Most helpful positive review
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An excellent overview of just what its title says: Americans who have gone to 'war' in the name of Islam
on January 12, 2012
AT A TIME when so many books on politics, religion, and world events are little more than puffed-up pamphlets which are simultaneously high on hyper-partisanship and low on facts, J. M. Berger's Jihad Joe, a treatment of the radicalization and actions of American Muslims who have dedicated themselves to "violent jihad" (the author's chosen term), is a breath of fresh - and troubling - air. Painstakingly researched and heavily footnoted (the author, an investigative journalist, consulted thousands of pages of court records and documents obtained through FOIA request, as well as source material from the making of multiple documentaries on jihadi activities in Bosnia and in the U.S.), Jihad Joe does not couch opinion as fact, but instead makes use of often disparate stories and information sources to weave together a factual account of radicalized American Muslims, from their diverse motivations and processed of radicalization to their actions.
The bulk of Jihad Joe is a lesson in recent history, recounting the motivations and activities of Americans who have "go[ne] to war in the name of Islam" from the siege of Mecca in 1979, where two Americans were involved, to the present. It traces the heady days of the heavily-endorsed (by Islamic leaders and the U.S. alike) jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, when Muslims from America and around the world traveled to fight against the Russian invaders, to the founding of al Qaeda, where an American from Kansas City served as note-taker, through the Bosnian conflict, to the "war on America" that al Qaeda began in the 1990s (which included action in Somalia during the infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident), and which is currently ongoing. Among the major takeaways from this fast, engaging read (it can be comfortably read in a single weekend) is the realization that the radicalization of, and participation in what Berger refers to as "violent jihad" by, American Muslims is far from a new phenomenon.
IT IS DIFFICULT to come away from Jihad Joe without having acquired a view of domestic radicalization as a problem that is a mile wide or more, even if it is only the proverbial inch deep in relation to the wider American Muslim population. It is likewise difficult not to be palpably frustrated by a law enforcement apparatus that seems, over the course of the last three decades of Americans participating in violent jihad, to have been utterly incapable of getting out of its own way when it came to tracking dangerous individuals and getting them off the streets. The story of Ali Mohamed, mentioned above, is the most dramatic example of this, but a recurring theme within the stories presented in Jihad Joe is an unwillingness or inability on the part of the military, law enforcement, and the nation's political leadership to properly deal with the topic of religiously-based radicalization. During the Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s, this was largely understandable, as the U.S. was a supporter of the mujahedin, which drew Muslims from around the globe to fight the Soviet Union; however, the precedent set then and in the early 1990s carried over through the last years of the last millennium and beyond, resulting in an America which was unprepared for the guns, bombs, and rage of the violent jihadi minority to be turned from the "near enemy" - those threatening Muslims in Afghanistan and Bosnia - to the "far enemy" here in America, which was more accessible and more "realistic" to native jihadis (p. 77).
A particularly valuable contribution made by Jihad Joe is a survey of our increasingly web-based world's impact on the radicalization and recruitment of young Muslims to violent jihad, including the phenomenon of "jihobbyists" who interact online with militants, sometimes getting their "fix" that way, and sometimes (in much smaller numbers) progressing in radicalization to the point where they too engage in violent jihad. The Internet has allowed the public at large access to unprecedented information, including radical Islamic literature, audio, and video; partly as a result of this, and partly as a result of the scattering and destruction of terrorist training sites and organizations in the War on Terror, the process of radicalization and engagement in violent jihad has been turned on its head, from the 20th century model of intensive, rigorous, and highly organized religious and military training to the 21st century model of potential radicals in any geographic location taking the "Wikipedia approach to expertise" and declaring themselves religious experts "capable of deciding religious questions that have life-and-death consequences" (p. 201). "Before 9/11 someone who selected himself for jihad usually did so because he was pretty damn tough," writes Berger. "After 9/11 someone who selected himself was more likely to be a voracious reader" (p. 201).
This new world of individualized violent jihad, in which people anywhere in the world have access both to radical Islamist literature and media and to instructions on the construction and use of a wide range of weaponry, has allowed for violent jihad to be waged with less religious grounding and on a far more scattered - and potentially common - basis.
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