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IN-DEPTH: Islamic State-Inspired Terrorist Incidents Highlight Growing Threat of Returning Jihadists

An alarming increase in recent Islamic State-inspired terrorist plots has contributed to rising concerns among counterterrorism officials about Americans and other Westerners traveling to Iraq and Syria to obtain terrorist training and then return home to carry out attacks.

Beginning in the early 1990s, law enforcement authorities became increasingly concerned about “lone wolf” terrorism, which the University of Maryland-based, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) defines as “persons who had no help in planning, preparing, or committing the terrorism incident.”

The FBI, for example, concerned by homegrown jihadists, issued a report in 2006 outlining indicators of radicalization (see the Homeland Security Today report, Past, Present Officials at Odds on Extent, Seriousness, Understanding of Islamism).

The advent of the Internet significantly contributed to this concern, since cyberspace broke geographical boundaries, allowing the scope of the radical Islamist message to rapidly expand. Extremist propaganda began to seep into every corner of the globe and terrorist groups have increasingly used the Internet—particularly social media in recent years—to call for lone wolf attacks.

Although lone actor terrorists represent a very small proportion (8 percent) of terrorists, they have been responsible for one-fourth of the terrorism incidents in the United States, according to a report obtained by Homeland Security Today from START.

Unlike group participants, lone actors are more likely to be female and better educated than their group participant counterparts. Lone actor terrorist attacks are often difficult to predict, since lone actors tend to engage in significantly fewer precursor behaviors per incident than do group participants.

Lone actors also avoid arrest significantly longer than do group participants.  On average, group participants “survive” 370 days from the time they commit their first preparatory activity until the time they are arrested compared to lone actors who “survive” in excess of 1,900 days.

START stated, “All of these general patterns by lone actors (more likely to be single, fewer planning activities, greater distances from residence to target, etc.) are all indicative of greater secrecy on the part of lone actors than group participants. It is not surprising, then, that lone actors are able to avoid arrest significantly longer than group participants.”

2015 alone has seen a significant number of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)-inspired plots by lone actor terrorists on American soil.  So far in 2015, an Ohio man traveled to Syria to obtain terrorist training and returned to the US to conduct an attack, two Kansas men allegedly plotted to explode a car bomb at a military base, six Minnesota men were arrested for conspiring to support ISIL, and two New York women were accused of a bomb plot inspired by ISIL, to name just a few.

Columbus, Ohio, man charged with providing material support to terrorists

An Ohio man who traveled to Syria to receive terrorist training has been arrested by federal authorities after returning to allegedly launch attacks against the US homeland, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).

A federal grand jury charged Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, 23, of Columbus, Ohio, with one count of attempting to provide and providing material support to terrorists, one count of attempting to provide and providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, and one count of making false statements to the FBI in an indictment returned in the Southern District of Ohio.

Mohamud, a naturalized citizen of the United States, left the US in April 2014 for the purpose of training and fighting with terrorists in Syria. The indictment states that after completing this training, he was instructed by a cleric to return to the US to commit an act of terrorism.

“Mohamud sought and obtained terrorist training in Syria,” said US Attorney Stewart. “Upon his return to the United States, he discussed carrying out acts in the United States.”

Although Mohamud’s lawyer, Sam Shamansky, referred to the case as “a whole bunch of nothing,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, says the arrest of Mohamud highlights the “grave threat” of returning American jihadists.

“Terrorist groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda are luring Americans to the combat zone in Syria and Iraq, and radicalized individuals are now clearly returning with the training and motivation to bring terror to our shores,” McCaul said.

McCaul continued, “The Director of National Intelligence recently said around 40 US residents have joined extremists in Syria and are already back in our country, an alarming admission that suggests there are gaps in our defenses. The Obama administration must ramp up its efforts to keep more Americans from traveling to terrorist sanctuaries—now—and must do everything possible to keep these terrorists from returning to the United States.”

Kansas men charged in plot to explode car bomb at military base

Earlier this month, the FBI’s Kansas City Division announced that a Kansas man who pledged loyalty to ISIL was arrested for planning to detonate a vehicle bomb at the Fort Riley military base.

John T. Booker Jr., 20, of Topeka, Kansas, was charged in a criminal complaint with one count of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, one count of attempting to damage property by means of an explosive, and one count of attempting to provide material support to ISIL.

In March 2015, Booker—who refers to himself as Mohammed Abdullah Hassan—allegedly plotted to construct an explosive device for an attack on American soil and he repeatedly stated that he desired to engage in violent jihad on behalf of ISIL.

Alexander E. Blair, 28, also was charged in connection with the car bomb plot. During the investigation of Booker, law enforcement officers discovered that Blair shared Booker’s extremist views and loaned money to Booker to rent a storage unit to store components for a bomb.

“We face a continued threat from individuals within our own borders who may be motivated by a variety of causes,” said US Attorney Grissom. “Anyone who seeks to harm this nation and its people will be brought to justice.”

Six Minnesota men charged with conspiracy to provide material support to ISIL

According to a report released by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Homegrown Islamic Extremism in 2014: The Rise of ISIS & Sustained Online Recruitment, Minnesota was among the states with the highest level of Islamist extremist recruits in 2014.

Homeland Security Today previously reported that ISIL’s propaganda campaign targeting Minnesota—which has become a terrorist pipeline to the Middle East in recent years—has achieved great success in luring Minnesotan Somali youth to overseas training camps.

Last year, a 33-year old Minnesota man, Douglas McAuthur McCain, who was recruited to fight for ISIL was killed in Syria, just five years after his high school friend Troy Kastigar died fighting for Al Shabaab in Somalia.

More recently, a criminal complaint was filed Monday charging six Minnesota men with conspiracy and attempt to provide material support to ISIL.

Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, 19, Adnan Farah, 19, Hanad Mustafe Musse, 19, and Guled Ali Omar, 20, were arrested in Minneapolis. Abdirahman Yasin Daud, 21, and Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, 21, were arrested on Sunday in California after driving from Minneapolis to San Diego.

“The six defendants charged in the complaint allegedly planned to travel to Syria as part of their conspiracy to provide material support to ISIL,” said Assistant Attorney General Carlin. “One of the National Security Division’s highest priorities is to identify, disrupt, and hold accountable those who provide or attempt to provide material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations.”

According to the criminal complaint, the FBI has been conducting an investigation for the last 10 months into a group of individuals who have tried to join, or succeeded in joining, an overseas designated foreign terrorist organization. At least nine Minnesotans have now been charged as part of this conspiracy to provide material support to ISIL.

“As described in the criminal complaint, these men worked over the course of the last 10 months to join ISIL,” said US Attorney Luger.  “Even when their co-conspirators were caught and charged, they continued to seek new and creative ways to leave Minnesota to fight for a terror group.”

In addition, in November, DOJ announced a criminal complaint charging Abdi Nur, 20, and Abdullah Yusuf, 18, with conspiracy to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization after attempting to travel from Minnesota to the Middle East to join ISIL.

“As charged, these two young men conspired to join ISIL and travel from Minnesota to the Middle East to engage in a campaign of terror in support of a violent ideology,” said US Attorney Luger. “Since Al Shabaab began recruiting young adults from the Twin Cities in 2007, our region has lost dozens of disaffected young people to terrorist organizations that would sooner see Somali Minnesotans die on foreign battlefields than prosper in peace and security in the United States.”

Luger added, “The law-abiding members of Minnesota’s Somali community are great partners in our fight against terror, and I am proud to work closely with community and religious leaders to lift up those Somali youth who remain vulnerable to terrorist recruiters. Unfortunately, Yusuf and Nur were not the first – and may not be the last – to conspire in support of ISIS. As we work with our many partners to improve the lives of Somali Minnesotans, we will continue to investigate and prosecute aggressively criminals who provide support for terror.”

Two Queens, New York, residents charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction

Earlier this month, a criminal complaint was unsealed in federal court in the Eastern District of New York charging two New York women, Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui, with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against persons or property in the United States.

The complaint states the women repeatedly expressed support for violent jihad. For example, Velentzas declared that she and Siddiqui are “citizens of the Islamic State” and Siddiqui published a poem in a magazine published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula exhorting readers to wage jihad.

Since at least August 2014, the women have allegedly plotted to construct an explosive device for use in a terrorist attack on American soil. Although they hadnot yet specified targets, the women had carefully studied how to construct an explosive device to launch an attack on the homeland, including how to develop bombs with items such as pressure cookers, which were also used in the Boston Marathon bombing.

“The defendants allegedly plotted to wreak terror by creating explosive devices and even researching the pressure cooker bombs used during the Boston Marathon bombing,” said Assistant Director in Charge Rodriguez. “We continue to pursue those who look to commit acts of terror and deter others who think they are beyond the reach of law enforcement.”

Analysis

ISIL’s mastery of social media as a mechanism for spreading propaganda and recruiting followers in the West, and around the globe represents a paradigm shift within the global jihadist movement away from the organization-centric model advanced by Al Qaeda towards a movement unhindered by organizational structures, according to the START report, Transcending Organization: Individuals and The Islamic State.

At its inception, Al Qaeda was an “elitist, hierarchically structured global terrorist group,” which conveyed it’s messaging in a very one-directional manner. Although Al Qaeda’s online media efforts during the mid to late 2000’s made the terrorist organization’s ideology and strategy more accessible, it provided little interaction between Al Qaeda’s senior leaders and followers around the globe.

“Messages were produced, disseminated and received – there was no formal feedback mechanism built into the process,” START stated.

The paradigm shift began with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Shaykh Anwar Al Awlaki who advanced a do-it-yourself approach to operationalizing the global jihadist movement.  Al Awlaki’s call for grassroots action undercut what Al Qaeda’s senior leaders had been preaching for decades—the need for operational experience and ideological knowledge to conduct a terrorist attack.

Al Awlaki began to displace the notion of Al Qaeda as elitist and hierarchical with the proposition that anyone could become involved in conducting a terrorist attack. START indicated that AQAP’s Inspire magazine “opened a Pandora’s Box where individuals around the world felt empowered to take matters into their own hands.”

“Lowering the sophistication of discourse from grand geopolitical strategy to basic insights into what life on the battlefield really looks like, AQAP seemed to be stealing the wind out of their parent company’s sails. And as opposed to Al Qaeda’s senior leaders who offered theirfollowers little way to provide their reactions and thoughts, AQAP established multiple avenues for the global movement to directly contact them via the Internet,” START said.

Al Qaeda’s senior leadership expressed serious reservations over the idea of “do-it-yourself” terrorism.  They worried about how to attribute attacks and how to deal with gaffes by individuals claiming to operate on behalf of Al Qaeda. Despite these reservations, at Al Awlaki’s death, Al Qaeda could have taken advantage of the surge of loyal followers responding to AQAP’s call-to-action.

However, ISIL beat them to the punch. Initially, ISIL’s 2011 break with Al Qaeda’s senior leadership left the global jihadist movement confused about what exactly they were supporting. However, the global jihadist movement gradually began to see that they need not be tied to an organizational brand.

By leveraging mobile apps and social media channels, ISIL has attracted individuals from around the globe who are flocking to Iraq and Syria by the thousands. Homeland Security Today recently reported that the number of foreign fighters leaving their home nations to join extremist groups in Iraq, Syria and other nations has hit record levels, with estimates of over 25,000 foreign fighters coming from nearly 100 countries, according to a recent United Nations report.

Moreover, the widespread availability of the smartphone has given everyone the ability to participate in the global jihadist movement. Foreign fighters on the battlefield can correspond with followers around the home to rally support. Participation no longer requires anything more than superficial knowledge of the ideology fueling their jihad.

“There is now a mass of individuals participating through mobile apps and social media channels who feel themselves as being part of a global mujahidin movement that may have been initiated by Al Qaeda but for which Al Qaeda no longer holds much relevance or authority today,” the START brief stated.

The Consequence

The movement away from the organization-centric model advanced by Al Qaeda towards a movement unhindered by organizational structures has created a mass of individuals empowered by the jihadist message but unwedded to any organization.

Through the shift that began with AQAP and is being furthered through ISIL, individuals have moved away from simple support of the global jihadist movement to direct engagement. This shift requires a change in counterterrorism policy that will address the increasing threat of lone wolf actors and foreign fighters returning to conduct an attack on the homeland.

The beginning months of 2015 alone have seen a number of ISIL-inspired terrorist plots threatening the safety of the US and multiple other Western countries.

“This evolving Islamist terror landscape has given rise to the ―dual threats of foreign fighter returnees and homegrown terrorism,” McCaul said at a recent hearing. “The recent terror attack in Paris, and other attacks and plots in Belgium, Germany, the UK, Australia, Canada and here in the US are proof that the threat has surged and that the enemy is dead set on attacking the West.”

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), FBI and Pentagon have issued multiple alerts about the possibility of a range of attacks, including cyberterrorism, lone wolf attacks, and attacks specifically targeting military and law enforcement. However, despite ISIL’s reliance on social media to inspire followers, little has been done to curb terrorist use of online tools.

The Middle East Media Research Institute recently told Homeland Security Today that “The use of social media in the conflict in Syria and Iraq highlights the global jihad movement’s now complete dependence on the Internet and on US-based social media companies — and is the template for the future of jihad.”

Until the US debate on how to counter the threat of ISIL begins to include terrorist use of the Internet, particularly social media, to spread their extremist ideology and recruit followers, an entire generation of followers will continue to be radicalized online.

Editor’s note: Also read the Homeland Security Today reports, ‘Rightwing’ Extremist ‘Hit List:’ Worrisome? Overblown? Or are Jihadis the Greater Threat?, Past, Present Officials at Odds on Extent, Seriousness, Understanding of Islamism, There Will be Blood: Freeing the Vilest of the Vile from GITMO, UN: Alarming Rise in Foreign Fighters Joining Islamic Militants in Iraq, Syria, If Jihadi Groups Form Alliances, Threat to West Will be Unprecedented, The Potential that Jihadi Groups will Unify … and With it, More Savagery, and, Jihadis’ ‘Vengeance’ Murders of Innocents in US, Plots Highlight Growing Jihadi Threat to Homeland.

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