A US study published in early December attempts to profile Islamic State (IS) group sympathisers in America, from those who merely post messages of support on Twitter to those planning an actual terrorist attack.
No one would have guessed that Mohammad and Jaelyn had secretly prepared for a honeymoon in Syria. Mohammad, 22, the son of a local imam, was about to graduate from Mississippi State University. Jaelyn, 19, a policeman’s daughter and former cheerleader, was studying chemistry. Yet these young Americans were dreaming of moving to the so-called caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Beginning earlier this year, their tweets had alerted the FBI. For four months, agents posing as jihadist sympathisers exchanged messages with the couple. Jaelyn, who goes by the alias “Aaminah al-Amriki”, boasts of her skills in maths and chemistry and says that her future husband wants “to join the mujahideen”. They vow to travel to Syria after their wedding: “Our story will be that we are newlyweds on our honeymoon.” On August 8, they left letters for their families and prepared to board a flight. They were apprehended at a small airport in Mississippi.
Their story made the headlines in the United States. Along with dozens of others, it was selected for a study by George Washington University that was published in early December and entitled “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa”. About eight researchers, led by Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes, looked into the rise of support for the Islamic State group in the United States, a phenomenon they said was “unprecedented”.
The group’s support has far exceeded that of al Qaeda, according to officials. FBI Director James Comey said in May that the group had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of supporters within the United States. The agency has already launched about 900 investigations into these potential recruits.
As of the fall of 2015, US authorities speak of some 250 Americans who have travelled or attempted to travel to Syria or Iraq to join the Islamic State group. And a record 71 US citizens or residents were convicted in connection with having ties with the Islamic State group since March 2014, including 56 in 2015 alone.
More isolated ‘jihadist scene’
“As in Europe, it is an extremely diverse group,” Lorenzo Vidino told FRANCE 24. “I would even say that this is more true in the US, and includes men, women, teenagers, 40-year-olds, petty offenders, doctoral students… ”
The researcher notes two major differences between the United States and Europe. “The American ‘jihadist scene’, if it exists, is not only a lot smaller, but also more isolated. Those who are radicalised, online or in small groups, have trouble making an actual connection with ISIS, either for geographical reasons or because there aren’t the same recruitment networks that there are in Europe.”
The case of Alex, 23, is typical. This resident of rural Washington, who dropped out of school, was raised as a Christian by her grandparents. She says she lives “in the middle of nowhere” and had no connection to Islam. But in the summer of 2014, the filmed beheading of American hostage James Foley sparked a “horrified curiosity” in her.
After a few months, she began exchanging emails and communicating via Skype with members of the Islamic State group. Her new friends sent her money, gift cards and even chocolates. The young woman eventually embraced the ideology of the jihadist group. She announced her conversion on the Internet, and within a few hours her number of followers had doubled. She then tweeted: “I actually have brothers and sisters. I am crying.” While living this secret life she continued to teach in the family church on Sundays. When her grandmother learned of her conversion, Alex promised to stop. But the researchers are sceptical.
IS group exploits #BlackLivesMatter
Vidino’s team has identified 300 cases like Alex’s on Twitter. Many users attach a profile photo of their dead or arrested compatriots. And in a bizarre mix of genres, some use the image of the Detroit Lions football team, “combining a distinctly American pride in an NFL (National Football League) team and the popular Islamic symbol for bravery very frequently used by ISIS supporters”.
Opposition to any Western intervention in Syria and the rejection of consumer society are the most common motivations, the researchers say. The Islamic State group also doesn’t hesitate to exploit popular hashtags expressing discontent in the United States. The organisation has tried to win the support of Muslim African Americans by using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which sprung up on Twitter after the deaths of several unarmed men at the hands of police. But according to Vidoni, there is “absolutely no evidence” that this approach has been effective.
In contrast, there are a small number of cases that become “very politicised and opposed to American society”, Vidoni said. “Either because they believe it is racist – in Islam they find a message of brotherhood, a community where colour does not matter – or because they are anti-capitalist: environmentalists or activists from the Occupy movement.”
Moner Abu Salha
Moner Abu Salha expressed this rejection in a more sentimental manner. The Floridian was, at 22, the first American killed in a suicide attack in Syria.
“I lived in America,” he explained in a video in 2014. “I know how it is. You have all the fancy amusement parks and the restaurants and the food and all this crap and the cars. You think you’re happy. You’re not happy. You’re never happy. I was never happy. I was always sad and depressed. Life sucked.”
And then there are the people who are searching for meaning. Raised in a poor evangelical family, Ariel Bradley was in a “perpetual quest for meaning”, said a friend. “It was like, when I first met her she was a Christian, and then she was a socialist, and then she was an atheist, and then a Muslim.”
Bradley fell in love with the owner of a pizzeria where she worked and converted to Islam to please him. The relationship did not last. In August 2011 she met an Iraqi man, and marriage and a child soon followed. In 2014 she went to Syria. Today she is still active on Twitter and Instagram, where she posted her support for the July attack in Chattanooga, her hometown, where a Kuwaiti-born gunman opened fire at two military sites killing four US Marines and injuring three others.
So how should the authorities react? One method that has seen some success is that of using an agent provocateur. This type of operation, which involves inciting a crime in order to catch a suspect in the act, is heavily criticised by some in the American Muslim community. Vidino said such operations had led to a significant number of criminal charges.
After Christopher Lee Cornell’s conversion to Islam, he increasingly isolated himself and developed an alter ego online, that of Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah. He made many virtual contacts, one of which was an undercover FBI agent. Cornell informs him of his intention to attack the US Capitol building in Washington. He is arrested in January 2015 after purchasing several semi-automatic rifles and 600 rounds of ammunition during an operation mounted by the FBI.
But it is often difficult for investigators to distinguish between cases that pose a real threat and those that do not. Two months before an attack in Garland, Texas, in which two gunmen were killed, Elton Simpson – an American who had converted to Islam and who was well known in jihadist circles – became very active on social media. One of his contacts, Mujahid Miski, tweeted 10 days before the attack about a contest on caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed planned in Garland: “The brothers from the Charlie Hebdo attack did their part. It’s time for brothers in the #US to do their part,” he wrote.
Using his Twitter account Shariah Is Light, Simpson responded publicly to that call. On May 3, 2015, just minutes before the killing, he tweeted one last time using the hashtag #texasattack.
But even arrests will not be enough to counter the threat, Vidino said. “Moreover, many supporters of ISIS have not violated any law,” he added, “especially in the United States, with the First Amendment protecting freedom of expression”.
A more nuanced but hopefully more effective strategy must be put in place, he said. “We must involve communities, civil society, families, to prevent radicalisation from the start.”
To dissuade new recruits, Vidino said the testimonies of those would-be jihadists who have returned, disappointed, from Syria or Iraq could be helpful. Their stories, the study concludes, would likely resonate better with other aspiring jihadists than would any counter-propaganda coming from Uncle Sam.
This article has been translated from the French.
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