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Radical Islam in America: Salafism's Journey from Arabia to the West

Radical Islam in America: Salafism’s Journey from Arabia to the West by Chris Heffelfinger. Potomac Books, 2011, 182 pp.

FBI fellow Chris Heffelfinger provides instruction for the FBI and joint terrorism task forces on radical Islam and terrorism at the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the US Military Academy at West Point. He is also a researcher and analyst of militant Islam for the CTC.

Radical Islam in America is an excellent read that explores an important aspect in the effort to counter terrorism: Salafi-jihadist radicalization in the United States and the West. This topic has gained currency recently with the release of the “Bachman” letters; controversy over opening of the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, mosque; and the heated discussion in the national media concerning the content of a terrorism course taught at the Armed Forces Staff College. Heffelfinger’s book is a rational look at Salafi-jihadist radicalization, constituting the basis for an informed discussion of the topic as well as providing insight that could form the basis for policies to combat it.

Heffelfinger makes the case that US Muslims are being radicalized and that the propagation of Salafi-jihadist ideology is a critical factor in this process. He outlines the radicalization of John Walker Lindh, walking the reader through the process that takes him from his home in Marin County, California, to the battlefields of Afghanistan and, finally, to the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. This example serves as the organizing principle for the book. To support his argument, the author answers several important questions. First, he defines the Salafi-jihadist ideology, outlining Salafist thought from its beginnings in the 1700s through the present day. He takes great care to clearly delineate Salafism’s place in Islam. Heffelfinger also explores how Salafist thought influenced activist (Islamist) movements in the Islamic world and how it influenced and became part of Salafi-jihadist ideology. The strength of his narrative is that it shows the reader that this ideology, which uses Islam to radicalize, is far from the mainstream of Islamic thought. The author explores the arrival of Salafi-jihadist ideology into the West and the United States in particular. Using various law enforcement cases, he demonstrates that this ideology has been present since the early 1960s and traces its evolution to the present. Heffelfinger makes a strong case that this presence is robust, establishing the basis for the radicalization of US Muslims, using small gatherings and Internet propaganda to begin the recruitment process. Finally, the author explores the actual mechanisms of radicalization. He uses a case study of the Virginia Jihad Group and the four-step process used to radicalize this group. This makes a compelling case for his main argument.

Heffelfinger’s Radical Islam in America is a must read for homeland security professionals, law enforcement officials, and academics—anyone interested in the subject of Salafi-jihadist radicalization in the United States. The book rationally explores the ideological underpinnings of jihadi violent extremism and the process of radicalization. For those seeking to implement the June 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism, with its focus on the homegrown jihadist threat, this book provides valuable insights to combat this threat.

Richard T. Anderson

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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