ISIS Indictees: More Normal Than You’d Think

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) recently released a special report titled “The American Face of ISIS: Analysis of ISIS-Related Terrorism in the US, March 2014 – August 2016” that featured some surprising findings about the modern day domestic terrorist. According to a study done by The Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST), the stereotypical terrorist profile no longer applies to those supporting ISIS in the United States. In fact, the average citizen and ISIS extremist have a lot in common when it comes to their demographic and socioeconomic status. These findings “are striking, and provide a valuable contribution to understanding the contemporary face of ISIS-related terrorism in the US.”

CPOST conducted a study that “examined 112 cases of individuals who perpetrated ISIS-related offences, were indicted by the US Justice Department for such offences, or both, in the US between March 2014 and August 2016” and classified each individual by their transgression into 1 of 3 categories: attacker, traveler, or facilitator. This study is “the first comprehensive analysis of ISIS-related cases to examine the profiles of indictees overall, as well as to identify characteristics associated with each of the offence types”, which makes it not only groundbreaking in the field of homeland security but also valuable in the fight against ISIS.

When examining the overall persona of an ISIS indictee in comparison with the average citizen and typical terrorist, they discovered unexpected results. After evaluating demographic and socioeconomic factors, the data shows that “the 112 indictees in our study are nearly indistinguishable from average Americans”. Data indicates that the ISIS sympathizers’ marriage, higher education, and employment rates are remarkably similar to the country’s average. The study’s findings established a new face of ISIS in America that is described as “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”. Their findings differ from the stereotypical terrorist profile that can be summarized as an impressionable male under the age of 25 who is a lonely outsider without educational or career opportunities. The results of this study challenge conventional typecasts and establish an accurate description of ISIS radicals within our own borders.

One of the most notable findings was that a significant proportion of the indictees converted to radical Islam, and were actually born and raised on American soil. This contrasts the popular view, which assumes that ISIS terrorists are from established Muslim-American communities outside of the US. According to their research, the threat of ISIS-related terrorism in the United States comes from our own citizens – not Middle Eastern refugees or foreigners. Therefore, “limiting or halting immigration from Muslim countries will not eliminate or even markedly mitigate the threat posed by ISIS to the US […] 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.” CPOST further investigated by analyzing whether the characteristics of indictees varies by offence type when it came to their demographic, socioeconomic status, and pathway to radicalization.

Over the past few years, ISIS has produced hundreds of high quality recruitment videos that receive exposure across the globe and entice individuals to join them in their extremist cause. Research shows that these videos play a central role in the radicalization of indictees to target western audiences. While other terrorist organizations have used propaganda videos and social media for recruitment, none can compete with ISIS – according to their data, “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is mobilizing sympathizers in the US at a rate four times higher than Al-Qaeda’s”. Their success in recruitment can be greatly attributed to propaganda exposure over the internet. ISIS-related radicalization and mobilization within the United States through the use of video propaganda and social media is extensively documented as a topic of concern within Homeland Security. The Homeland Security Digital Library has collected a plethora of publications in addition to this document that discuss the detriment of the terrorist group’s recruitment strategy and recommendations to end their influence. For example“ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa”, a study published by the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, similarly analyzes the characteristics of ISIS indictees within US borders as well as the social media strategies used to recruit and radicalize them. For more information about Jihadist and Islamic domestic terrorism, please visit the Homeland Security Digital Library (some resources may require login).