Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is a lecturer in terrorism and deradicalization in the War Studies Department of King’s College London. He is the author of Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad (Harvard University Press, 2020), and most recently he coauthored, with Seamus Hughes and Bennett Clifford, Homegrown: ISIS in America (I. B. Tauris, 2020). Diwan interviewed Meleagrou-Hitchens in late February to discuss his latest book.
Michael Young: You recently coauthored a book, Homegrown: ISIS in America, on how the Islamic State has penetrated the United States and carried out attacks there. What are the main takeaways?
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens: The book offers insight into how the Islamic State has managed to maintain a meaningful, albeit relatively small, presence in the United States. Using a range of primary sources, including court documents and interviews with former American Islamic State members, we try to build the most detailed publicly available picture of how the group recruits and inspires attacks.
We found that, while initially it called on Americans to join its ranks in Syria, the Islamic State now relies mostly on inspiring young men and women to carry out lone actor terrorist attacks in America. Over recent years we have seen various attacks of this type, such as the October 2017 truck-ramming in lower Manhattan, which killed eight people. The perpetrator had no tangible connections to the Islamic State beyond following its output online. He was inspired ideologically by its propaganda, and the tactics he used were informed by guides produced and disseminated widely by the group.
The book also argues that, by looking at the Islamic State presence in the United States as a case study, it can teach us useful lessons about how nonstate terrorist actors can continue to operate in countries where they have almost no meaningful grassroots presence. In particular, we provide a lot of detail about how advances in modern communications technology, such as the wide availability of encrypted messengers, have been adeptly exploited by the group in order to make up for its lack of physical presence in the country.
MY: You note that there is a key difference between the attacks carried out by Islamic State in Europe and in the United States, namely the fact that in the U.S. the perpetrators are not connected to formal networks. What do you mean by this and what have the implications been?
AMH: Unlike in Europe, where the Islamic State has been able to exploit historic jihadi recruitment networks, the United States has no real grassroots jihadi presence. Partially as a result of this, the Islamic State’s activity is comparably much lower in America.
Sophisticated and high-casualty attacks like the ones we saw in Paris in 2015, which included the Bataclan massacre, are the result of longstanding jihadi networks based in specific regions and cities that predate the Islamic State. We rarely see such attacks in the United States, which are characterized more by the lone actors who have been “inspired” by the Islamic State, or who have been directed to act by Islamic State militants online.
This second category is particularly interesting because, due to its lack of an on-the-ground presence in America, the Islamic State relies heavily on a network of influential online ideologues and other popular group members from the West who have developed a sophisticated outreach strategy targeting Americans. Using a mix of open platform social media, such as Twitter, to make initial contact with potential recruits and encrypted messengers once initial relationships have been struck up, Islamic State members whom we define as “virtual entrepreneurs” help American recruits to plan and execute attacks. In this way experienced terrorists based in Islamic State territory have been able to exert quite a lot of influence over jihadi violence in America.
MY: What are the major “pull factors” that have drawn American jihadis to the Islamic State?
AMH: These tend to be quite similar to those found among other Western recruits. There are a range of reasons for why an individual living a relatively comfortable life in the West would trade that for the horrors of the Syrian battlefield. While many radicalization pathways are quite unique to each individual, common factors include a search for identity and meaning, often due to an internal struggle with what recruits see as their Islamic identity and living in the West. These issues are often stoked and highlighted by the Islamic State’s propaganda. Often too we see a desire for adventure and camaraderie, another thing that the Islamic State’s output aimed at Westerners often seeks to reinforce.
In some cases, those who travelled were fully committed to the cause of the caliphate utopia that the Islamic State claimed to have created. They were drawn in by claims that it was the only group following and enforcing the laws of Islam correctly, and that the state had a future as the shining example of a perfect Islamic society. This kind of utopian thinking is a common motivator for violence and other extreme behavior and has been documented among a wide range of both secular and religious groups, so it is not a surprise to see it among Islamic State recruits too.
MY: How has technology played into the recruitment of American jihadis? Has it facilitated their efforts, or has it made it easier for the authorities to track them?
AMH: Aside from what I mentioned above, we see technology used in a range of ways by American Islamic State supporters. This includes fundraising using cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, for which a number of Americans have been convicted. In another case, an IT student used his technical skills to create an artificial intelligence that automatically identified, downloaded, saved, and disseminated Islamic State propaganda on online platforms such as Telegram.
The Islamic State presence online, while useful for the group, has also proven to be a benefit for the authorities. Almost all prosecutions of Islamic State sympathizers or militants in American courts have relied on evidence gleaned from the digital footprint of the suspects, either from open social media platforms or sometimes private messengers.
MY: Finally, you write that some 5,000 terrorism cases are under investigation in the United States. How many of those would you estimate can be linked to the Islamic State, and how significant a threat does the group pose to the country in the coming years?
AMH: It is difficult to accurately pin down current numbers. However, from our discussions with law enforcement officials from 2018, we found that there were around 1,000 active FBI investigations into Islamic State-related activity in the United States. There do not appear to be specific regional trends, and cases are active in pretty much every state.
What we have also found is that the threat from the Islamic State has waned since the group lost control of territory in Iraq and Syria. Its role as a quasi-state gave it an edge over other jihadi groups seeking foreign recruits, and there is little doubt that the fact that it can no longer claim to be a caliphate has impacted on its popularity among potential recruits. Arrests and prosecutions of Islamic State militants or sympathizers have also reduced year on year and this trend may continue in the short term. However, the low-level threat from the Islamic State and global jihadism will remain in America for many years to come. The movement has shown itself to be resilient and adaptable and there is no reason to think this has changed.
U.S. prisons are also filling with Islamic State supporters serving sentences for terrorism-related charges. The average sentence is a little over ten years, and while in prison there are no rehabilitation or deradicalization programs available for extremist prisoners. That means that soon there will be a large number of possible jihadi sympathizers leaving prison, and as yet it is not clear whether there is a strategy in place to make sure they no longer pose a threat.