ISIS's US followers are diverse, in places large and small
By CHRISTAL HAYES | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 5, 2018
A teen playing basketball after school. An FBI agent. A couple on their honeymoon. A young mother raising her 7-year-old son.
All American — women, men, Muslim, non-Muslim, African-American, white.
All arrested on charges of helping the Islamic State.
ISIS and supporters of the terrorist group have seemingly ingrained themselves in America. New York City recently saw two terror attacks in less than six weeks. But even in less high-profile places, the group’s followers are pressing forward.
USA Today reviewed 152 federal cases across the U.S. involving ISIS from 2014 to 2017 and found that its followers are just as diverse as the states where they’ve been caught.
Each time the news is terrifying: Shoppers stabbed at a Minnesota mall; clubgoers gunned down while dancing in a Florida nightspot; students hit by a car and stabbed while walking at Ohio State University.
Data compiled by USA Today using federal court documents along with two studies on terrorism by New America, a non-profit think tank, and Charles Kurzman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, show these ISIS-inspired attacks and the numbers of arrests have decreased sharply since the group's rise to prominence in late 2014 and early 2015.
In fact, USA Today's analysis shows there were double the number of cases in 2015 when compared with 2017.
The data reflect only a sample of 152 cases and do not represent all terrorism cases.
ISIS' quick rise to power and taking of territory in Iraq and Syria, where it created a caliphate — or an Islamic State centered on a Muslim revival — left many surprised. But ISIS failed in its ultimate goal of a global caliphate and the defeat of non-believers and suffered significant losses in territory and members in 2017.
Still, the FBI and experts say the group is far from gone.
"The good news is, you know, the caliphate is crumbling and that's positive for all of us," FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Judiciary Committee last month. "The bad news is, ISIS is encouraging some of its recruits and potential recruits to stay where they are and commit attacks right in the homeland."
Currently, the FBI says it is investigating about 1,000 ISIS-related threats across the nation. In addition to those cases, agents are investigating a larger number of "lone-wolf types, who are motivated and inspired by ISIS to commit attacks," Wray said.
Though many point fingers at foreign nations for cultivating terrorists, suspects in attacks USA Today examined were all in the U.S. legally. Most of the suspects were born and raised in America.
Of the 152 cases reviewed by USA Today, 55 involved an alleged plot on U.S. soil, 40 of which were prevented. Sixty percent of the suspects were characterized as lone wolves.
A portrait of the cases
Those people arrested in ISIS-inspired plots didn't share an overarching commonality. They were young and old, married and single, religious and secular.
Some suspects blamed mental illness or depression. Others were lured by the group's false promise of protection and power for Muslims and peace in the Middle East.
Ron Hosko, a former assistant FBI director, said there are a few things that seem more prevalent in these individuals.
"They seem to be people who don't have a strong connection or an anchor of some kind to their lives," he said. "It's like they are looking to connect to something or with something bigger to give them a greater purpose."
In 2015, Heather Coffman, a 29-year-old white mother raising her 7-year-old son in the suburbs of Glen Allen, Va., became entranced with the group and started dating an ISIS member fighting overseas.
Family and friends say the giving, devoted mother who used to take her son to school every day and spend days off from work with her close-knit family instead turned to social media and filled her news feed with support for the militant group.
She even tried to plan a move overseas to help the group before her arrest and conviction.
Women were named suspects in 15 out of the 152 cases reviewed by USA Today. A study done by New America on terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11 found the number of women involved in Muslim extremism increased as the Islamic State's popularity grew.
In the 152 cases USA Today reviewed, suspects were arrested, indicted or died in an attack in 29 different states plus Washington, D.C. Most cases, 29, were in New York, followed by 18 in Virginia. Minnesota saw 13 cases while California saw 11. Texas had nine suspects. Florida, Ohio and Missouri had eight.
Other plots happened in places that didn't make national headlines: a Wisconsin man trying to travel to Syria to fight for the group; an Indiana teen who worked with ISIS members to plot an attack; a Colorado woman who tried to join the militant group and marry a fighter overseas; a North Carolina man who planned to join ISIS and travel overseas using his girlfriend's airline job.
From 2014 to 2017, 17 people attacked targets in the U.S. on behalf of ISIS with varying degrees of success. Some of the attacks left dozens of people hurt or dead; two injured just one person.
The people behind the attacks were all legally in the U.S. Ten of the 17 suspects USA Today reviewed were born and reared in America.
The seven other suspects were not U.S. citizens but entered the country legally; two held green cards, three had been naturalized, and two others had a visa.
The legal, non-citizens came from Kenya, Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan. All lived in the U.S. for at least two years before carrying out an attack.
Many of the other suspects were arrested for traveling overseas to help the group, while others were arrested for sending money to help fund the organization or recruit on their behalf. Some were the target of undercover stings, while some were caught in the act or publicly boasted about their plots.
Undercover stings and the use of informants have been points of controversy for years because of entrapment accusations. Critics say law enforcement will find people who have radical views then persuade them into acting on terror plots, sometimes even offering money, weapons or information.
The most notorious case in the U.S. is that of the “Newburgh Four,” a group of four poor men who were arrested in 2009 in a plot to place car bombs near Jewish synagogues and fire missiles at military planes.
An FBI informant offered them loads of cash, a car and assistance in setting up one of the men with his own business if they helped in the plot.
A judge criticized the case and plot and said the "government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition," adding that didn't mean the men didn't break the law.
The men were each sentenced to 25 years in prison rather than the life sentence prosecutors wanted. An appeal failed.
Why people back ISIS
Abdullahi Yusuf seemed like the average Minnesota teenager. He had a loving family, played football at his high school and got good grades, but the refugee and Somalia-descendant didn’t feel like he fit in.
That all changed with a school assignment centering on Syria. He researched the country and was outraged to learn of human rights violations, including the use of sarin gas on children.
Soon, he found others who were equally outraged and was welcomed into a group of young Somalians in the Burnsville area, a city about 15 miles from Minneapolis. The teens watched videos about Syria after playing basketball.
The videos quickly led the teens to ISIS. They decided instead of watching atrocities continue, they would help make them stop. Yusuf had just turned 18 when two FBI agents stopped him from boarding a Turkey-bound flight. He planned to join the group.
Yusuf, like others, had a few reasons for wanting to join.
“This is a very individual and context bound process, but I would say the individual radicalization recipe consists of two groups of factors: positive and negative,” said Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies.
The negative influences include bullying, racism, violence and lack of perspective. When meshed with positive factors — including a quest for justice, honor or freedom — it creates an extremist recipe, Koehler said.
President Trump’s travel ban would not have prevented any of the lethal attacks, including the mass shooting by Omar Mateen at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando or either of the recent attacks in New York, experts say.
More: Radicalized NYC terror attack suspect sought to display ISIS flag in hospital room
More: FBI: Orlando suspect U.S. citizen, vowed allegiance to Islamic State
“I think this is indicative of the issue,” said Albert Ford, one of the authors of a study at New America that examined terrorism in America since 9/11. “It’s not 100% a U.S. problem, but to say it’s 100% an outside problem is just not accurate. This radicalization is happening in large part within our borders."
The future of ISIS in the U.S.
In 2016, then-FBI director James Comey told Congress that with the demise of ISIS’ caliphate would come a “terrorist diaspora,” which would lead to an influx of terrorists coming to Europe and the U.S.
He urged the U.S. and Europe to work together so “we can spot and disrupt that flow when it comes.”
In 2017, ISIS lost nearly all of its territory and militants. About 3,000 fighters were left in Iraq and Syria in December, down from a peak of 25,000 in 2014 and 2015. Iraq declared the war against ISIS over and said the country had been liberated from extremists.
But that influx to the U.S. and Europe has yet to happen, experts say.
Kurzman, the professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina who compiled the terrorism report, said despite the recent back-to-back cases in New York, the threat at home remains small and the number of attacks remains low.
The intelligence community has an arrest every month or so, he said, but that massive threat that the U.S. was worried about hasn’t materialized.
“We were worried about bombs and missiles and thousands of people dying in attacks, but now it’s a guy driving on to a sidewalk or bike bath or someone with a very primitive explosive,” Kurzman said.
Still, he urges caution. ISIS might have lost territory, but it isn’t gone, Kurzman said. The group, like its predecessor al-Qaeda, has been forced underground.
Hosko said he doesn't see a realistic end in sight with the war on terror and believes ISIS will continue to evolve — but still remain a threat.
While stopping terrorism will always be a priority for the FBI, he said, religious leaders, citizens and family members also play a part in preventing the spread of radical ideology.
"These ideals are never going away," he said. "We as citizens cannot sit back and think law enforcement will figure it all out and fix it. It’s unrealistic. This affects us all and we all have a responsibility."
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