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 different from those of al-Qaeda who threatened the US with 9/11 and its aftermath?
To answer these questions, the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) conducted a comprehensive review of the 112 cases of individuals who perpetrated offences or were indicted by the US Justice Department for ISIS-related offences in the US between March 2014 and August 2016.
These offences are:
- attacking or conspiring to attack targets in the US
- travelling or conspiring to travel to join ISIS abroad as ‘foreign fighters’
- facilitating others seeking to attack or travel.
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 different 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 offence. 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 offences, 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. 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 offenders, at 25 years old. Facilitators were not only the oldest, averaging 29 years, but also the least likely to be unemployed.
Fourth, ISIS propaganda, and especially videos, played a central role in their radicalisation. Eighty-three per cent
of indictees reported watching ISIS videos, including videos of executions, which ISIS distributes widely on the internet. Travellers were most likely to report watching videos (92%) and attackers the least (76%), although all groups demonstrate a high rate of watching video propaganda.
Finally, ISIS has been more successful than al-Qaeda in mobilising support in the US, with four times more indictees per year.
ISIS indictees are also significantly more likely to be US citizens and recent converts than their al-Qaeda counterparts. ISIS’s comparative success underscores not only the effectiveness of its propaganda strategy but also the centrality of the internet in making the group’s propaganda available to potential supporters across the globe.
These findings challenge conventional stereotypes of terrorists and even the standard profiles of past groups.
The popular view of ISIS terrorists, commonly reinforced in some American media, is that they are Muslims from outside the US or from within established Muslim-American communities. This view has led to some policy proposals to exclude Muslims from migrating to the US.
They are also regularly portrayed as young—with a high proportion of teenagers—mostly male, and as lonely outsiders with little education and low job prospects, leaving them especially vulnerable to the allure of terrorist groups.
This popular view persists despite the fact that past expert studies have shown that terrorists are typically broadly representative of their communities in terms of socioeconomic and educational measures.
Our study built on existing research on the threat of ISIS in the US by including more recent cases, expanding the variables to include a particular focus on propaganda consumption, and engaging in new analysis of subgroups of offenders by citizenship and offence type that allows us to draw new insights into the face of ISIS in America.
Our findings are based on a comprehensive and rigorous review of the documentary evidence on the 112 indictees in our database, more than 1,600 pages of formal indictment material, criminal complaints, and media coverage. Based on this review, we systematically identified and collected a broad spectrum of demographic and socioeconomic characteristics as well as factors associated with radicalisation and the consumption of militant propaganda.
We were able to source data on these variables for the overwhelming majority of indictees. Of note, we have data for all 112 cases on the categories of age, offence type, citizenship, country of birth, religion, and whether they are recent converts to Islam.
We identified educational attainment for 72 individuals (64%), employment for 90 (80%), marital status for 74 (66%), and propaganda consumption for 87 (78%).
Violent criminality and mental illness aren’t common among ISIS indictees.
According to our data, 14% had confirmed mental illness, while 13% had been convicted of a violent crime.
Our data allows us to identify patterns and make inferences based on important observable characteristics.
Additional research, including interviews, would be necessary for a systematic evaluation of motivations and other psychological factors in these cases.
ISIS has been remarkably successful in mobilising US citizens, in particular recent converts, at rates higher than al-Qaeda’s. Other commentators have suggested that the path to ‘conversion’ may have been part of the jihadi radicalisation and recruitment process. Indeed, this perspective is consistent with the relatively high number of recent converts among attackers.
The average ISIS indictee is a 27-year-old male with no criminal record or mental illness who attended some college, is employed or still in school, is in personal relationship, is a Muslim but may be recent convert, and is part of a local group of like-minded radicals.
Our findings have significant policy implications.
The increase in ‘born and bred’ Americans supporting ISIS and the very limited number of refugees in our study suggest that limiting or halting immigration from Muslim countries will not eliminate or even markedly mitigate the threat posed by ISIS to the US.
Taken together, the increase in ‘born and bred’ Americans supporting ISIS and the very limited number of refugees
in our study suggest that limiting or halting immigration from Muslim countries will not eliminate or even markedly mitigate the threat posed by ISIS to the US. Significantly, in the light of current debates about security threats associated with Syrian refugees from the current conflict, there are no cases in our data of a refugee from Syria perpetrating an ISIS-related offence in the US.
Additionally, because our study doesn’t point to a narrow, easily distinguishable profile, law enforcement officers can’t simply expect to identify ISIS supporters by tracking large numbers of traditionally religious Muslim men.
Instead, our security forces and intelligence forces must focus on limiting access to the tools used to carry out attacks and the propaganda that inspires them.
To do so, we need to deepen our understanding of the appeal of this propaganda in order to sever the link between individuals’ sense of disenfranchisement, perceived lack of opportunity and other factors and support for ISIS.
More normal than you think
What kind of person decides to fight for or support a foreign terrorist group like ISIS? CPOST’s data on individuals
indicted for ISIS-related offences in the US sheds new light on this question. The popular view is that individuals likely to be attracted to Islamist extremist groups are most often young male Muslims who are from established Muslim communities in the US or have come to the US from such communities abroad.
This view assumes they are uneducated loners with few economic opportunities and little to lose, making them vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups such as ISIS promising them purpose and opportunity.
Those assumptions don’t tell the whole story.
Strikingly, our study found that a substantial proportion of indictees doesn’t fit that profile. Indeed, on many demographic and socioeconomic factors, the 112 indictees in our study are nearly indistinguishable from average Americans.
Older and a higher proportion of females than expected
Although one might expect ISIS indictees to be males in their late teens or early twenties, the data shows that the group is far more heterogeneous (Figure 2).
The average age is 27 years, ranging from a low of 17 to a high of 52. Nearly half are older than 25, the age commonly thought to be the upper bound for people willing to join and fight for extremist groups.
For example, a comprehensive study found the average age of suicide bombers from 1982 to 2003 to be 23.
Additionally, the fact that 11% of indictees on terrorism-related charges are female challenges the presumption that support for ISIS comes only from young males, and that if women are involved it would only be in a passive manner.
The role of women in terrorist groups has long been noted, but the potential appeal of Islamist groups like ISIS to women may be underappreciated.
What drove female indictees to support ISIS varies. Three operated together with male significant others, including
Jaelyn Young, who was arrested for attempting to travel to Syria with her fiancée, Muhammad Dakhlalla, using their honeymoon as cover.
Others, such as Shannon Maureen Conley, had developed a romantic relationship with an ISIS fighter in Syria online; Conley was arrested after attempting to travel to join her man.
Yet others, such as Noelle Valentzas and Asia Siddiqqi, conspired to attack targets in the US in apparent retaliation for US policy in Syria and, in Valentzas’s words, to ‘make history’.
US citizens, not foreigners or refugees
A key finding is that the vast majority are US citizens, and a strong majority were born in the US (Figure 3).
Almost two-thirds were US citizens born in the US.
In addition, about half of the non-US born individuals have become naturalised US citizens.
This highlights that the main threat from ISIS within the US stems from our own citizens, not foreigners or refugees from the Middle East.
A typical example is Edward Archer, arrested for shooting and almost killing a police officer in Philadelphia after pledging allegiance to ISIS.
A US-born citizen and lifelong US resident, Archer was radicalised not by travelling to Syria or Iraq, but by ISIS propaganda or by ISIS operatives via social media.
Only three of the 112 had refugee status at the time of their arrest.
Two of the three are from Bosnia and have been in the US since 1999.
None is a Syrian refugee. Aws Mohammad al-Jayab, a refugee from Iraq who arrived in the US in 2012, is the only recent refugee among the 112 cases.
He travelled to Syria to fight with a group that would later join ISIS and was arrested upon returning to the US.
That ISIS indictees are much more likely to be US-born citizens than in any other category means that radicalisation largely takes place inside the borders of the US.
Partners, not loners: nearly half were in a relationship
It’s commonly assumed that being married or otherwise in a relationship is incompatible with terrorism, which is why terrorists are expected to be loners.
However, consistent with recent research, relationships are prominently represented in our sample (Figure 4).
We have data on the relationship status for 74 (66%) of the 112 indictees (Figure 5). Of those, 42% were in some sort of relationship at the time of their arrest, and a significant number (24) were married.
Only half were single and had never married.
Even if we assume that all of the individuals for whom data on relationships was missing were single, the total in a relationship would still be 30%, suggesting that relationships aren’t a prominent factor in preventing individuals from supporting ISIS, particularly in relation to seeking to mount an attack in the US or facilitating support.
In three cases, both partners in a relationship were indicted for their roles in a joint operation. For example,
Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla, arrested on their way to a Mississippi airport in order to travel to Syria, were engaged at the time, and were seeking to travel together to live in the so-called Islamic State and aid ISIS.
Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, responsible for killing 14 in San Bernardino in December 2015 in an attack claimed by ISIS, were married and had a daughter.
Overall, 65% of indictees were radicalised to support ISIS alongside like-minded others in some form of local group, including 13 with their spouses or extended family members.
In other cases, the indicted individual was married, but their partner wasn’t involved in illegal activity and may not even have been aware of it.
Mediha Salkicevic, married with four children, was charged with transferring money used to fund ISIS fighters in Syria, seemingly without her husband’s knowledge.
Being married and having a family didn’t prevent Salkicevic from actively supporting ISIS, even if having a large family may have made perpetrating an attack or travelling to Syria less likely.
The distribution of married indictees closely matches that of the US population as a whole. Overall, indictees are just as likely to be people in relationships and with other ties as average Americans.While surprising, the high percentage of married indictees is consistent with recent studies, especially for transnational terrorists.
Almost two-thirds attended college, similar to national average
The educational status of indictees is quite similar to that of American society as a whole, indicating that support for ISIS is not explained by a lack of educational opportunities (Figure 6).
Of the 72 indicted individuals for whom educational status is known, 64% had completed some college or more
(Figure 7), in line with the US average of 62% for the same age range as the indictees. In fact, the rate at which indictees attended college matches the national averages for specific age groups.
The overwhelming majority of those with high school or some college attended secular institutions, which means they are not the product of religious educational institutions.
All but one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino attack, the attack on the convention centre in Garland, Texas,
and the Pulse Nightclub attack had a university degree. The exception, one of the Garland attackers, had attended college but dropped out.
An example of a more educated indictee is Mohammad Jamal Khweis, who travelled to Syria and joined ISIS after completing a degree in Administration of Justice from Northern Virginia Community College.
Khweis illustrates the trend of people with numerous educational and career opportunities becoming radicalised.
Overall, ISIS supporters in the US include people gaining an education and trying to further their prospects in a manner quite similar to the typical American their age.
Three-quarters had jobs or were students
As with education, the data suggests that unemployment wasn’t a deciding factor in motivating individuals in the US to perpetrate ISIS-related offences (Figure 8).
ISIS indictees generally had occupations and worked regular jobs with regular hours. Seventy-seven per cent of
individuals indicted either held a job or were students. For example, Nicholas Young, indicted for providing financial support to ISIS, had been steadily employed as a transit police officer for over 12 years in Washington DC at the time of his arrest.
With stable employment and no reports of economic insecurity, Young doesn’t fit the stereotype of an unemployed and poor member of society with no opportunities beyond terrorism.
Syed Farook, one of the two San Bernardino shooters, was employed as an environmental health specialist in the San Bernardino County Health Department, making US$53,000 per year.
With a comfortable salary and no indication of financial problems, Farook too seems not to have been driven to terrorism by economic incentives or a lack of alternative options.
In short, like average Americans, the indictees are mostly occupied in some way, either as wage-earning employees or as students.
Nearly one-third are recent converts to Islam
With one exception, all of the indictees were Muslims.
However, 30% are recent converts to Islam, and some had converted a year or less prior to their arrest (Figure 9).
These are individuals who don’t come from established Muslim communities, don’t have family or cultural ties to the Middle East, and are unlikely to have longstanding grievances related to the region.
Not surprisingly, the proportion of converts to Islam is highest among US-born citizens. Figure 10 shows the distribution of converts to Islam across the three citizenship groups.