They connect via online services — especially Twitter — and in everyday life. Their ages range from 15 to 47, and their roles range from cheering attacks to plotting violence. And curbing their growth is a dynamic challenge without a simple solution: There are currently 900 active investigations into ISIS sympathizers in every American state.
Those are some of the findings of a new study that glimpses life "inside the bubble of American ISIS sympathizers, a diverse and diffuse scene that the FBI estimates include hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals."
Titled "ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa," the report by Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes focuses on around 300 people who have been identified as American recruits or supporters of ISIS.
While it's not new for Americans to join jihadist groups, Vidino, who directs the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, says, "the size of the ISIS-related radicalization and mobilization is unprecedented."
NPR's Carrie Johnson reports:
"The report reviewed social media accounts and legal cases against Islamic State recruits. The study says the highest number of recruits have been charged in New York and Minnesota, though the FBI has open investigations in all 50 states.
"The report's authors say the average age of the ISIS sympathizers is 26 — and more than half have traveled or tried to travel abroad.
"About 40 percent of the cases George Washington reviewed involved converts to Islam, and a small fraction, about 1 in 10, are women."
The group is very diverse — both in their demographics and in what motivates them.
"While some seek to join the self-declared caliphate in ISIS-controlled territory, others plan attacks within the U.S.," Vidino says in a statement accompanying the report. "It's a growing and disturbing phenomenon."
Describing the ISIS sympathizers, he says, "We have seen cases in big cities and rural towns. The individuals involved range from hardened militants to teenage girls, petty criminals and college students."
Looking at 71 people who've been indicted in the U.S. for ISIS-related activities, Vidino and his colleagues say that except for seven suspects whose legal residency status hasn't been determined, "the vast majority of individuals charged are U.S. citizens (58) or permanent residents (6), underscoring the homegrown nature of the threat."
The pace of arrests is increasing, with the researchers saying that the 56 arrests made in 2015 are already the most in one year since September of 2001.
As for how to combat ISIS's reach in the U.S., the report's authors recommend boosting funding to create dynamic programs; helping non–law enforcement groups take people off the path to radicalization; and encouraging American Muslims to engage with ISIS supporters without fear of becoming a target of a federal inquiry.
Describing how ISIS has used technology to reach into U.S. society, the report says:
- "Several thousand Americans consume ISIS propaganda online creating what has been described as a 'radicalization echo chamber.' "
- Twitter is "by far the platform of choice" for American activists to connect. Other routes include Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr, along with messaging services like "Kik, Telegram, surespot, and the dark web."
- On Twitter, many of the most popular pro-ISIS accounts are "shout-out accounts," which the researchers call "a unique innovation and vital to the survival of the ISIS online scene." The accounts introduce new activists — but even more important, they promote the new accounts of users who've been suspended by Twitter.
- "American accounts, like the larger ISIS echo chamber, tend not to tolerate dissent and silence attempts at nuance. Muslim religious leaders, particularly those living in the West, who condemn ISIS are routinely dismissed as 'coconuts,' a derogatory term used to insult those accused of denying their Muslim identity. Many U.S.-based Muslim scholars and activists, even those from conservative backgrounds, are subject to routine death threats."
The Internet isn't always the main point of contact, the researchers say. In some cases, people became radicalized by in-person meetings with "preexisting social contacts who already embraced jihadist ideology" — and over time, a cluster of like-minded individuals forms.
Most of the sympathizers who are engaged in an ISIS "counter-culture" will never "make the leap from talk to action," the report says. But it adds that some will turn to real militancy — whether that means attempting to take violent action overseas or at home in the U.S.
Citing the wide range of people who've been identified as ISIS activists, the report states, "Because there is no standard recruit profile, there is also no silver bullet that will blunt ISIS's allure. Recognizing this complexity is a vital initial step for policymakers, law enforcement officials, civic leaders, teachers and parents when crafting effective solutions."