The George Washington University Program on Extremism has identified 64 Americans who traveled to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria since 2011—part of the findings of the most comprehensive, publicly-available investigation of its kind to date.
Travel or attempted travel to jihadist-held territory in Syria and Iraq is one of the most popular forms of mobilization for American jihadist sympathizers, according to the report, “The Travelers: American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq,” released Tuesday.
In addition to the 64 successful travelers, at least 50 Americans attempted to travel abroad but were prevented from doing so by law enforcement. These cases constitute approximately one-third of the 153 Americans who have been arrested on Islamic State-related charges between 2011 and 2017.
The numbers of American travelers are much smaller in scale than those of other Western nations, said Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, research director for the Program on Extremism and a co-author of the report.
“While the threat exists, it is relatively small,” he said.
The report identifies three distinct types of travelers—networked travelers, loners and pioneers.
The majority of American travelers, 87 percent, were identified as networked travelers. These individuals had some form of personal connection to other travelers of jihadist supporters before traveling to Iraq or Syria. These individuals are often tied together through community or a social network, and travel in groups ranging from two individuals to as many as 12 in at least once case.
In contrast, the loners traveled without any assistance from individuals they know personally. To make up for the lack of personal connections, loners often turn to the Internet and reach out to virtual connections who can assist them in making the decision to travel and complete the journey, the report said. Six American travelers were identified as loners.
Four Americans were identified as pioneers, individuals who ascend to some level of leadership within the organization. Typically these individuals have critical skills relevant to their organization, such as military training, proficiency in religious doctrine or technical skills.
There is no single all-encompassing profile of an American traveler and their motives vary greatly, the report finds. Travelers tend to be male with an average age of 27. They are generally affiliated with the Islamic State upon arrival in Syria or Iraq. The three states with the highest proportional rates of recruitment are Minnesota, Virginia and Ohio.
As jihadist-held territory in Syria and Iraq has started to shrink, many travelers from the United States and Europe have returned home. This is a significant concern to law enforcement. American travelers could bolster domestic jihadist networks by sharing expertise, radicalizing others or committing attacks.
Law enforcement must determine who returnees were connected to both abroad and in the United States, Dr. Meleagrou-Hitchens said.
“This will help to map their networks of support and strengthen our ability to prevent future travel and possible attacks,” he said.
Of the 64 American travelers identified in the report, 12 returned to the United States. Nine of those returnees were arrested and charged with terrorism-related offenses. The remaining three, however, have not faced public criminal charges related to their participation in Jihadist groups in Syria or Iraq.
As of Jan. 1, no returned travelers from Syria and Iraq have successfully committed a terrorist attack in the United States following their reentry. One of the 12 returning travelers identified in the report returned to the country intending to carry out an attack on behalf of a jihadist group in Syria, however, he was apprehended in the early planning stages of the plot.
Homegrown extremists currently appear to be more likely to commit domestic jihadist attacks than returning travelers, the report finds. If left unaddressed, however, returnees can enhance domestic jihadist networks, provide others with knowledge about how to travel and conduct attacks, and contribute to recruiting efforts.
The United States should consider broadening its approach to counter jihadist travel and respond to risk from returnees, the report finds. This includes creating deradicalization or rehabilitation programs for jihadist inmates in the federal prison system. Prison deradicalization programs should be prioritized, considering many convicted American travelers will be released within the next five to 10 years.
Read the entire report online.