Review

Smart and measured Showtime documentary 'American Jihad' examines roots of home-grown terrorism

Showtime’s “American Jihad” looks at the roots of homegrown terrorism through the stories of the young American citizens behind such deadly attacks as the Boston Marathon bombing and the Orlando, Fla., nightclub shooting.

The 90-minute documentary, narrated by Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan”), goes beyond the hysteria and fear to offer a smart, measured and methodical look at how these men were indoctrinated into terror organizations such as the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and Shabab.

By interviewing a “de-radicalized” Al Qaeda follower, the parents of jailed and dead American “jihadis,” the victims of a terror attack and deeply sourced experts, the documentary deconstructs how and why deadly assaults such as Ft. Hood and San Bernardino happen and explores what can possibly be done to thwart future tragedies.

The documentary, which airs Saturday, finds two main commonalities among the young men it follows: the need for stability and the misguided belief they’d found it in the teachings of dangerous propagandists such as Al Qaeda’s Anwar Awlaki.

Partly through news footage and his own self-released videos, the Showtime film (directed by Alison Ellwood) tracks Awlaki from his early days as a charismatic imam in a Falls Church, Va., mosque to becoming the first American citizen killed by a targeted drone strike in President Obama’s war on terror.

Born in New Mexico, he had a strong rapport with the American Muslim youths at his mosque, thanks to a fluid use of the English language (not a given with Islamic religious leaders, even in the U.S.) and his understanding of popular culture. He was also an early master manipulator of the Internet and social media, using it to disseminate his videotaped teachings to a wider audience.

As Awlaki began embracing more extremist views (he finally fled the U.S. when he landed on the radar of authorities over his connection to some of the 9/11 attackers), so too did his most impressionable followers.

Jesse Morton was a self-proclaimed jihadist who has “ancestry in America dating back to the Mayflower,” he says. He converted to Islam in prison, where he found solace in the Koran. Later he discovered Awlaki’s videos online. The self-declared Islamic scholar had a way of making American Muslims feel “they were doing nothing” about the suffering in Islamic regions overseas, says Morton, and had a duty to fight the American oppression of their Muslim brothers. It was a call to arms that provided lost young men with the direction they’d been seeking.

Morton (who had become Younes Abdullah Mohammed) co-founded the radical New York organization Revolution Muslim, posting anti-American and pro-extremist propaganda. When a death threat was sent to the creators of “South Park” after they released an episode mocking the prophet Muhammad, he was arrested in 2011 for soliciting murder through his organization. Morton later helped authorities break up terror plots, so he was released from prison and deployed as an undercover operative.

Troy Kastigar traveled to Africa under the guise of teaching English, says his tearful mother, Julie Boada, but he really joined Somalia’s Shabab militia. She describes him as a high-energy kid, always on the move, until he came under the influence of sort of substance abuse. When he discovered mainstream Islam and converted, he was happy, even grounded. And then he fell for the teachings of Awlaki. “I cannot comprehend him being violent,” his mother says. Kastigar was killed in battle.

Awlaki has been dead for six years, but his videos are still used as recruiting tools by groups such as Islamic State. The group is losing ground in Iraq and Syria, so it is encouraging followers to stage attacks on their own soil. As the documentary points out, terror groups no longer have to try to physically recruit men and women for their fight overseas. Given the growth of social media, they reach a lot more potential followers than they did when the Al Qaeda operative was alive.

“All they have is an ideology now,” says Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent and terrorism expert. When an attack like San Bernardino occurs, where the perpetrators have no official ties to the Islamic State other than following its social media account, “ISIS is still happy to take advantage of” the fear it incites,” he says.

Soufan says it’s the notion of omnipresence that all these groups — Islamic State, Al Qeada and whatever extremist network pops up next — enjoy. “If we don’t change the narrative or kill the ideology, we are going to continue to play a game of whack-a-mole.”

“American Jihad” brings us all the way up to President Trump’s first executive travel ban earlier this year. Trump’s inflammatory statements about Muslims are “absolutely playing into the hands of ISIS” and Osama bin Laden’s promise that one day the U.S. will turn on its own Muslim citizens, says John Miller, deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism at the NYPD.

Journalist and author Peter Bergen, who has reported on terror movements for decades, says Trump’s rhetoric is distancing us from our greatest ally in the war against terror: American Muslims. “Don’t alienate them,” he says, “enlist them.”

‘American Jihad’

Where: Showtime

When: 9 p.m. Saturday

Rating: Not rated

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

@lorraineali

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