.

The Persistent Salafi-Jihadist Threat

Homegrown: ISIS in America | Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Seamus Hughes, and Bennett Clifford | I. B. Tauris | November 2020.

Nearly a year ago, the U.S. Intelligence Community and Special Operations Forces tracked down and killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, after having rolled back the movement’s territorial gains, nearly wiping the movement out—or so it seemed. Rumors of its death may have been greatly exaggerated as ISIS’ influence and reach continue to be felt.

In late October, a teacher in the suburbs of Paris was beheaded by a student in the wake of the teacher’s decision to show cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. This attack was followed by another in Nice in which three people were fatally stabbed. Shortly thereafter, four people were killed and over 20 others were wounded in multiple attacks across Vienna. One gunman was killed by the Austrian police and is believed to have connections to the Islamic State. According to Austria’s Minister of the Interior, the deceased gunman was jailed for 22 months for attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIS but was released early as part of a program offering leniency to young adults.

The latest round of violence in Europe again raised fears of similar incidents occurring in the United States. Yet, despite the group’s prominence in the popular imagination, the ability of ISIS to carry out attacks in America has been considerably less than one would expect.

Understanding the threat of the Islamic State in the United States requires an understanding of what the group has done thus far, what motivates Americans to join ISIS or carry out attacks on its behalf, and to discern any possible patterns of behavior. Here, authors Seamus Hughes, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, and Bennett Clifford successfully offer keen insights into the Islamic State in the United States in their new book Homegrown: ISIS in America. It is deeply researched, well-written, and absolutely fascinating.

Version 2.0 of Salafi-Jihadist Movements

The authors vividly illustrate that in general, but also particularly in America, ISIS’ model of operations is truly the next generation of Salafi-Jihadist movements. If al-Qa’ida was version 1.0, ISIS is version 2.0. The organization came about at the right time to fully leverage social media, to diversify its propaganda and recruiting messages, and to maximize its reach. It certainly took advantage of much of the narrative and approach established by al-Qa’ida, but the Islamic State elevated it to a new level.

Despite not having true roots in the United States, the organization was able to overcome this comparable weakness to develop self-starting recruiting networks to foster online advocates, attract adherents to travel to Iraq and Syria, and even recruit fighters. By comparison, the interactions between ISIS and returning fighters in Europe was much more direct, more personal, and more frequent.

The attractiveness of traveling to Iraq and Syria ebbed as ISIS gradually lost territory. This is unsurprising, yet, despite this loss of territory, its online component and message remained as strong. This decentralized and disaggregated model offered ISIS a more effective way to harness and leverage its potential recruits’ skills in their home countries, as demonstrated in the United States by the authors. A would-be jihadist no longer needs to travel to Afghanistan or Syria to support the ISIS cause. Rather, they can stay at home and write code, develop propaganda, serve as communications go-betweens, and more. It serves, as the authors note, as a starting point for potentially higher-risk efforts in the future.

Ultimately, the authors note that while ISIS was generally successful at recruiting and radicalizing members in the United States, it was less successful in guiding them to executing deadly attacks. Few Americans were successful in traveling to Iraq or Syria to gain battlefield experience, and fewer still were able to return to the United States to carry out attacks. This is due partially to the distance between the United States and Syria. While it is obvious that geography is destiny, the fact that an ISIS fighter can get from Raqqa to Paris for roughly 500 dollars makes it much easier for a would-be returning jihadist to attack Western Europe than the United States.

Moreover, while Muslim communities in America, as the authors note, may be better off socio-economically than their counterparts in Europe, this does not mean that they are immune from radicalization or recruitment.

That distance also aided one of the less appreciated and certainly less well-known successes of American law enforcement and intelligence. The legal system was better equipped than its European counterparts to prosecute and jail not just returning fighters, but those attempting to travel to ISIS-controlled territory in the first place. True, this success is predicated on the small numbers of American recruits and there are still some 1,000 or more active investigations, but having learned the lessons of 9/11 and its immediate aftermath, credit is certainly due to the diligent men and women on the frontlines of interdicting terrorists.

Finally, and perhaps most notably, ISIS was not as successful in the United States because there are more and better-established jihadist recruiting networks in Europe. These networks are more adept at mobilizing and deploying potential jihadists, having done so for many years to the Balkans, Middle East, Afghanistan, and further afield. Despite the fears of similar networks in the United States, the authors note they just aren’t as well established and don’t enjoy the proximity to the theatres of operation as noted above.

Understanding Salafi-Jihadists at Home

Homegrown is at its strongest when it brings the narratives of the ISIS fighters to life, providing real-world examples of the data they present. The data itself is interesting, but where Homegrown shines is in presenting a human face to those facts and figures. This is not to say that in humanizing ISIS’ American converts or adherents their actions are any less reprehensible or criminal. Rather, that by presenting the stories of these individuals, readers and policymakers alike will better understand what motivates an American to attack on ISIS’ behalf, pledge support to the group, or attempt to travel to Syria or Iraq to fight in pursuit of an idealized vision of a Salafi-Jihadist utopia.

The story of “Mo” is particularly interesting. The authors interviewed Mo who traveled to Syria believing he would find a place where Islam was applied in its purest form. Unable to travel to Saudi Arabia in pursuit of both an education and this idealized vision, he turned his attention to Syria and the Islamic State. While his rationale for doing so is convoluted and unclear (perhaps even to himself—he denies knowing anything of the group’s predilection for extreme violence before traveling to the Middle East), he went, nonetheless.

After arriving, he found that the vision he had built up of the Islamic State’s paradise was far from the truth, its violence extreme, and he was potentially facing deployment to the frontlines. Fearing for his safety and wanting to flee, he contacted the FBI, escaped to Turkey, and aided the government by providing intelligence and information about ISIS, its operations, and the locations at which he stayed and trained.

Mo’s case illustrates the complexity of Salafi-Jihadist radicalization and radicalization in general. The authors masterfully paint a portrait where there is no single breaking point or event that drives Americans to join ISIS. There is no definitive radicalization process and certainly no self-radicalization model, an oft-used phrase that grossly over-simplifies complex psychological and emotional processes.

That understanding is critical if law enforcement and intelligence alike are to combat these radicalized individuals now and in the future. As the authors note, it is almost certain that there will be a successor group to the Islamic State, just as the Islamic State itself was a successor of sorts to al-Qa’ida. Whether it is a reconstituted ISIS in Syria, an ISIS offshoot such as the Islamic State-Khorasan or the Islamic State West Africa Province, or an entirely different group, a Salafi-Jihadist group will undoubtedly emerge from the turmoil of these and other regions.

It is equally important to understand how these individuals were radicalized to combat non-Salafi Jihadist radicalization. Indeed, with the rise of far-right movements both in the United States and abroad, the lessons identified by the authors are equally applicable. True, the difference is likely size and scope, and the fact that these individuals lack a centralizing figure, movement, or ideology, but radicalization occurs in a similar pattern, nonetheless. Just because it is far-right as opposed to Salafi-Jihadist in nature, doesn’t mean that a countering violent extremism program is any less necessary to de-radicalize existing or jailed members, or to interdict individuals on their way to becoming radicalized.

Perhaps the greatest lesson is that the idea of an individual radicalized in a vacuum is a misnomer. In every case presented and supported by the data, the American that sought to join ISIS had some connection to the broader Islamist movement, be it familial, inter-personal, online, or otherwise. Salafi-Jihadists and far-right extremists are not immaculately conceived. It is understandable why such an idea is attractive—it excuses the community and society from having a hand in the individual’s actions and, more importantly, provides a narrative of why the individual could not have been prevented from acting in the manner they did.

Intervening and Stopping Would-Be Jihadist Early

The role of the social media giants is worth exploring. While Twitter, Google, Facebook, and others have become more adept at stopping ISIS-linked accounts or propaganda from spreading, one wonders if it is simply too late in the process. It is certainly necessary, but providing off-ramps for would-be jihadists or counter-messaging narratives may be just as, if not more, productive.

In the most recent election, Twitter, for example, provided fact-checking on dubious claims and labeled certain accounts as government-controlled such as Russia Today or China Xinhua News. Could something similar be implemented to counter violent extremism in addition to the removal of such propaganda accounts? Perhaps an individual wishing to join ISIS or actively seeking ISIS snuff videos could be directed to interact with an imam or former fighter in the hopes of preventing radicalization from happening in the first place.

Undoubtedly such a program would be complex—run up against free speech questions and other challenges—but waiting for an individual to buy a ticket to Istanbul in hopes of crossing into Syria is likely too late in the process. Stymying the effort is effective but preventing the effort from being made in the first place would seem to be a much more efficient strategy.

ISIS’ Future and the Next Generation

Homegrown vividly demonstrates the potency of the nexus of extremist ideology and technology. Without an established presence (certainly to the degree it enjoyed in Europe) in the United States, ISIS was still able to create bottom-up recruitment and support networks, and—with limited success—mobilize individuals to carry out acts of terrorism. This portends a resilient movement that even with the loss of its territory, could still make its presence felt within the United States. While Europe is much more in the immediate crosshairs, America is unlikely to enjoy its comparably less violent track record as it pertains to ISIS. Moreover, the lessons Homegrown offers are equally applicable to far-right movements and domestic terrorist organizations.

Homegrown, much like Meleagrou-Hitchens’ Incitement (also reviewed for the Diplomatic Courier), provides critical insights into the Salafi-Jihadist movement, its persistence and reach, and what it portends for the future. The arrival of a new administration in Washington offers an opportunity to create new policy where necessary and continue successful policy where appropriate; understanding the threat from ISIS is critical to craft smart homeland and defense policy, and Homegrown offers such necessary insights.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Homegrown: ISIS in America

Photo by Colton Surgeon via Unsplash.

November 14, 2020

Homegrown: ISIS in America | Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Seamus Hughes, and Bennett Clifford | I. B. Tauris | November 2020.

The Persistent Salafi-Jihadist Threat

Homegrown: ISIS in America | Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Seamus Hughes, and Bennett Clifford | I. B. Tauris | November 2020.

Nearly a year ago, the U.S. Intelligence Community and Special Operations Forces tracked down and killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, after having rolled back the movement’s territorial gains, nearly wiping the movement out—or so it seemed. Rumors of its death may have been greatly exaggerated as ISIS’ influence and reach continue to be felt.

In late October, a teacher in the suburbs of Paris was beheaded by a student in the wake of the teacher’s decision to show cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. This attack was followed by another in Nice in which three people were fatally stabbed. Shortly thereafter, four people were killed and over 20 others were wounded in multiple attacks across Vienna. One gunman was killed by the Austrian police and is believed to have connections to the Islamic State. According to Austria’s Minister of the Interior, the deceased gunman was jailed for 22 months for attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIS but was released early as part of a program offering leniency to young adults.

The latest round of violence in Europe again raised fears of similar incidents occurring in the United States. Yet, despite the group’s prominence in the popular imagination, the ability of ISIS to carry out attacks in America has been considerably less than one would expect.

Understanding the threat of the Islamic State in the United States requires an understanding of what the group has done thus far, what motivates Americans to join ISIS or carry out attacks on its behalf, and to discern any possible patterns of behavior. Here, authors Seamus Hughes, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, and Bennett Clifford successfully offer keen insights into the Islamic State in the United States in their new book Homegrown: ISIS in America. It is deeply researched, well-written, and absolutely fascinating.

Version 2.0 of Salafi-Jihadist Movements

The authors vividly illustrate that in general, but also particularly in America, ISIS’ model of operations is truly the next generation of Salafi-Jihadist movements. If al-Qa’ida was version 1.0, ISIS is version 2.0. The organization came about at the right time to fully leverage social media, to diversify its propaganda and recruiting messages, and to maximize its reach. It certainly took advantage of much of the narrative and approach established by al-Qa’ida, but the Islamic State elevated it to a new level.

Despite not having true roots in the United States, the organization was able to overcome this comparable weakness to develop self-starting recruiting networks to foster online advocates, attract adherents to travel to Iraq and Syria, and even recruit fighters. By comparison, the interactions between ISIS and returning fighters in Europe was much more direct, more personal, and more frequent.

The attractiveness of traveling to Iraq and Syria ebbed as ISIS gradually lost territory. This is unsurprising, yet, despite this loss of territory, its online component and message remained as strong. This decentralized and disaggregated model offered ISIS a more effective way to harness and leverage its potential recruits’ skills in their home countries, as demonstrated in the United States by the authors. A would-be jihadist no longer needs to travel to Afghanistan or Syria to support the ISIS cause. Rather, they can stay at home and write code, develop propaganda, serve as communications go-betweens, and more. It serves, as the authors note, as a starting point for potentially higher-risk efforts in the future.

Ultimately, the authors note that while ISIS was generally successful at recruiting and radicalizing members in the United States, it was less successful in guiding them to executing deadly attacks. Few Americans were successful in traveling to Iraq or Syria to gain battlefield experience, and fewer still were able to return to the United States to carry out attacks. This is due partially to the distance between the United States and Syria. While it is obvious that geography is destiny, the fact that an ISIS fighter can get from Raqqa to Paris for roughly 500 dollars makes it much easier for a would-be returning jihadist to attack Western Europe than the United States.

Moreover, while Muslim communities in America, as the authors note, may be better off socio-economically than their counterparts in Europe, this does not mean that they are immune from radicalization or recruitment.

That distance also aided one of the less appreciated and certainly less well-known successes of American law enforcement and intelligence. The legal system was better equipped than its European counterparts to prosecute and jail not just returning fighters, but those attempting to travel to ISIS-controlled territory in the first place. True, this success is predicated on the small numbers of American recruits and there are still some 1,000 or more active investigations, but having learned the lessons of 9/11 and its immediate aftermath, credit is certainly due to the diligent men and women on the frontlines of interdicting terrorists.

Finally, and perhaps most notably, ISIS was not as successful in the United States because there are more and better-established jihadist recruiting networks in Europe. These networks are more adept at mobilizing and deploying potential jihadists, having done so for many years to the Balkans, Middle East, Afghanistan, and further afield. Despite the fears of similar networks in the United States, the authors note they just aren’t as well established and don’t enjoy the proximity to the theatres of operation as noted above.

Understanding Salafi-Jihadists at Home

Homegrown is at its strongest when it brings the narratives of the ISIS fighters to life, providing real-world examples of the data they present. The data itself is interesting, but where Homegrown shines is in presenting a human face to those facts and figures. This is not to say that in humanizing ISIS’ American converts or adherents their actions are any less reprehensible or criminal. Rather, that by presenting the stories of these individuals, readers and policymakers alike will better understand what motivates an American to attack on ISIS’ behalf, pledge support to the group, or attempt to travel to Syria or Iraq to fight in pursuit of an idealized vision of a Salafi-Jihadist utopia.

The story of “Mo” is particularly interesting. The authors interviewed Mo who traveled to Syria believing he would find a place where Islam was applied in its purest form. Unable to travel to Saudi Arabia in pursuit of both an education and this idealized vision, he turned his attention to Syria and the Islamic State. While his rationale for doing so is convoluted and unclear (perhaps even to himself—he denies knowing anything of the group’s predilection for extreme violence before traveling to the Middle East), he went, nonetheless.

After arriving, he found that the vision he had built up of the Islamic State’s paradise was far from the truth, its violence extreme, and he was potentially facing deployment to the frontlines. Fearing for his safety and wanting to flee, he contacted the FBI, escaped to Turkey, and aided the government by providing intelligence and information about ISIS, its operations, and the locations at which he stayed and trained.

Mo’s case illustrates the complexity of Salafi-Jihadist radicalization and radicalization in general. The authors masterfully paint a portrait where there is no single breaking point or event that drives Americans to join ISIS. There is no definitive radicalization process and certainly no self-radicalization model, an oft-used phrase that grossly over-simplifies complex psychological and emotional processes.

That understanding is critical if law enforcement and intelligence alike are to combat these radicalized individuals now and in the future. As the authors note, it is almost certain that there will be a successor group to the Islamic State, just as the Islamic State itself was a successor of sorts to al-Qa’ida. Whether it is a reconstituted ISIS in Syria, an ISIS offshoot such as the Islamic State-Khorasan or the Islamic State West Africa Province, or an entirely different group, a Salafi-Jihadist group will undoubtedly emerge from the turmoil of these and other regions.

It is equally important to understand how these individuals were radicalized to combat non-Salafi Jihadist radicalization. Indeed, with the rise of far-right movements both in the United States and abroad, the lessons identified by the authors are equally applicable. True, the difference is likely size and scope, and the fact that these individuals lack a centralizing figure, movement, or ideology, but radicalization occurs in a similar pattern, nonetheless. Just because it is far-right as opposed to Salafi-Jihadist in nature, doesn’t mean that a countering violent extremism program is any less necessary to de-radicalize existing or jailed members, or to interdict individuals on their way to becoming radicalized.

Perhaps the greatest lesson is that the idea of an individual radicalized in a vacuum is a misnomer. In every case presented and supported by the data, the American that sought to join ISIS had some connection to the broader Islamist movement, be it familial, inter-personal, online, or otherwise. Salafi-Jihadists and far-right extremists are not immaculately conceived. It is understandable why such an idea is attractive—it excuses the community and society from having a hand in the individual’s actions and, more importantly, provides a narrative of why the individual could not have been prevented from acting in the manner they did.

Intervening and Stopping Would-Be Jihadist Early

The role of the social media giants is worth exploring. While Twitter, Google, Facebook, and others have become more adept at stopping ISIS-linked accounts or propaganda from spreading, one wonders if it is simply too late in the process. It is certainly necessary, but providing off-ramps for would-be jihadists or counter-messaging narratives may be just as, if not more, productive.

In the most recent election, Twitter, for example, provided fact-checking on dubious claims and labeled certain accounts as government-controlled such as Russia Today or China Xinhua News. Could something similar be implemented to counter violent extremism in addition to the removal of such propaganda accounts? Perhaps an individual wishing to join ISIS or actively seeking ISIS snuff videos could be directed to interact with an imam or former fighter in the hopes of preventing radicalization from happening in the first place.

Undoubtedly such a program would be complex—run up against free speech questions and other challenges—but waiting for an individual to buy a ticket to Istanbul in hopes of crossing into Syria is likely too late in the process. Stymying the effort is effective but preventing the effort from being made in the first place would seem to be a much more efficient strategy.

ISIS’ Future and the Next Generation

Homegrown vividly demonstrates the potency of the nexus of extremist ideology and technology. Without an established presence (certainly to the degree it enjoyed in Europe) in the United States, ISIS was still able to create bottom-up recruitment and support networks, and—with limited success—mobilize individuals to carry out acts of terrorism. This portends a resilient movement that even with the loss of its territory, could still make its presence felt within the United States. While Europe is much more in the immediate crosshairs, America is unlikely to enjoy its comparably less violent track record as it pertains to ISIS. Moreover, the lessons Homegrown offers are equally applicable to far-right movements and domestic terrorist organizations.

Homegrown, much like Meleagrou-Hitchens’ Incitement (also reviewed for the Diplomatic Courier), provides critical insights into the Salafi-Jihadist movement, its persistence and reach, and what it portends for the future. The arrival of a new administration in Washington offers an opportunity to create new policy where necessary and continue successful policy where appropriate; understanding the threat from ISIS is critical to craft smart homeland and defense policy, and Homegrown offers such necessary insights.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.