In February, an eye-opening new report was released by the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University. This 116-page report, The Travelers: American Jihadists in Iraq and Syria, is a powerful mix of the best of political science and sociology. It exposes the reader to both the definitions and statistics around American- and European-based jihadist travelers, while also providing context via meaningfully detailed backstories of a select few cases.
While this report makes excellent distinctions between the much larger community of European-based jihadists compared to the smaller and more isolated American-based one, there are several key aspects of radical recruitment that deserve further research and greater elaboration.
Addressing Isolation in Immigrant Communities
It is clear that the past three years in America have seen an increase in the same small-scale acts of terrorism that were recently only taking place in Europe.
While the report acknowledges that there is much fanfare about the Islamic State’s savvy use of social media and technology to do “abroad recruiting,” it finds that a personal touch still plays a big role in developing successful recruits who venture all the way over to Iraq and Syria.
In the United States, evidence points to a loosely connected network of radicalization that dates all the way back to the Balkans ethnic conflict in the early 1990s. This provides further evidence of the “social Balkanization” that has remained stubbornly prevalent in the United States when it comes to newer waves of emigrant populations.
The GW report acknowledges the feelings of isolation in many new recruits in America. However, it does not make a connection between the isolation of individuals and the clear failures of select communities to successfully integrate immigrants into American culture. The report does not address this problem, largely because it considers the alienation and isolation process in Europe to be more stark than in America. However, I am not entirely sure this presumption is true and it is certainly not provided for in the report in any evidentiary way.
It also seems clear that the perpetrators of those acts are remarkably similar in their feelings of isolation and alienation from the home culture, whether they are Belgian, French, English, or American. Understanding why some groups in the modern era are coming to the United States but not finding any great attraction to the political and social values of America could be a huge leap in helping law enforcement agencies ascertain where the most vulnerable communities are and which people are most susceptible to such pernicious recruitment.
As a whole, the American diplomatic, social assistance, and academic communities have not done an adequate job investigating the phenomenon best described as being “in the West” but never truly becoming “of the West.” It is this aspect of the recruitment process that is not yet examined in any report but deserves much greater attention.
The gap that supposedly exists between Europe and America in the GW report may in fact be closing and we need to come to terms with its consequences. The report suggests that the West’s success in destroying the political goal of the Islamic State in establishing a Caliphate across the greater Middle East could harbor an unintended negative consequence: Robbing ISIS of the opportunity to achieve their ultimate goal at home may spur recruitment to initiate “revenge” violence back in the West.
Why ISIS’s Recruitment Strategy is More Successful Than al-Qaeda
The report glosses over one of the more unfortunate “successes” of the Islamic State since its inception that makes this so-called “revenge” terrorism more likely: namely, its ability to overcome what I have in the past called al-Qaeda’s “9/11 Syndrome.”
In many regards, al-Qaeda fell victim to its own surprise success with 9/11. After hitting the Pentagon and seeing the total destruction of the Twin Towers, al-Qaeda succumbed to a unique version of self-imposed peer pressure: after such a devastating and history-changing attack, the group would be hard-pressed to consider itself successful if future initiatives only amounted to bus bombings, car attacks, or individual suicide-vest bombers. Such minor acts would only be seen as a regression of relevance and impact.
This has been one of the great conundrums of American counter-terrorist strategists: Was the success in preventing a second 9/11 because of how quickly we reacted and learned from our mistakes? Or was it because al-Qaeda became obsessed with only perpetrating a second version of 9/11, no longer satisfied with smaller-scale acts of terrorism?
We may never know the answer, but what seems clear as a point of distinction between the two terrorist groups is that the Islamic State took any act of terrorism to be a successful act as long as it caused injury, chaos, and death. This is why its social media recruitment is more powerful and more effective than al-Qaeda’s: If you can achieve the same heavenly rewards of martyrdom for an act you can easily commit yourself with little-to-no training and/or consultation (such as blowing up a bus or randomly shooting at people in a nightclub) and don’t need to travel very far from home, then why bother trying to pull off a much more complicated and less-likely-to-succeed fantasy act of high terrorism in a foreign land?
The Islamic State was not handcuffed by the success of 9/11 and its most dangerous weapon so far in terms of Westerner recruitment has been its ability to characterize smaller acts of terrorism as being valuable and important. The report touches on the edge of this reality but does not investigate it fully by encapsulating it within the possibility of “revenge” terrorism. This is where the true epicenter of home-grown Islamic State fanaticism in America is likely to grow and emerge and is therefore an area that needs to be investigated more seriously.
Impacts on Counterterrorism Strategies
The unfortunate truth, as highlighted in the report, is that the perpetrators of future acts of homegrown terror in the United States – motivated by Islamic State recruitment – might only be getting more isolated and more socially alienated, thus becoming harder to detect and preempt. As the Islamic State leans ever-more heavily on social media, demanding less personal contact and perhaps no requirement for foreign travel and training, the prevalence of “lone wolf” acts are likely to become more dominant.
Unfortunately, our methods of counter-terrorism may also be growing antiquated. If this is so, then important reports like “The Travelers” will depressingly become out-of-date much faster than we would like and the emergence of “Jihadi Janes and Johns” will not be marked by travel overseas or by direct personal contacts with known radicalized communities.
Up to now, we have hoped and relied upon that patchwork of loose radicalized elements, centered around well-known communities within major American cities, to produce the most highly motivated recruits, thereby giving us ample evidence of where to focus our law enforcement efforts.
Which leaves one disturbing counter-terrorist Faustian bargain hanging in the air: which do you find more terrifying? Terrorist acts that are large-scale and highly planned, resulting in greater casualties but are quite rare? Or terrorist acts that are smaller-scale and random, resulting in fewer casualties, but are far more common?
Deepening our understanding of evolving recruitment strategies can help us prevent both types of attacks.