'American Jihad': Why New Doc Is Essential Viewing in Trump Era

New film on homegrown terrorism shows how the Internet is the real engine of radicalization – and how Trump's policies will only make things worse

Anwar Al-Awlaki at a mosque in Annandale, Virginia in October 2001. Soon after, the American citizen became one of the most powerful forces of radicalization in the world. Credit: Linda Spillers/Redux

It takes an internet connection and about 10 months, on average, to turn an American kid into a terrorist. Home-grown radicals are on average 26 years old. Ninety percent of them have been male, but other than that they don't have a lot in common. They're white, black, brown; from rich, poor and middle class families.

And, despite the Trump administration's hysterical fears of foreign-born terrorists, they – American citizens or legal green card holders — have committed the vast majority of the 400 or so terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11.

One of the disturbing takeaways from American Jihad, the new Showtime documentary from director Alison Elwood and Alex Gibney's Jigsaw Productions, is how fully the government has failed to recognize the threat embedded in emergent channels like YouTube and Twitter, and how ineffectual their usual methods are on the rare occasions they do.

Through interviews with reformed jihadis, the families of young indoctrinated men and experts on extremism, the film traces the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric killed by a 2011 drone attack in Yemen. Al-Awlaki has been dead for six years, but he lives on on YouTube where his inflammatory lectures continue to rack up views and inspire terrorist plots in the United States.

The attacks last year in Orlando and San Bernardino, and the failed attempts in New York and New Jersey in September, were all committed by individuals inspired to some extent by al-Awlaki who had no direct contact with foreign terrorist group (or at least any evidence of one).

Not a single one of those attacks – nor the Boston bombing or the Fort Hood shooting – would have been stopped by the travel ban the Trump administration stubbornly continues to pursue. As Peter Bergen, the only Western journalist to interview Osama Bin Laden, puts it in the film: "Let's say we banned all immigration tomorrow, that wouldn't solve the problem. People are being radicalized in their bedrooms by the Internet.”

The Trump administration's misguided policies are not only not addressing the problem, they’re exacerbating it. By driving a wedge between Muslim-Americans and the rest of the country, they're increasing the kind of isolation that drove those attackers to seek out the extreme message al-Awlaki preached in the first place and making the things al-Awlaki said while he was alive — like "The west will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens"— seems prescient and even powerful. There's evidence the travel ban is already being used as a recruiting tool by the individuals who have have stepped into al-Awlaki’s old role.

That would be bad enough, but as American Jihad carefully illustrates, the FBI is woefully ill-equipped at recognizing a potential threat. Field officers, acting on a tip that Omar Mateen spoke enthusiastically about al-Awlaki's teachings at his mosque, open and closed an investigation in the Pulse nightclub shooter. "I don’t believe he will go postal,” one would write, before Mateen committed the deadliest shooting in U.S. history.

The bureau likewise blew a tip they had from Russian intelligence on Tamerlan Tsarnaev before he carried out the Boston bombing in 2013. Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan had an ongoing email correspondence with al-Awlaki about how he could support the jihad – a correspondence the FBI monitored, and used to conclude he was not a threat before Hassan shot up his army base in 2009, killing 13, wounding 32.

The inevitable question American Jihad confronts is: how do you begin to fight a virus spread through social media? Censor the YouTube videos, shut down the Twitter accounts? More will only pop-up to fill the void. To have a chance at succeeding, any strategy has to take a much wider view, according to Ali Soufan, a former special agent for the F.B.I. "If we don’t combat the narrative, if we don’t kill the ideology, we're going to continue to play a game of whack-a-mole," he says in the film.

And what if someone you know – your child, as was the case for several of the film's subjects – is at risk? "Right now, if you're a family member worried about your kid, you got nothing," Seamus Hughes, Deputy Director of the program on extremism at George Washington University, says in the film. "You do nothing kind of hope it's a phase, teenage angst, they grow out of it. Or you call the FBI and potentially talk to your loved one behind prison bars for the next 25 years."

If there's any good news in the film, it's that, as Hughes goes on to say, there are solutions – it's just that we haven't tried them. "We're talking about small numbers of individuals that are drawn to groups like ISIS: 105 people in the last two years. These are manageable numbers in terms of one-on-one interventions. You can have a bench of religious leaders – properly vetted –  intervention specialists, social workers, mental health professionals [to whom] you can say: I've got a guy down the street... can you help me out?” Hughes suggests. "We haven't done that."