of the rights of our people, we affirm and declare the following:

1. We will NOT obey any order to disarm the American people.


US Special Forces have conducted multiple raids into Pakistani territory, local daily The Nation reported today in a front-page article that was basically just quoting an earlier Guardian story. 

One previous US raid that occurred in 2008 was already known about. And when it happened, there was serious concern as to whether such actions by the Americans might lead to the breakdown of the Pakistani army. One respected London-based Pakistan academic said if American troops kept crossing into Pakistani territory he could envisage a situation where Pakistani commanders would lose control over soldiers who would want to fight the incursions.

Londonstani, blogging on CNAS’ Abu Muqawama


SINCE its meeting on 28th Shvat 5765, the Sanhedrin has deliberated the initiative of the Prime Minister of Israel, the decisions of the government, and legislation enacted by the Knesset regarding the plan known as “The Disengagement,” henceforth referred to in this document as “the uprooting.”

This plan involves the uprooting of Jewish communities in the Gaza strip and northern Samaria, the forced expulsion of Jews from their homes, and the willful transfer of these lands to a foreign power. Following an intensive study which took place regarding the halachic (authentic Jewish law) questions that arise from the government’s decision, the Sanhedrin hereby brings its conclusions and decisions to the public’s attention. [ … ]

7. Any Jew – including a soldier or policeman – who supports the uprooting, whether directly or indirectly, whether by voting in its favor, or by giving council, or by supplying vehicles or materials, and obviously, anyone who actively participates in the uprooting… by so doing, transgresses a large number of Torah commandments.


Members of all branches of the United States Military will soon be facing a most critical decision. A report emerged that Obama is using the deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan to cover for the movement of some 200,000 troops, presently on duty in countries other than Iraq and Afghanistan, to USNORTHCOM to prepare for the “expected outbreak of Civil War within the United States before the end of winter.”



Rabbis and teachers from Hesder yeshivas, which offer Torah studies alongside military service, released a letter to students in which they reiterated their assertion that soldiers must refuse orders if they are commanded to evacuate settlements, arguing that Torah law is above the Israel Defense Forces. … “Unfortunately, the IDF has been used for purposes unrelated to Israel’s defense and directly opposed to God’s wishes for quite some time,” the rabbis wrote in the letter. “This situation faces IDF soldiers with a contradiction between Jewish commandments and commanders’ orders.”

Chaim Levinson, “Hesder yeshiva rabbis: Torah law is above IDF”, Ha’aretz, Deecember 18, 2009.


AL-JAZEERA: How can you agree with what Nidal did as he betrayed his American nation?”

AL-AWLAKI : More important than that is that he did not betray his religion. Working in the American Army to kill Muslim is a betrayal to Islam. American today is Yesterday’s pharaoh; it is an enemy to Islam. A Muslim is not allowed to work in the American Army unless he intends to walk the steps of our Brother Nidal. Loyalty in Islam is to Allah, His messenger and the believers, and not to a handful of soil they call “nation.” The American Muslim’s loyalty is to the Muslim Nation and not to America, and brother Nidal is a proof on that through [executing] his blessed operation, so may Allah reward him with the best of the rewards for that.

Al-Jazeera Interview with Anwar al-Awlaki regarding Maj. Hasan, December 23, 2009


You must understand that the desire of the nation isn’t meaningful for someone who believes in the creator.

Rabbi Ariel Bareli, quoted in Christian Science Monitor


Moral Courage: Miep Gies 1909 -2010, RIP

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010


Miep Gies and Otto Frank

Miep Gies, who sheltered Anne Frank and her family from arrest by the Gestapo for two years died today. She was 100 years old.

Gies’ Web site reported that she died Monday after a brief illness. The report was confirmed by museum spokeswoman Maatje Mostar, but she gave no details. The British Broadcasting Corp. said she died in a nursing home after suffering a fall last month.

Gies was the last of the few non-Jews who supplied food, books and good cheer to the secret annex behind the canal warehouse where Anne, her parents, sister and four other Jews hid for 25 months during World War II

….Anne Frank died of typhus at age 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945, just two weeks before the camp was liberated. Gies gave the diary to Anne’s father Otto, the only survivor, who published it in 1947.

After the diary was published, Gies tirelessly promoted causes of tolerance. She brushed aside the accolades for helping hide the Frank family as more than she deserved – as if, she said, she had tried to save all the Jews of occupied Holland.

“This is very unfair. So many others have done the same or even far more dangerous work,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press days before her 100th birthday last February.

….I don’t want to be considered a hero,” she said in a 1997 online chat with schoolchildren.

“Imagine young people would grow up with the feeling that you have to be a hero to do your human duty. I am afraid nobody would ever help other people, because who is a hero? I was not. I was just an ordinary housewife and secretary.”

Had Miep’s complicity in hiding the Frank and Van Dam families been discovered by Nazi authorities in occupied Holland, she would have been arrested by the Gestapo, interrogated and then deported to a concentration camp in the Third Reich, as happened to other Dutch citizens resisting the Final Solution.

What can we say about Miep Gies? At a time when many lent a hand or their silence to genocide, she chose to act, with full knowledge of the potential consequences. Such moral courage is daunting. Measuring ourselves against her example, most of us are found to be wanting. We are less than she, not because she did more but because in her place we might not have done at all. 

Some people, as in Rwanda or Ethiopia or Cambodia or Bosnia or Timor or Sudan not only fell short of Miep’s standard, they picked up a machete or an axe or a gun and threw in with the perpetrators and helped pave the way to Hell.

Sadly, Western governments sometimes served to grease the skids when they could have lent their power and prestige or at least their words, to impeding genocide.  In our polite and still civilized society, no one would call our bureaucrats with pale demeanors and gray suits who ceremoniously dissembled and piously parsed phrases on TV, taking a smirking pride in their sophistic cleverness, their ability to rationalize complete inaction, “Eichmann“. No one will say that to them.

Not until Judgment Day.

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