The American face of ISIS: Analysis of ISIS-related terrorism in the US March 2014–August 2016

Study has nothing to do with the Trump administration’s travel ban, the common misconceptions about terrorism and who is conducting terrorist attacks and how the threat from ISIS is homegrown and not from abroad.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is mobilising sympathisers in the US at rates much higher than seen for previous terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.

To understand this new American face of ISIS, the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) study examined 112 cases of individuals who perpetrated ISIS-related o ences, were indicted by the US Justice Department for such o ences, or both, in the US between March 2014 and August 2016. The o ences fall into three categories:

1. attacking or conspiring to attack targets in theUS

2. traveling or conspiring to travel to join ISIS abroad

3. facilitating others seeking to .

Commentary to date on the type of people in the US who support ISIS is typically based on a few high-profile individual cases and some speculation. This is the first comprehensive analysis of ISIS-related cases to examine the profiles of indictees overall, as well as to identify characteristics associated with each of the three o ence types.

Our key findings are as follows:
• US ISIS indictees are very similar to the overall US population.

– Their rates of marriage, college or higher education, and employment are close to the US average.

  • Indictees are mostly born and raised in America.
    • –  83% are US citizens, and 65% were born in the US.
    • –  None is a refugee from Syria.
  • A significant proportion are converts from outside established Muslim communities.

– 30% are converts to Islam, including 43% of US-born indictees.

  • Those indicted for attacking or conspiring to conduct an attack in the US are as likely to be US-born converts to Islam as to be from established Muslim communities.
    • –  51% are recent converts to Islam.
    • –  49% are from established Muslim communities.
  • ISIS propaganda videos played a central role in the radicalisation of indictees.

– 83% watched ISIS propaganda videos, including execution videos and lectures by terrorist leaders.

• ISIS has been more successful than al-Qaeda in mobilising support in the US.

  • –  ISIS is mobilising US indictees at a rate four times higher than al-Qaeda’s.
  • –  ISIS indictees are significantly more likely to be US citizens and recent converts than their al-Qaeda indictee counterparts.

    Policy takeaways

    • Stopping immigration from Islamic countries won’t prevent support for ISIS in the US.

    • Defeating ISIS in the US requires a better understanding of the group’s propaganda strategy and why it’s more successful than that of older groups, such as al-Qaeda.

    Who becomes a sympathiser of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and why? What explains why some travel to fight for the group in Syria, others choose to attack at home, and others limit their activity to facilitating travel and attacks? Are today’s ISIS sympathisers di erent from those of al-Qaeda who threatened the US with 9/11 and its a ermath?

    To answer these questions, the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) conducted a comprehensive review of the 112 cases of individuals who perpetrated o ences or were indicted by the US Justice Department for ISIS-related o ences in the US between March 2014 and August 2016.

    These ofences are:

    1. attackingorconspiringtoattacktargetsintheUS
    2. travellingorconspiringtotraveltojoinISISabroadas‘foreignfighters’

    3. facilitatingothersseekingtoattackortravel.

    We found striking patterns

    First, US ISIS indictees2 look more like average Americans than is commonly understood. While the image of the ‘typical terrorist’ is that of a young, single male under the age of 25 years, the profile emerging from our research presents a di erent picture. US ISIS indictees are older—nearly half are over 25—and a notable fraction (11%) are women. In addition, their rates of marriage and higher education are comparable to the US national average, and three-quarters were either students or employed at the time of the o ence. In short, they are engaged with society and have educational and career opportunities. They aren’t loners operating from the fringes of society. Nevertheless, their opportunities and social relationships didn’t prevent them being radicalised and active supporters of ISIS.

    Second, the indictees are truly homegrown. The vast majority are US citizens (83%), and 65% were born in the US. None is a Syrian refugee. Indeed, only three of the 112 had refugee status at the time of their o ences, and two of those had arrived in the US before 1999. Two of the three were from Bosnia and one from Iraq. However, a significant fraction of those born in the US are second-generation Americans, consistent with studies investigating ISIS recruitment in other Western countries, such as France.3 While data on the families of US indictees is limited, we know that at least 17 were born into Muslim immigrant families, and evidence points to an additional four for whom that is highly likely (together comprising 29% of the 73 US-born indictees).

    Third, many indictees come from outside established Muslim communities. Half (51%) of those who chose to attack in the US are recent converts to Islam, including some who converted less than a year before their arrest (Figure 1). This is in sharp contrast to the smaller number of converts among those who chose to travel to fight in Syria (19%) or who facilitated attackers and ‘travellers’ or foreign fighters with money and logistical support (10%). Travellers were on average the youngest o enders, at 25 years old. Facilitators were not only the oldest, averaging 29 years, but also the least likely to be unemployed.

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