American extremism in 2016 & beyond

With all the horrific attacks across the United States in recent memory many Americans are trying to come to an understanding as to why it seems more and more American born individuals are taking up the cause of extremist groups from half the world away. Some might argue that the problem of homegrown extremism in the United States is quite small when looking at the trend world wide, however, even with this argument it is important to remember that this is still an issue that is on the minds of many Americans.

It is important to take note that since 9/11 all violent attacks on Americans have been conducted by or attempted by people who were American citizens, with only two cases being undertaken by individuals who were permanent residents at the time. The takeaway from this is that some of the 2016 campaign speech seems to be aimed at immigration with blocks on specific segments of the population due to the argument of national security; yet for the last fifteen (15) years no attack has come from sources outside the United States. Rather it seems that there is something that this violent ideology puts forward that Americans themselves find attracted to on some level. At the most fundamental and basic level embracing violent and extremest elements wishing to carry out attacks on Americans is a form of treason under United States law. Yet, knowing this some Americans have been willing to go against their nation and redefine their alignment.

Peter Bergen, a terrorism researcher and expert on the subject, points out that within the American context there is no set pattern. Many individuals among all populations within the American spectrum regardless if they are Muslim, Christian, white, black, Hispanic, rich or poor, undergo many of the same life problems such as families splitting apart or financial hardship, personal disappointments and public failures. Yet, only a small fraction of people who undergo such issues express themselves in a violent or extreme manner. Mr. Bergen in his newest book, United States of Jihad, looks at 300 different cases of individuals charged with some form of terrorism or extremist charge within the United States and gives a good look at who these people are when looked at on a deeper level. His findings may come as a shock to some, but the conclusion is that these people are very similar to the person sitting next to you, your neighbor, friends, coworkers or any other individual who you come across in your daily life. He explains that they are not from one segment of the population over any other. Rather people who undertake extremest action are on average 29 years old and have regular jobs with a standard income. Some have families, while others do not, often they are from what would be described as the middle class. Overall, this picture is not the normal idea of an extremest in the mind of the average American who often believe that extremists come from the fringe population of society.

Historically this random pattern follows the trend, terrorism's been largely a bourgeois undertaking starting with Anarchists in 19th century Russia, to the Baader-Meinhof gang in 1970s in Germany. Taking an interesting political turn in recent years when looked at in a middle eastern context; the leadership of al-Qaeda is actually much more well off than the average individual within the region as a whole, some describing it as some form of a 1% group, which is not off the mark. Osama bin Laden was from a Saudi billionaire family who was highly educated, even Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda today, descends from an extremely prominent Egyptian family. Taking this for what it is, individual Americans taking up various extremest causes is something that is not outside the norm, when speaking from a historical perspective.

Looking at the Fort Hood case, where Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 people, on the surface seems to be a simple case where inspiration came from a specific ideology. The argument stems from Maj. Hasan's contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda leader working out of Yemen, who was born in New Mexico; and nothing more than that. However, looking deeper into the case shows that Maj. Hasan's life was full of challenges, like many other individuals. He was about to turn 40, his parents both died young, he was about to deploy to a war-zone in Afghanistan; which he admitted he was scared about. His cousin Nader Hasan, who grew up with Maj. Nidal Hasan, is a successful lawyer in Virginia said that basically all of these pressures ground down, and caused Maj. Hasan to undertake extremest action as a very destructive way to cope with his stress. Using a form of violent ideology, which some claim to be a form of Islam, to legitimize his undertakings to himself as rational action. Indeed, with all the attacks in the United States from Jahar (Dzhokhar) Tsarnaev, in the Boston marathon bombing to Carlos Bledsoe, who killed an American soldier in Arkansas in 2009, their level of Islamic teaching or understanding was superficial at best, and at its worst a stereotyped image prevalent in western media and social understanding. Basically when it comes down to it, each case shows that American terrorism is something that is not a clear cut issue.

To better understand exactly why is maybe the most difficult question to begin to answer when looking at the various terrorist cases since 2001. There have been many various arguments thrown forward as a starting point, some tell us that these individuals are "true believers," while others say that these individuals have mental imbalances. Regardless of where the starting point is, what has been found out through interviews with extremists shows that even the individuals themselves cannot answer the question as to why they undertook violent action. To some degree it taps into the question of the existence of "evil" in varying social contexts. While it is easy to identify some points as to why an individual or even group would undertake violent, extreme, or otherwise destructive action; putting those points into terms that the majority of the population would consider rational is often difficult. Explaining what the individual thought and did is the easy point, explaining why, is not. One such case where getting at the question of why an individual undertook violent action can be found in Peter Bergen's book. The case in question is that regarding David Coleman Headley, an American born in Washington D.C. to a family of Pakistani background. Headley played a main role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Bergen explains that it appears Headley simply was a sociopath, and that he enjoyed much of what he did. More than this by no means could Headley be called an observant Muslim; it was well known that he was cheating on his wives, partying and mixing with Bollywood elite and a major drug dealer at one point in his life. Some might point out that he held a great hostility toward India as a country, based on some of his childhood experiences. However, those were not overly religious in nature, rather in the case of Headley, he simply enjoyed his violent undertaking.

The question then has to be asked, should Americans be concerned about terrorism attacks across the United States in the future by groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda or should the U.S. focus more on individual violent actors? All the research shows that directly after 9/11 there was a dynamic of individuals making attempts to form groups or cells to attempt to carry out attacks on American soil. Attacks as varied as the Virginia paintball case to the North Carolina case involving Daniel Boyd, where the actors were not necessarily associated with any terrorist group. However, due in a large part by the efforts of the F.B.I. making their actions more public has discouraged individuals from trying to form groups. It has been argued that this is mostly because of the fear of informants and their plans being rendered unsuccessful. This though has caused a significant shift that is very clear with more recent cases of terrorism in the United States, such as San Bernardino, where violent actions are being carried out by individuals who can undertake their actions without anyone suspecting them until it is often times too late. More so these individuals are not trained in any significant way by ISIS or al-Qaeda, but rather hold some common ideology and loose affiliation. Putting this into context, the American problem regarding the threat of terrorism when compared to the European problem with the threat of terrorism is small. America has only seen two individuals travel to fight in Syria with ISIS and then after try to return to the United States. One of the individuals was arrested, and the other returned to Syria to carry out a suicide bombing. In contrast Belgium and France, have seen a much larger number of people sympathetic to the ISIS cause, travel to fight in Iraq and Syria only to return to Europe, with clear frustration at the European model which does not often fully value minority input into the society as a whole.

With the 2016 elections looming, terrorism is still an issue in many voter's minds. However, all the experts acknowledge that the United States has to a degree contained the issue of foreign terrorism. This is clear due to the fact that, the more recent violent attacks have been undertaken by small groups, who have only a limited ability to vent their violent frustration and extremest views. Regardless of this though, there has been much speech on the political stage on how great the threat of terrorism is to the United States at this point in history, and that more work still needs to be done to further combat that threat on the outside, almost completely overlooking the many internal factors which make American citizens feel more marginalized and frustrated with their own personal lives and the state of their nation. Overall, it has been put forward that an American citizen is 5,000 more times likely to be killed by another American citizen with a gun than by jihadi terrorists. With all the facts out there, though it is still obvious that the majority of Americans have forgotten about the hijackings which were almost routine in the 1970s in the United States, some of which were considered ordinary crimes and some of which fall under the category of terrorism. Simply put there were more than 100 hijackings in the 1970s; yet the only hijackings most Americans remember coming into the 2016 election season are the 9/11 hijackings. More than this, Americans more often Republican leaning seem to have forgotten that there were terrorist attacks conducted by various groups that have their roots within in the United States or closer to home, such as: the Weather Underground, Black Panthers, Puerto Rican nationalists. All such violent attacks were at one time considered routine, however, due to the fact that these groups have subsided there seems to be no historical precedent which marks the 2000s as unique with regards to how terrorism is thought about in the United States public sphere.