ISIS Radicalization in the United States

Report from GW’s Program on Extremism examines cases of Americans arrested for ISIS affiliations.

Program on Extremism Director Lorenzo Vidino presents findings from the report, “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa." (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
December 02, 2015
Seventy-one Americans have been arrested for ISIS-related activities since March 2014, and they come from varied backgrounds and ethnicities and identify broad motivations for supporting ISIS, according to a new report from the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
One of those charged for ISIS-related activities is a Mexican-American convert from Houston. Another is a former Air Force officer from Brooklyn. The youngest was arrested at 15 years old. 
The report, “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa,” attempts to understand why these individuals became radicalized by analyzing every ISIS-related court case from the last 21 months.
Program Director Lorenzo Vidino and Deputy Director Seamus Hughes presented the findings to the public Tuesday. The report describes ISIS’s use of social media to attract American recruits.
Fifty-six individuals were arrested for ISIS-related activities this year alone—a record for terrorism arrests since 9/11, the report says.
Dr. Vidino and Mr. Hughes examined more than 7,000 court documents and found that the average age of an American ISIS supporter is 26. They are overwhelmingly males (86 percent). A majority of individuals charged have been U.S. citizens. 
Dr. Vidino said the level of radical involvement differed in each case. Some individuals acting alone only “flirted” with extremist ideologies online. But others were far more committed. 
“You cannot put the kid who radicalizes in his parents’ basement and has never really interacted with the real deal… with people who have physically gone to Syria and Iraq and have reached some pretty senior status, in some cases, in the organization,” Dr. Vidino said. 
The report also elucidates the power of social media and how ISIS has attracted American recruits to its radical ideologies online.
Researchers described ISIS online communities as echo chambers, where participants reinforce each other’s beliefs. Some ISIS Twitter accounts function as “nodes” or leading voices that generate content for networks. “Amplifiers” retweet and reshare material from other popular ISIS members, and “shout-out accounts” keep the online community connected by creating new accounts if users are suspended. 
But Dr. Vidino added that radicalization isn’t limited to the online world. In Minneapolis, close-knit neighborhoods of people connected by ethnic and community ties have seen extremism take hold. Authorities also caught a small group from a Bosnian community in St. Louis sending money to Syrian fighters. 
Leveraging community networks may be one of the most effective ways to mitigate radicalization, said Michael Downing, commanding officer of the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau at the Los Angeles Police Department. He shared that local law enforcement can work with communities to create partnerships, civic engagement and problem-solving efforts together, since they have the best understanding of neighborhood landscapes. 
Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, the former coordinator of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications at the U.S. Department of State, emphasized that community engagement is especially important as ISIS bolsters its virtual stronghold.
This year alone, ISIS created media in nine different languages and produced almost 1,800 propaganda videos, 14,523 graphics and 50 songs, Mr. Fernandez said. The ISIS image has to be cracked, and community leaders can add their voices to introduce new counter narratives to the organization's brand. 
“They need to be seen as and, actually be, losers. That is the single most powerful thing that can be done to take some of the air out of their message,” he said.