Americans in Syria and Iraq: The Elaborate Case Studies

George Washington University’s Program on Extremism published a report on Americans who joined Syrian or Iraqi jihadist groups between 2011 and 2017. The report, “Travelers: American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq,” concludes that there are 64 verified American travelers abroad. Another 50 citizens were caught and arrested by law enforcement officials for attempting to travel.

The authors use a classification system to categorize the travelers, each one determined by the circumstances surrounding his/her decision to depart. There are three categories –

  • Pioneers: Individuals with power or leadership roles within a jihadist group. Only four individuals are identified as pioneers.
  • Networked travelers: Americans who have ties to U.S. supporters of jihadist groups that can facilitate their travel. The majority of cases (87%) fall under this category.
  • Loners: Travelers that reach jihadist groups without assistance, often using social media and the Internet to make their connections. Six cases are classified as loners.

Among its policy recommendations, the authors call on lawmakers to understand the complexity of the challenges brought by American jihadist; they argue that the government needs a multifaceted framework:

[U.S.] strategy should include tiered threat assessments, categorizations of travelers, and a variety of responses, spanning from traditional to non-traditional approaches. The appropriate responses to returning jihadist travelers should be determined by several factors, such as: age, background, personal connections to other jihadists, behavior prior to departing, their overseas activities, and their motivations for returning to the U.S.

In addition to analyzing a number of case studies, the Program’s report includes the research methodologies, a history of American jihadists, and the development of U.S. jihadist networks.

To read the Program’s full report, click here.