Foreign Policy Essay
The Fractured Terrorism Threat to America
Editor’s Note: The terrorism threat to the United States is evolving constantly, shaped both by the rise and decline of terrorist groups at home and abroad and by changes in U.S. counterterrorism policy. Seamus Hughes and Devorah Margolin of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism provide a picture of the current danger to the United States, emphasizing how the threat has fractured in recent years.
The Islamic State and its formerly held territory are no longer the incandescent bug lamp for the jihadist scene. The organization has lost both its caliphate and its caliph in recent months. Although its remnants in Iraq and its affiliates in countries across the globe attempt to keep its radiance bright, when looking to understand the implications of recent events in the American context, it is clear that the jihadist threat has become fractured, with new and old hazards facing the United States concurrently.
The next iteration of the jihadist movement in the United States will be, as then-National Counterterrorism Director Matthew Olsen told Congress back in 2011, a “more diffuse and diversified threat.” This is as true today as it was almost a decade ago. The threats to the United States will be similar to those we faced before: homegrown terrorism, Americans detained overseas, those set to be released from prison and a changing online media landscape. However, with the collapse of the caliphate, the Turkish incursions into Syria, and the declaration of a new Islamic State leader, there are additional concerns, including the return of foreign fighters and a cadre of American supporters who feel like they missed their opportunity to “join the caravan” and must violently avenge its demise.
This is a period of multitudes. While the threat is more diverse, it is undoubtedly in a better place than when a terrorist organization controlled a swath of land the size of the United Kingdom. That being said, how we address this new reality will determine the future of jihadist terrorism in America.
Despite the lack of a physical caliphate to call home, a concerning, albeit likely smaller, number of Americans will continue to be inspired by global jihadi ideology. The absence of a dominant foreign fighter hotspot like Syria will presumably cause radicalized American jihadists to seek targets at home or prompt travel to alternative conflict areas, such as Afghanistan, Mali or Yemen. This week’s announcement of a new Islamic State leader could inspire homegrown jihadists to declare their loyalty. For years, the FBI has given the same top-line figure for the number of investigations related to international terrorism in the United States, saying that there are 4,000 active investigations, including throughout the Islamic State’s rise and diminishment. But the number of Americans arrested for attempted travel specifically to Syria or Iraq has dropped significantly since its peak in 2014, while the percentage of Islamic State-related arrests for domestic attacks shows a noteworthy jump.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the homegrown jihadist threat will regress back to its pre-Islamic State scale. That may well be true in the coming years. However, the FBI has tried to temper that optimistic outlook. In conversations with journalists and researchers, senior FBI leadership stated that approximately 100 people under investigation for terrorism were arrested last year. Law enforcement has taken a more complex approach to addressing homegrown terrorism. Unlike during the peak of Islamic State-related arrests, when a large proportion of arrested individuals were charged with violations of federal terrorism statutes, many individuals under FBI investigation for terrorism have been arrested for non-terrorism-related charges. This “Al Capone” strategy of arresting terrorist suspects on lesser offenses might be effective in the near term, but there are downsides to this approach. Non-terrorism offenses usually carry shorter prison sentences, so the punishment would often be less severe. Additionally, the lack of public transparency on terrorism prosecutions could create the perception that the number of these cases has declined and lead to complacency by the public and cause congressional overseers to consider a reduction in counterterrorism resources.
The FBI has expressed growing concerns about the available options when the jihadist is a minor. A recent Supreme Court ruling limited federal prosecution of minors on terrorism offenses. Prior to the ruling, federal courts were able to prosecute individuals as young as 15 for material support, but in the wake of the Sessions v. Dimaya decision, federal authorities now lean heavily toward handing off terrorism cases involving minors to state-level justice systems. This new limitation requires alternative and creative solutions, such as mentorship and counseling with dedicated tripwires set up to alert authorities when an individual has refused to take a different nonviolent path.
Furthermore, one cannot look at the future of jihadism in a vacuum. The terrorist attack in El Paso underlined the findings of the 2018 National Counterterrorism Strategy, which warned that “domestic terrorism in the United States is on the rise.” In response to this wave of right-wing attacks around the world, homegrown jihadists, not just those in the United States, will in all likelihood see terrorist attacks like the targeted attacks on mosques in Christchurch in March 2019 and believe that the time to defend their religion is now, setting up a tragic but predictable loop of violence. The concept of reciprocal radicalization is richly debated within academia, but we do know, at the very least, that both ideologies’ messaging feed off one another. From the propaganda of the Islamic State, which speaks of “the words of the enemy,” to the manifestos of right-wing extremists, which highlight the perceived threat from Islam, the war of the words currently taking place will likely lead to a cycle of violence.
There is an active, and at times vitriolic, public debate regarding the relationship between political but nonviolent extremism and its violent iterations. After the string of recent domestic terrorist attacks, a New York Times editorial stated, “Moderate members of the political right must do more to condemn white nationalists.” Certainly, ideology plays an important role in violent extremist movements, and extremist thought that implicitly calls for action without explicitly condoning violence can be critical recruiting tools. However, one side of the political spectrum at times can confusingly argue that nonviolent and violent extremism within Islamism are unrelated, while simultaneously claiming that violent far-right extremists draw their influence directly from nonviolent extremists. On the other political side, commentators have argued the reverse is true and that elected leaders who hedge what should be a simple condemnation of white nationalism do not provide support for its violent iterations. Both are wrong. It is time to stop dancing around the issue and have some consistent intellectual honesty regardless of the form of extremism. U.S. policy would be well served in providing rigorous analysis and resources to highlight the relationship between extremist thought and violent action.
Americans in Conflicts Abroad
Of the 300 U.S. citizens and residents who attempted to leave or have successfully left the country to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, most notably the Islamic State, the Program on Extremism at George Washington University has been able to identify 82 of these individuals by name. Of these 82 identified Americans, the majority either have died or are currently unaccounted for, while a handful are in custody in Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
Complicating U.S. policy, many jihadists (including Americans) are detained by nonstate actors in Iraq and Syria who run makeshift camps to process and hold thousands of defeated Islamic State affiliates. Al-Hol, one of the largest camps in Syria, currently holds approximately 72,000 people, including women, men and children. Many of the detainees remain especially ardent Islamic State supporters and were among the last defenders of the group’s final piece of territory in the town of Baghouz. Recently, numerous reports emerged that the Islamic State uses these camps to spread its ideology and champion its territorial aspirations, keeping the organization’s ambitions alive.
The longer that individuals from all over the world, including Americans, are held in these camps and not repatriated to their countries, the more dire the future threat becomes. This concern came into sharp relief with President Trump’s announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, which has jeopardized the future of prisons holding Islamic State members. Recently, approximately 800 women and minors reportedly fled from an internally displaced persons camp just outside Ain Issa in Syria, and others reportedly broke out from a detention center near Qamishli. Both incidents were the result of Turkish incursions in the area. The current chaotic situation has been destabilized further by Turkey’s recent announcement that it will send home captured foreign fighters, even if their home countries are not willing to take them. After the mujahideen’s campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan, foreign fighters stayed in the region, returned to their home countries, and traveled to other conflict zones, unhindered by international intervention. The lessons from that conflict, and from the former al-Qaeda in Iraq prisoners who went on to help lay the groundwork for the Islamic State after their release, teach that the resurgence of the terrorist organization is more likely if no concrete plan of action is set in place.
Washington should not focus solely on the threat from Iraq and Syria. Americans jihadists are traveling to other hotspots. According to the Program on Extremism’s research, 36 Americans are known to have traveled or attempted to travel to alternative destinations, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Nigeria, the Sinai Peninsula, Somalia and Yemen during the same time period as the Islamic State’s rise. In the near term, none of these destinations will be able to attract the level of foreign jihadist mobilization seen in Syria, but the foreign fighter flow should be monitored so that the United States is not caught flat-footed, as it was in the early 2010s.
The recent appointment of a new leader to the Islamic State has resulted in Islamic State affiliates in Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Sinai, Somalia and Yemen reaffirming their “bayat,” or pledge of loyalty, to the new caliph. While many Islamic State affiliates will follow suit shortly, there is a possibility that other groups will break from Islamic State central and choose to focus on more local jihad. This could affect the future destinations that U.S. citizens select.
The upcoming release of five Americans—Umer Farooq, Ramy Zamzam, Aman Hassan Yasir, Waqar Khan and Ahmed Abdullah Minni—presents more questions than answers. Dubbed the “Five Guys” by the FBI, they were sentenced to 10 years in prison in Pakistan for trying in 2009 to join Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charity wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terrorist organization. Their return to the United States may well require prosecution or supervision.
Seventeen adults (12 men and five women) who traveled to Syria and Iraq are publicly known to have returned to the United States. Of these adults, 13 are currently facing charges for their actions, including two women and 11 men.
Prosecutions of women seem to be on the rise, but traditional gender roles within jihadist groups and gender bias in courts tend to result in shorter prison sentences. While women can be both victims and perpetrators, focusing on women solely as victims removes women’s agency in choosing to join the Islamic State. Some Western women were recruiters and incited violence on social media, while others joined the Khansaa Brigade, an all-female police/religious enforcement unit, as well as took part in the last stand at Baghouz. The Islamic State views women’s roles as vital to the continuation of the ideology, as wives, supporters and educators of the next generation. Even if they did not fight, foreign female Islamic State members chose to travel to join the group, and as such they can be charged with conspiring with, attempting to provide or providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Each individual should be examined on a case-by-case basis, recognizing that women who traveled to join the Islamic State could be both victims and perpetrators.
Women and children, importantly, should not be lumped together. Children are victims of their parents’ crimes and circumstances. However, the experiences and the indoctrination that they received overseas under Islamic State governance cannot be ignored, and the United States needs to ensure proper reintegration policies are in place that focus on children’s mental health. Nearly a dozen children are known to have come back to the United States after living in the caliphate. Some have remained with one of their returning parents, while others have been placed in child protective custody.
While the United States has championed the return of citizens to their home countries, even applauding other countries for repatriating their citizens, it is still reluctant to take back specific individuals. Most famously, the United States has denied the return of Hoda Muthana, who first lost her American passport under the Obama administration, and the Trump administration has subsequently reaffirmed in court filings that the United States does not consider her a citizen. While this specific case brings up numerous legal issues, it also highlights an issue the United States may face regarding the prosecution of returnees from early in the conflict and those who are seeking to return now: Convictions will be harder. Earlier American returnees tended to admit to their membership in a terrorist organization. The Justice Department has appeared to prioritize the return of foreign fighters for whom there was an existing or relatively easy conviction case to make. A major barrier facing the repatriation of future returnees is that many will likely deny guilt, argue duress, or show no remorse but be unwilling to participate in the legal process through plea allocation.
The threat posed by returnees will vary. In fact, there is only one known case of a Syria-based American jihadist traveler planning to commit a terrorist attack after returning to the United States: Ohioan Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud. According to court records, Mohamud joined al-Nusra Front in Syria for several months in 2014, during which time he received tactical training. Later, the group instructed him to return home to commit a terrorist attack. He was ultimately thwarted by a mix of solid law enforcement work and luck.
Many American returnees came back disillusioned with their time in Syria and Iraq. As a returning American foreign fighter told one of the authors in an interview after coming home, “I got a full view of where I was .... I felt hopeless and thought ‘how the hell do I get back home from here?’” However, many of the detainees in camps in Syria, like al-Hol, remained steadfast throughout the Islamic State’s territorial decline and remain zealous supporters of the Islamic State. The return of these “true believers” to America, given their continued support for Islamic State ideology, will pose a challenge to deradicalization programs, which are already scarce in America, in ways disillusioned returnees never did.
Terrorists in U.S. Custody
There are numerous unanswered questions regarding the impending release of convicted terrorists from the U.S. prison system. The United States is a relative latecomer to this policy issue and now is struggling to respond to the groundswell of newly released extremists. According to the Bureau of Prisons, 421 federal inmates have “a history of, or nexus to, international terrorism.” These individuals are being monitored while serving their sentences, but U.S. policy needs a systematic program for monitoring individuals when they are released in order to decrease chances of recidivism and their ability to radicalize others.
One recent case that highlights this concern is that of John Walker Lindh, who was released from prison in May 2019. A member of the Taliban who initially expressed remorse for his actions but later spoke in glowing terms about the Islamic State, Lindh served 17 years and was released early. While Lindh is not allowed access to the internet, will be monitored and is not currently allowed to hold a passport, he also has not been rehabilitated. Eighty more individuals like Lindh have been released or are up for release in the next five years without a dedicated safety net for reentry or law enforcement tripwires for recidivism.
Early research suggests that the rate of criminal recidivism is lower for terrorist convicts than for the general criminal population. However, the dataset of released terror convicts is relatively small. As the next significant wave of individuals are released, it may well test that early finding. Prison authorities should place the potential threat in context without overprescribing a solution to a relatively small phenomenon. But as the United States has not developed a comprehensive system to rehabilitate individuals or track them upon their release, the threat of recidivism is ever present. With a counterterrorism apparatus that is at times siloed, the release of convicted terrorists is a case study on the need for prosecutors, prison officials, probation officers and the FBI to be on the same page.
The changing landscape of online radicalization and recruitment directly affects the current state of the terrorism threat. As terrorists increasingly use digital tools to supplement recruitment and fundraising activities, it is vital to understand how terrorists adapt digital communications for their purposes.
In the mid-2010s, Twitter was the platform of choice for Islamic State supporters. At the Program on Extremism, our colleagues monitored nearly a million tweets by English-language Islamic State supporters. The analysis showed that sympathizers developed active measures for communication and resiliency in the face of account suspensions and takedowns. Sympathizers shared newly created accounts so that others could use them when they were kicked off for violating Twitter’s terms of service. “Shoutout” accounts would announce when individuals returned to the platform, allowing them to regain some of their lost followers. For example, we monitored the account of Terrence McNeil, a young man from Ohio who was arrested for reposting an image of home addresses of U.S. military officers with an implicit call for violence toward them. When we first identified the account, he was 7Lonewolfe, but by the time he was arrested, his account was Lonewolfe_18; the increasing number in his handle reflects a constant game of whack-a-mole against his account, which was disabled at least 11 times.
Following the aggressive removal of accounts from Twitter and an even more aggressive reliance on social media by law enforcement agencies, many English-language jihadist supporters transitioned to platforms offering more privacy and operational security. A major example is Telegram, an online instant messaging application that offers some encrypted communications tools. These new platforms offer advantages for jihadists, but the upside for counterterrorism authorities is that they limit organizations’ abilities to reach new followers. To find a jihadist Telegram channel, interested online jihadists need a URL access key, which occludes most problematic content on Telegram from passive onlookers. Largely gone are the days of the curious seeker of news about the Syrian civil war who stumbles upon, or is actively recruited by, an Islamic State member on mainstream online platforms. As a result, jihadists who remain on Telegram will likely never hear dissenting voices on the platform. This phenomenon speaks to what one senior Justice Department official aptly called the “radicalization echo chamber.” The United States has significantly dialed back its overt countermessaging efforts in recent years and largely ceded the effort to private companies, but larger platforms such as Google have no incentive to address the issues on niche platforms that do not touch on their business equities.
The downside of this transition to platforms like Telegram is that homegrown terrorists are less likely to appear on law enforcement’s radar as they move to more niche sites. It is not simply jihadists who are learning this lesson. Indeed, we have also seen a recent shift to Telegram by white nationalists.
The push to regulate the digital sphere has been spearheaded largely by tech companies themselves, with strong encouragement from European governments. In 2017, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Google founded the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, in partnership with other international organizations and nongovernmental organizations, aimed at curbing the spread of terrorist content online. This new self-regulation has raised important questions about where extremist content will go next after it is removed from mainstream platforms. Terrorist groups will continue to spread content, but if they are pushed off monitorable platforms, this content could simply move to the fringes of the internet where the FBI has limited ability to track it—an issue the FBI has described as “going dark.” In all, the move from mainstream sites to smaller platforms means that the “radicalization pool” of potential recruits has shrunk significantly while the “mobilization pool” of those still left will become more hardened in their beliefs. Additionally, the U.S. government, which in both the Obama and Trump administrations has pushed for technology companies to take down content, may soon long for the day when companies would respond to court-ordered search warrants as homegrown terrorists move to platforms that do not.
The ever-evolving landscape of the jihadist threat to the United States presents myriad challenges to countering extremism here at home. With conflicts around the world likely to inspire the next wave of jihadist ideology, U.S. law enforcement and the legal system have the unenviable task of addressing a diverse set of threats. These include Americans in prisons at home and abroad, returning foreign fighters and homegrown terrorists, and the challenges of the evolving online landscape.
For a fleeting moment, the siren song of the Islamic State attracted the majority of American extremists. As the call dissipates, the homegrown threat is one of multiples. These threats, both new and old, are splintering and, if left unaddressed, will continue to metastasize in the months and years to come. Time—and how U.S. policy responds to these concerns—will tell whether this new transformation will lower or increase the danger to America.