ISIS in the United States: What’s the Threat? What Can We Do About It?
FOR A BRIEF MOMENT THIS SPRING it finally looked as if U.S. law enforcement had a handle on ISIS. After an average of four ISIS arrests per month, there were none in March and only one each in April and May. But then on June 12th Omar Matteen carried out his murderous rampage at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In killing 49 people, he had executed the worst mass shooting in U.S. history and the worst terrorist attack since 9/11. Two more ISIS supporters were arrested in June and another two in the first 10 days of July. So it seems we are having little impact on ISIS’s ability to win recruits and supporters.
The Havoc So Far
In total, 107 ISIS supporters have been interdicted by U.S. law enforcement since the rise of ISIS in March 2014. (This includes five charged in absentia, seven killed, seven unnamed minors, and 88 arrests.) Of the 107, 41 plotted to carry out attacks on domestic soil, targeting Americans or American locations. For example, according to criminal charges filed last year but only made public recently, Munir Abdulkadir, 21, planned to abduct a member of the U.S. military and film his execution then launch an attack on a police station in southern Ohio with Molotov cocktails and firearms. It is alarming that so many of the U.S.-based ISIS supporters feel the best way to serve the caliphate is not to travel to Iraq or Syria but to stay right here in the United States and carry out attacks against Americans.
Who is the most vulnerable to attacks by ISIS? Average citizens have suffered the most casualties, with 13 killed in San Bernardino, California, and 49 killed in Orlando, Florida. But the most targeted have been police and law enforcement.
The fact that so many ISIS supporters wish to carry out attacks on Americans should be a concern to both citizens and law enforcement. Equally disturbing is the fact that nearly all are operating as “lone wolves.” In the case of both the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks, officials expressed relief in judging that these operations had not been planned or coordinated by ISIS central, as if this fact made them less deadly. But this is a false salve. ISIS has deliberately rejected the types of grand, centrally planned attacks that were a hallmark of Al Qaeda. Instead, they are urging supporters to carry out independent attacks, providing encouragement, instructions, even funds. This is bad news for us because these types of attacks are much harder to intercept.
What are domestic plotters targeting?
Other alarming trends in ISIS tactics include their targeting of youth and women. Sixty percent of the ISIS supporters caught by law enforcement have been 25 or younger, with some as young as 15, and 15 percent of those interdicted have been women. With our natural inclination to think that teens or young adults as well as women, especially mothers of young children, will not perpetrate acts of violence, we may overlook some threats. Indeed, ISIS is keenly aware of this potential strategic advantage and has been quick to exploit it. In the May 2015 raid by U.S. forces that killed senior ISIS financier Abu Sayyaf, Sayyaf’s wife was captured along with extensive data from cellphones and computers that revealed that ISIS leaders directed some of its communications through women because they suspected, rightly, that U.S. intelligence would not be paying attention to what the women were talking about.
ISIS Is a Theocratic Enterprise
Clearly ISIS is a threat to the United States and by all measures that threat is not abating. The question then is why are we not doing a better job of defeating it? How is it that people such as Omar Matteen are able to carry out such deadly attacks? In part, the answer has to do with what makes ISIS so effective at recruiting in the first place. Their use of the internet and social media has been much discussed, and in part we have slowed them down by restricting their access to social media platforms such as Twitter, but they have in response shifted at least some of their communications to more secure apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. Thus while the platforms they use are important, it is the content that is more important. ISIS has been very successful in exploiting a religious narrative, which we have all but ignored.
While the platforms ISIS uses are important, it is the content that is more important. ISIS has been very successful in exploiting a religious narrative, which we have all but ignored. Where Al Qaeda was primarily a terrorist brand, ISIS presents itself first and foremost as a theocratic enterprise.
Where Al Qaeda was primarily a terrorist brand, ISIS presents itself first and foremost as a theocratic enterprise. Its goal is to reestablish the Caliphate and return all Muslims to a pure form of Islam as it was lived during the time of Mohammed. In his propaganda videos, Osama bin Laden typically appeared in a cave, wearing an M-65 field jacket, the U.S. Army’s combat jacket of the Cold War, with an AKS-74U—the weapon of the elite Russian forces, or Spetsnaz, who fought in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, presented themselves as military leaders, equipped with the spoils of their enemies, ready for battle.
In sharp contrast, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of the Caliphate, he did so from the Grand Mosque of Mosul, not from a cave and not in the dress of a military commander. He wore a black clerical robe and turban. He took out a miswak, a twig, before he spoke, and cleaned his teeth, a practice that was recommended by Mohammed.
A word cloud based on the speech of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, when he announced the reestablishment of the Caliphate on July 5, 2014, demonstrates clearly that the priorities for ISIS are Allah, the caliphate, and the ummah—the global community of Muslim believers. That means abolishing democracy, which they see as the rule of man over man, and establishing a strict form of Sharia law, law that is based on the Koran. ISIS has found unparalleled success in re-establishing the Caliphate and in evoking End Times. In the PBS Frontline documentary ISIS in Afghanistan, a former Taliban leader who has recently switched allegiance to ISIS explains his move this way:
Yes, we were fighting holy war as Taliban. Our holy war was just because there was no caliphate then. But God says when there is a caliphate, you must join the caliphate. There is a caliphate now, so we’ve left the Taliban. We’re fighting holy war under caliph’s leadership.
It is the key failing of U.S. efforts to fight terrorism that we have not understood the importance of this ideology: that every act by jihadists must be justified by radical clerics, jurists, or scholars. Indeed, one can argue that the ideologues are more important than individual operational leaders. Field commanders, as we have seen again and again, are replaceable, but ideas live on. They are far more difficult to defeat. Anwar Al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American imam who was killed by an American drone in 2011, one of the most important early ideologues linked to a number of terrorist attacks, continues today to inspire young Americans and others to weaponize their faith.
Today, others have taken Awlaki’s mantle. A study published by the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation found that there are “new spiritual authorities who foreign fighters in Syria look to for inspiration and guidance. … [T]heir statements and interactions can be seen as providing encouragement, justification, and religious legitimacy for fighting in the Syrian conflict, and—whether consciously or not—are playing an important role in radicalizing some individuals.” The study identifies three of the most important spiritual authorities:
Musa Cerantonio lives in Australia. Italian-Irish and raised Catholic, he converted to Islam. His writings have been particularly important in fleshing out the End Times theology that ISIS and its followers use to help justify their fight in Syria and Iraq.
Anjem Choudary, based in the United Kingdom, with 32,000 Twitter followers, has trained foreign fighters in the past and is currently perhaps the West’s most famous radical Muslim, thanks to his many TV appearances. He was arrested August 5, 2015, for supporting ISIS on social media and is currently on trial.
Ahmad Musa Jibril lives in Dearborn, Michigan, and is followed on Twitter by over 60 percent of the foreign fighters in Syria according to a survey of the fighters’ social media. His Facebook page had 242,000 likes. Jibril spent six and a half years in prison for money laundering, tax evasion, and insurance fraud.
It is the key failing of U.S. efforts to fight terrorism that we have not understood the importance of ISIS’s ideology: that every act by jihadists must be justified by radical clerics, jurists, or scholars.
ISIS is able to recruit by the tens of thousands, expand transnationally, and inspire terrorist attacks in foreign countries because of the ideologues who help to justify its existence and its tactics. These ideologues work constantly to reconcile the ISIS narrative with Islamic teaching and belief.
The United States can expect difficult times ahead, with more domestic attacks or attempted attacks likely. Based on the evidence available, the number of ISIS supporters in the United States measures in the thousands, rather than hundreds. Whether we will see another attack on the scale of Orlando remains to be seen, but it is clear that the United States is a primary target for ISIS and that ISIS has the necessary supporters in place and the financial means to carry out such an attack. The challenges of screening incoming refugees may further exacerbate the problem.
The intelligence and law enforcement communities could have a greater impact on the threat groups we face today if individual jihadists were not the only focus of their interdiction operations. The identification and prosecution of key ideological players, given their positions as promoters of the “jihadi brand” and the spread of their influence far beyond specific tasks, would have a far greater effect on the long-term security of the nation than just focusing on those who plan and execute attacks. The ideologues are hubs of jihadi activity and are force-multipliers for the propagation of the jihadi ideology. Neutralizing one of them can potentially stop tens if not hundreds of individuals from radicalizing. While the First Amendment protects much of their speech, if law enforcement were simply to pay closer attention they would be more likely to catch instances of actual incitement or other violations of the law. The problem right now is that we simply ignore them, leaving them free to spread their poison.
Ms. Gorka (@katharinegorka) is the President of the Council on Global Security. For more resources on ISIS, including a full list of ISIS recruits arrested in the United States, see www.threatknowledge.org.