Meet the Average (Alleged) U.S. ISIS Recruit
From the more than 160 people charged with ISIS-related crimes, a fuzzy picture emerges.
An ongoing challenge for American counter-terrorism experts is that alleged jihadists and their supporters in the U.S. come in all shapes and sizes – from an 18-year-old high school kid to a 43-year-old youth counselor. But after more than 160 people in the homeland have been charged with ISIS-related crimes, the profile of an “average” alleged recruit has emerged.
The group may have been virtually defeated abroad, but it’s far from dead, and U.S. officials fear that as the group lost territory in Iraq and Syria, they could lash out in the West using recruits who grew up there. To help keep track of the dangers at home, the Program on Extremism at George Washington University has watched closely court cases in the U.S. involving support for ISIS for the last four years, when ISIS dominated headlines for its early military victories and the gruesome executions of foreigners, including American civilians.
Recently, the program updated its demographic data on 162 purported ISIS supporters who have been arrested – 110 of whom have pleaded or been found guilty – and found that while individual cases obviously vary greatly, on average, the accused:
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Are almost exclusively young men. The data shows that 9 out of 10 of those charged are men. While ages range from 15 to over 45, the average age is 28. Coincidentally, this column recently looked at American special operations servicemembers and found that the average there for an enlisted fighter is a man of 29 years.
Are mostly U.S. citizens. An infographic posted online by the program shows that nearly three out of four of the accused are U.S. citizens. A few more are permanent residents, and the few outlying others were presumably in the country with temporary permission or illegally.
Come from a few states. A map included with the program’s data shows a disproportionate number of the accused hail from, or allegedly commit their crimes in, just a few states – 28 from New York, 17 from Virginia, 15 from Minnesota, 11 from California, 10 from Florida and nine from Texas. The other cases are scattered around the country but, with the lone exception of a single case in Washington state, the Northwest appears to be free of ISIS-related court proceedings. This does not mean those states are free of alleged jihadist sympathizers, however, as then-FBI Director James Comey said in 2015 that there were ongoing FBI investigations in all 50 states related to radicalized U.S. persons.
Are Not Necessarily Planning a Terror Attack at Home. At least at the time they were charged, prosecutors did not formally accuse about two-thirds of those arrested for actively plotting an attack. Many, 41 percent of the total, sought to travel abroad, presumably to the Middle East, to join ISIS there. Others were accused of attempting to support ISIS financially and otherwise. But there’s a fuzzy line between supporting a terror group and being willing to carry out an attack on their behalf. Officials and experts have bemoaned the difficulty in judging when to arrest an alleged extremist – too early, and they’ll be charged with lesser crimes and not face as harsh a sentence; too late and it could risk a surprise terrorist attack. The program said that on average, those who have been convicted in ISIS-related cases are sentenced to 13 years in prison.
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Put their trust the wrong confidant. How does law enforcement catch all these guys? In a slight majority of the cases, 57 percent, the operation involved the use of an undercover officer or an informant. Employing of undercover officers and informants can be controversial, especially when cases emerge in which the defense argues entrapment – that the accused would not have gone ahead with whatever illegal action had they not been egged on by the law enforcement influence. In American Radical, an undercover FBI agent going by the pseudonym Tamer Elnoury wrote about infiltrating an extremist cell bent on a terror attack in Canada and talked about the delicate balance of projecting himself as a like-minded radical while still ensuring his mark was plotting on his own accord – including asking him directly if he was sure he wanted to go through with it. “Basically, if [he] didn’t waver and back out, then there was no defense for his actions. I didn’t entrap him,” Elnoury wrote. “He was plotting to murder hundreds of innocent people. I used this technique as a final nail in the coffin.”
Going away? When the program began tracking the demographics in 2014, 17 individuals in America were arrested that year. That number jumped to 65 in 2015 and then settled just under 40 in 2016 and 2017. But so far in 2018? Only three. The drop-off coincides with ISIS’s defeat in the Middle East, but it’s unlikely security officials are getting too optimistic. In 2016 Comey told lawmakers that within the next two to five years the West would see a “terrorist diaspora” of fighters who went to Iraq and Syria and would come home. “The so-called caliphate will be crushed. The challenge will be: through the fingers of that crush are going to come hundreds of very, very dangerous people,” he said.
Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.
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