Homegrown: ISIS in America – European Eye on Radicalization

Francesco Bergoglio Errico

The authors of Homegrown: ISIS in America couldn’t have chosen a more fitting title for their book, as it correctly outlines the serious threat the country is facing from domestic jihadists. The book, co-written by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Seamus Hughes and Bennett Clifford, highlights several terrorist attacks on American soil and also studies how the FBI and law enforcement have tackled the threat and the main challenges they have faced from a tactical and legal point of view.

The book follows a clear and easy-to-follow structure, which breaks down the different types of jihadists into four broad categories: actual terrorists, travelers, e-activists and ideologues.

The Terrorists

There have been 23 jihadist attacks on American soil since 2014 — the year that ISIS declared its so-called ‘caliphate’ on a swathe of territory spanning from Iraq to Syria. Sixteen out of 25 attackers had been partially inspired by ISIS, while the remaining nine attackers had zero connections to ISIS. However, four of these nine attackers claimed allegiance to, or inspiration from, Al Qaeda.

The authors discovered that the emergence of the ‘caliphate’ helped expedite the transition between the radicalization of an individual and their decision to commit a terrorist attack. This is especially true of lone actors who were simply inspired by ISIS ideology. The data clearly supported this argument: 21 out 23 attacks between 2014 and 2019 were carried out by lone actors. The remaining two attacks — the 2015 Curtis Culweel Center and San Bernardino attacks — were carried out in coordination with ISIS.

The authors went on to demonstrate that even though lone actors carried out attacks on their own, they were not radicalized on their own. In fact, many attackers received guidance from ISIS members based in the ‘caliphate’, who provided them with the needed information and support to carry out an attack. The authors discovered that at least 20 US-based ISIS supporters were in contact with English-speaking ISIS members in Iraq and Syria.

While there were 23 terrorist attacks carried out on American soil between 2014 and 2019, there were many more attacks that were foiled by the FBI. At least 58 attacks were foiled and a whopping 5,000 terrorism cases are under investigation — 3,000 of which were tied to foreign terrorist organizations, while 1,000 were found to be homegrown jihadists and the remaining 1,000 were domestic terrorists.

The Travelers

The authors then tackle a different group of homegrown terrorists — the travelers. They found that at least 62 US residents traveled abroad to fight on various battlefields — mostly in Iraq and Syria, but also in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. This group is further broken down into three subcategories: the pioneers, the networked travelers and the loners.

The Pioneers

The pioneers are generally experienced, have previously participated in jihadist or militant movements and have a solid understanding and grasp of what their role is and what their responsibilities are. Their skills — which include military training, bomb-making, engineering, mechanics and IT expertise — are particularly sought after by ISIS.

According to the authors, although pioneers represent a smaller percentage of the American travelers, they pose the greatest threat because of their experience and ability to drive recruitment to various battlefields. Historically, pioneers have been the most effective recruiters, which was seen on battlefields across Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Somalia. In fact, some of the most valuable pioneers like John Georgelas, Abdullah Ramo Pazara and Ahmad Abousamra, went on to become leaders in ISIS.

The Networked Travelers

Out of the 62 American ISIS travelers, 87% had a connection to another ISIS traveler, attack planner or supporter. Networked travelers are further divided into three subcategories: friends, families and clusters.

Although network connections are important in shaping traveler fighters, they generally tend to be confined to small families or friends, and rarely branch out into clusters. In fact, large and networked groups are less common in the US and more frequent in Europe, where 10 to 20 people from the same neighborhoods traveled in close succession to join the ‘caliphate’. While less common, there are some instances of networked travelers in the US. For example, the authors found many travelers to the ‘caliphate’ came from connected families and friends in the state of Minnesota.

The Loners

This category of travelers is less generalizable than the pioneers and networked travelers. The authors interview Mo — one such loner who traveled to join ISIS in June 2014. Interestingly, Mo claimed that he had no strong affinity to ISIS at time of his travel, and that he went to Syria simply because he was interested in living in a sharia-compliant environment. In fact, Syria was not his first choice. Mo’s initial intent was to travel to Saudi Arabia and enroll in the University of Medina, but he did not have the linguistic and Quranic requirements necessary to be accepted. At the time, ISIS had not yet released their brutal beheading videos that they later became infamous for and instead focused on propaganda materials which depicted the ‘caliphate’ as the only true Islamic utopia where Muslims could live under sharia law.

Upon reaching Syria, Mo soon realized that he made a big mistake. Passing through a safe house and two different training camps, he decided he wanted to leave. After about five months, he made his difficult escape with the help of a local taxi driver and finally arrived at the American consulate in southern Turkey on November 4, 2014.

Back in the US, Mo ended up being charged with providing material support to, and receiving military training from, a foreign terrorist organization. He pled guilty to both charges and currently cooperates with federal authorities to track down terrorists.

By sharing Mo’s story, the authors show just how powerful ISIS propaganda is and how people like Mo have been completely deceived by these false illusions. However, it is important to note that while Mo’s case was one of truly being deceived, many other loners currently in custody in Syria, have tried to claim that they were also deceived as a way to avoid long prison sentences.

The E-Activists

While ISIS was able to capitalize on real-world networks in Europe, the same wasn’t true in the US. However, they were able to effectively utilize emerging communication technology as a way to fill the gap. To maintain a strong online network to disseminate propaganda, ISIS relied on e-activists, namely supporters who primarily operated in digital spaces.

These innovative operatives used social media, file sharing and encrypted instant messaging to promote ISIS ideology. The authors identify four areas of support for the jihadi cause: travel, attacks, propaganda and financing.

Travel

The case of Mohamad Jamal Khweis, a bus driver from Northern Virginia who traveled to Syria in late 2015, is the example the authors used to highlight how technological expertise helps with ISIS recruitment. Khweis was arrested by Peshmerga forces in 2016 and extradited to the US, where he faced charges of fighting for ISIS. He told the FBI that no one knew of his plan before he left, and he was largely influenced by his online activities and was not involved in any known physical jihadist networks in the US.

By taking extraordinary measures to mask his communications and movements, and by using the latest encryption and location-masking apps to join ISIS, he was able to enter ISIS territory without any outside assistance, until he reached the Turkish border with Syria. When he arrived in Turkey, he created numerous social media accounts, and in a short time he found the right channel that gave him the opportunity to enter the ‘caliphate’.

Attacks and Cyber Operations

A smaller group of e-activists tried to carry out cyber attacks, but their capabilities were largely rudimentary. These activists were largely deployed to intimidate, rather than to carry out actual cyber attacks.

The case of Junaid Hussein, who led the ISIS Hacking Division for some years, was the most important one because it was the basis for most American e-activists’ endeavours in cyber operations. The book reports that Hussein, in August 2015, posted a link to a document on his Twitter account. The document contained personally identifiable information of over 1,300 members of the US military, including full names, email accounts, email passwords, places of residence and phone numbers.

Meanwhile in 2015, Ardit Ferizi, a citizen of Kosovo living in Malaysia, obtained high-level access to a server hosting the website of a company in Illinois without authorization, accessing information on thousands of the company’s customers. Furthermore, from June to August, Ferizi continued to access the company’s server and maintained communications with Hussein. About two months later Malaysian authorities arrested Ferizi on a US provisional arrest warrant.

After Ferizi’s arrest and Hussein’s death in the summer of 2015, a smattering of unofficial ISIS hacking affiliates emerged. These hacktivist groups followed the techniques, tactics and procedures of Hussein’s ISIS Hacking Division. In April 2016, several pro-ISIS hackers merged into one organization called United Cyber Caliphate (UCC), which followed Ferizi and Hussein’s modus operandi.

One of the UCC’s activities was to recruit new Western members. This was important because ISIS leaders did not speak English and needed help to incite others to commit terrorist attacks, spread propaganda material and help with finance and fundraising activities.

Propaganda

ISIS sympathizers in the US often used technology to assist in disseminating ISIS propaganda. Commonly, they used social media and digital communications technologies to attract fellow Americans, praising acts of violence in the West and making calls to action. These were the main activities of ISIS activism in America, which helped maintain ISIS’ presence in American cyberspace.

Financing

This is the largest subgroup of e-activists in America. These ISIS supporters used their technological skills to raise funds to finance activities, such as travel to join ISIS or planning attacks at home. In July 2014, an article entitled “Bitcoin and providing charitable giving for violent jihad” was posted on an American pro-ISIS blog and pushed on Twitter.

The article — written by Ali Amin, a pro-ISIS supporter and a Virginia-based teen — linked the funding of jihad to zakat or alms-giving, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. According to his point of view, Bitcoin provided an opportunity to “revive the lost tradition of donating to the mujahideen” that the Western financial system had prevented for so long.

Amin was arrested in February 2015, before he was able to pursue the use of Bitcoin himself, but he was not the only one who supported this kind of jihad. In December 2017, authorities indicted Zoobia Shahnaz, a woman from New York, for bank fraud and money laundering in support of ISIS. Shahnaz engaged in a scheme to defraud several financial institutions, amassing 85,000 dollars in illicit funds.

The Ideologues

After a brief review of Salafism and Salafi-jihadism, the authors get into the biographies and activities of the most influential US and Western ideologues, including Anwar al-Awlaki, Ahmad Musa Jibril, Suleiman Anwar Bengharsa and Abdullah Faisal.

These ideologues are few in number, but powerful in influence. These men not only effectively spread radical Islamist ideology to English-speaking communities, but also adapted the ideoogy in a way that resonates with the beliefs, experiences and fears of Westerners.

When looking at the US, jihadist ideologues are able to reach a broad audience while avoiding arrest because of a variety of factors such as the First Amendment which guarantees the freedom of speech. Free speech is ferociously protected in America and provides a wide berth for hate preachers and extremists to espouse their views

These hate preachers know how to exploit free speech protection. They do this by making sure their lectures do not directly incite their followers to violence. They also avoid directly supporting any jihadist groups. By adhering to these parameters, their speech is protected under US law and authorities have no legal grounds to arrest them.

The second reason why these ideologues are so effective is because they were among the early adopters of internet communication tools. These tools — at first forums and websites, and then social media and online archives — allowed them to transcend their local communities and masquerade as widely accepted religious authorities to audiences that are often unable to distinguish between what Islam considers to be permissible or not. By using social media, they became facsimiles of legendary Arabic-speaking imams.

The third reason why ideologues are so effective is that their ideology can be easily passed to different leaders and also be adapted to changing dynamics within jihadist groups. This gives their ideology the gift of “immortality”, where it can be tailored and scattered to various Western audiences for many years. While every ideologue covered in the book has his own unique contribution to jihadism, there are common characteristics that they share:

  • Legitimization of ISIS’ tactics and objectives through the selection, adaptation and presentation of religious tenets
  • Incitement of supporters to act on behalf of the group
  • Recruitment of supporters to formally join ISIS’ cause

Certainly, not all American ISIS supporters had direct contact to ideologues, but the jihadi ideology and narratives promoted by these “hate preachers” appear in the radicalization processes of many ISIS supporters as an important factor.

Conclusion

According to the authors, the low numbers of ISIS supporters in America can be attributed to three interrelated factors. First, the geographic distance between the US and the ‘caliphate’ makes it difficult for Americans to physically connect with ISIS leaders and handlers. Second, the US legal system has legal tools to prosecute potential attackers. In fact, US prosecutions have an overwhelming 100% conviction rate. Third, jihadist recruitment networks in the US are not as established as their counterparts in Europe.

These factors allow the US to effectively combat the jihadist terror threat. However, it is important to note that while the government is equipped to crack down on terrorists, it has a long way to go in the field of prevention.

This book explains, in great detail, how the jihadist threat — which previously only came from remote mountains in the Middle East — arrived on America’s doorstep and is slowly producing homegrown terrorists. New communication tools and technologies have only expedited this threat, eliminating the need for classic channels of proselytism and recruitment, such as mosques or cultural centers.

European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.

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