Extremism Assessment Series: Homegrown Islamist Extremism in the US

Summary of Extremist Assessment

  • There is no set profile of a homegrown violent extremist; can be any ethnicity and can come from any socioeconomic background
  • The need to belong, political grievances, and sense of purpose are other common factors in an individual’s radicalization
  • Individuals are often radicalized through the internet/social media or through family and friends
  • Attacks are typically aimed at political figures and monuments and are not often organized
  • Although individuals may be sympathetic to terrorist ideologies, they may not have formal ties to the organization

Brief summary of their narrative 

Homegrown Islamist extremists follow the same narrative as established Islamist terrorist organizations, such as ISIL and al-Qaeda. They are mainly motivated by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, aiming to not only spread Islamist beliefs and establish the caliphate, but also to bring down oppressive powers such as the US as well as all “disbelievers”. Rather than travel abroad to fight with a foreign terrorist organization, they stay in their homeland and plan attacks. They use violence in order to achieve their political goals. Islamists believe Islam is the only basis for the legal and political system. They are opposed to liberal democracy and are oftentimes radicalized online and through social media.

Brief History of the ideology or group in the United States

Prior to 9/11, Islamist extremism within the US was not a primary concern. After the 9/11 attacks, the US government re-directed its security focus to counter future attacks and also declared a War on Terrorism in the Middle East. This War on Terror created a divide not only between the US and the Middle East, but also within the US with Muslim communities becoming more and more marginalized. Politicians openly spoke about the possibility of other Muslim-Americans becoming radicalized and conducting attacks on US soil. The resulting bigotry and hate rhetoric aimed at Muslims in the US produced a volatile community. This led to even more discontent and frustration among Muslim-Americans, with some individuals turning towards extremist propaganda to air their political grievances, find a sense of belonging, or a sense of purpose. More recently, homegrown Islamist extremism has been overshadowed by the threat of right-wing terrorism, although the HVE threat still lingers.

Current State of Islamist Extremism in the United States

Homegrown violent extremists that are sympathetic to the Islamic State are constantly attempting attacks here in the US. Most of these attacks have been foiled by security officials, much like Rondell Henry’s suicide-plot to drive a U-Haul van into a crowd of people on a Maryland waterfront, attempting to kill as many “disbelievers” as possible. Law enforcement officials were able to stop Henry before he could pull of his attack. Henry explained that he had been admiring ISIL’s work for 2 full years and was inspired by the van attack in Nice, France.

Over the past 5 years, law enforcement has foiled nearly 58% of attempted attacks by homegrown violent extremists sympathetic to the Islamic State. These homegrown extremists have been encouraged by the Islamic State to conduct attacks on their own within their homeland. This has been a strategic way for ISIL to pull off attacks in the West without any risk financially or structurally. Homegrown extremists are able to conduct attacks with little to no training and are not as organized as attacks conducted by terrorist cells or networks. It is the lack of intense planning/organization of these attacks that make them more difficult to uncover and prevent.

In the US today, homegrown Islamist terrorism has seemingly fallen behind right-wing terrorism in terms of immediate security threats. Although right-wing terrorist attacks have increased in frequency, the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism still lingers. The successes of local law enforcement and intelligence agencies have caused people to assume that the threat has diminished, even though individuals are found attempting to support ISIL every day.

Where are they prominently operating? 

Homegrown violent extremists operate without borders. Attacks have been carried out all over the world, some by individuals who have been described as “normal” prior to their radicalization. These individuals were radicalized either online or through personal connections and were inspired to act within their home countries. These attacks have taken place in the US and Europe, with several attacks leaving individuals severely injured or dead. The advantage of homegrown violent extremists is that they can attack anywhere at any time and are not restricted in where they operate.

A recent United Nations report stated that ISIL is planning to exacerbate existing political divisions in Western European nations. ISIL will most likely utilize homegrown extremists and foreign fighters for these attacks, carrying out reconnaissance and encouraging homegrown extremists to conduct their own operations in order to inflame discontent within the region.

What are their primary recruitment methods 

The primary recruitment methods of homegrown Islamist extremists include the use of social media to spread their radical ideology and the scoping out of sympathizers. Terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS release speeches online calling on all Muslims to join together and rid the world of disbelievers. Individuals that sympathize with these extremist ideologies are often initially exposed to this propaganda through social media. They interact with like-minded individuals through encrypted applications and are able to use training manuals from terrorist organizations to aid in their operations

ISIL also uses virtual planners who plan attacks online through encrypted apps, provide technical expertise, and assist with picking a target. These virtual planners utilize homegrown extremists to carry out their attacks abroad, minimizing the resources spent by the terrorist organization and also minimizing risk. Foreign fighters have also played a large role in the recruitment of homegrown violent extremists, often times through recruiting HVEs for specific attacks or through spreading extremist propaganda.

The recruitment of homegrown violent extremists by ISIL allows them to operate externally, even while they are losing territory in Syria and Iraq. Although a large number of external ISIL attacks against the West have been executed abroad, only 36% have been executed by individuals that had no formal ties to the terrorist organization.

Image Source: The open source image of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.

ISIL’s Original Web Series

As a part of its propaganda machine, ISIL created the video series ‘The Best Outcome Is for the Righteous.’ Each video contains common themes: members ready for battle, photos of enemies in respective regions, and calling upon other Muslims to join the fray. Alongside this they renew, or pledge their allegiance to Abu-Bakr-al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIL. Its thirteenth installment — The Best Outcome Is for the Pious — was no different, however it was released by its Bangladeshi faction.

Visual propaganda attempts to showcase that ISIL still has Wilayah, or regional territory. Therefore, it seeks to divert attention away from the group’s ongoing struggles, such as loss of their last physical stronghold. According to Raphael Gluck, they have transitioned into a kind of ‘insurgency mode’. ‘The Best Outcome Is for the Pious’ reached wider audiences by way of its release by Amaq News Agency and pro-ISIL Telegram channels.

Bangladesh is not the only Wilayah ISIL claims to have a presence. Other videos have been released in Khorassan (historical region of Iran and Afghanistan), the Caucasus, East Asia (Philippines), Sinai, West Africa, Azerbaijan and Libya. All of these videos have been posted since Abu-Bakr-al-Baghdadi released a video in April 2019, in which he stated the battle of Baghouz has been lost.

The correlation between ISIL territorial losses and release of video propaganda is not coincidental. They want to depict they still have a presence in diverse states. The fact remains that terrorist ideologies have no set borders, but ISIL is adamant that the word knows they have a presence in these thirteen regions.

The videos serve as a moral boost after ISIL lost its territory in Syria and elsewhere. It is a show of faith in the organization and leadership when cells of ISIL fighters pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi. They are intent on continuing the fight. Further, these videos are depictive of a current desperation for recruitment. ISIL needs to show that it still has strength and it is apparent a heavy recruitment campaign is underway, with emphasis on regional sympathizers in various locales.

‘The Best Outcome Is for the Righteous’ series claims active regional involvement, but ISIL’s only authentic presence remains in cyberspace. Revealing this factor is the way to counter ISIL sympathizers from seeking membership in an actual insurgent formation. Authorities in the aforementioned regions must focus on limiting any exposure that showcases ISIL’s presence locally.

Terrorist organizations strive on fear, and fear often leads to publicity, which in turn translates into influence. The only power ISIL has is that provided through complicit exposure.

Image Credit: A clip from an ISIL propaganda video courtesy of the Long War Journal.

Using Encrypted Messaging for Terror Propaganda

In March, ISIL lost its last physical stronghold in Baghouz, Syria when United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces overtook the territory. Although ISIL had tangible territory, terrorism is not typically bound by such lines. An examination of how encrypted messaging services, such as Telegram, spread propaganda beyond borders and jurisdictions is required. It is important to comprehend how terror groups and related media sympathizers use such services to influence and recruit.

In a recent case, an ISIL sympathy group, Ash-Shaff, posted propaganda posters on Telegram encouraging attacks in San Francisco, New York City, and London. The posters show images of Big Ben and Parliament on fire, an ISIL fighter running through New York City with an ISIL flag, and a sucidide bomber with a bomb in his backpack. These posters directly target ISIL sympathizers and loan wolves to act. They exhibit messages in English that call for terrorist acts that typically result in a high number of casualties of those deemed kuffar, the expanse of the ISIL network, and targeted countries considered crusaders. Crusaders refers to ISIL adversaries France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States. The term kuffar is similar to the term infidel.

Ash-Shaff is an ISIL sympathy group either based out of Indonesia or ran by Indonesian citizens. Ash-Shaff creates and shares media to instigate lone-wolf attacks and spread propaganda. They manufactured other pieces of propaganda in January 2019, May 2019, and in July 2019, which were also shared on platforms such as Telegram. All these posters have similar themes, calling out for violence against enemies and trying to incite sympathizers to carry them out. Ash-Shaff is particularly dangerous because sharing content on platforms such as Telegram provide individuals in these channels with the ability to share propaganda on major social media sites.

Ash-Shaff is one of many ISIL supporter media groups. Other major actors include Quraysh Media, Muntasir Media Foundation and Hamlat Fadh Al-Mukhabarat. The list of groups is extensive, but they all serve the same purpose, to share ISIL propaganda. They facilitate communication within ISIL chat rooms on Telegram channels and inspire actions. For instance, during the Sri Lanka bombings, all of the aforementioned groups shared similar propaganda posters and messages on their channels celebrating the attack. What stands out is that a supporter or sympathizer of terrorism does not need to be apart of all these groups to hear the message. Just one is suffice.

Telegram is the top choice to spread terrorist ideas. It is preferred because its messages are fully encrypted and can even self destruct. The company is aware of its appeal to terrorist groups. They have in fact banned ISIL channels from becoming public, but they can remain private. ISIL remains able to use Telegrams private message services to coordinate attacks, plan social media campaigns, and recruit.

One case is telling. In 2017, a woman was arrested in Bandung, Indonesia after she was radicalized in about four months after receiving instructions from over 60 chat rooms on Telegram. It is argued that a radicalized person is ready to perform a terrorist attack in less than a year. An individual who joins five chatrooms can receive up to 500 pieces of propaganda and instruction daily. Telegram chat rooms can host up to 5,000 users.

It is difficult to put a policy solution on encryption services. A solution that has been implemented by Russia and Iran was to ban Telegram altogether. This is not ideal for many countries, but it is effective.

Currently, there are few regulations when it comes to private messaging services. The encryption messaging industry needs to come together and discuss legal and safe parameters. Like the Christchurch Call to Action, main players in encryption services need to develop a platform to combat terrorism. The issue can not be solved by blocking a service, because there is always another one.

The only other solution is that chat rooms exceeding 1,000 users should be charged monetarily. At this level of communication messages are not used for intimate conversations or privacy. Information with such a reach is part of an agenda and meant to spread ideas and information to like minded individuals.

Telegram and other free encrypted messaging platforms are the basis of terrorist communications. They allow for groups to plan social media campaigns, provide instructions for attacks, receive donations and recruit. It is easy to suggest that groups spreading terrorist ideas should be banned from using these services, but it is what needs to be done.

Prevention and Redemption Initiatives Are Key to Countering Terrorism in Russia

The mountains of Chechnya where “going to the forest” is a colloquial term for joining an extremist group. Photo Credit: eTurboNews.

A series of recent incidents validate the Russian Federation’s concerns over the rise of internationally-linked terrorist groups active within its territory. This security matter is heightened by the presence of battle-hardened fighters who returned from fighting in the Middle East and North Africa. The main query that emerges is whether Russian authorities will amend their counterterrorism tactics, or continue to engage in a framework simplified as a nexus of a military-bureaucratic-judicial instruments.

Russia has long contended with the dilemma of homegrown terrorism, especially in the North Caucasus region. Radicalization and the development of terror cells were intrinsically linked to the Chechen independence movement that expanded into neighboring Dagestan. Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of Al- Qaeda) once called the region ‘a shelter’ for fighters from across the globe. It is little wonder then that Daesh capitalized on homegrown ethnic grievances in Russia’s ‘inner abroad’ for recruitment.

Russian officials estimate that approximately 4000 citizens fought as militants in the armed conflicts in Syria. The state of affairs shifted domestically too. Militants that once operated under the banner of Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) transferred allegiances to Vilayat Kavkaz —  a branch of Daesh in the North Caucasus. Russia identifies the pan-Islamist political movement Hizb ut- Tahrir (Party of Liberation) as a terrorist organization, and deems it culpable in the recruitment of foreign fighters as well. It is undoubtedly a case where international groups seized upon already active movements to franchise ideologies.

As a consequence, recent terror-related events in Russia are linked to the international moniker of Daesh, although the actors are domestic agents. The Federal Security Service (FSB) conducts operations across Russia linked to Daesh through a perpetrator’s affiliation, but few links to the umbrella organization. For instance:

• April 13: two suspected members were killed in a raid in Tyumen; an oil rich town in Siberia.
• June 26: a declared member who created explosives and sought to carry out attacks in the name of Daesh was neutralized in Saratov; a city in the southwest.
• July 1: police in Khanty-Mansi (a region in western Siberia) sent out an alert of a woman suspected of membership in an international terrorist organization being in the area.
• July 12: Moscow District Court sentenced seven members of Daesh to 15-21 years of incarceration for planning to attack the Sapsan train in Saint Petersburg in 2017.

These cases exhibit a Russian reliance on strict legislation and applications of force as primary counterterror tactics. Numerous laws have been passed, including the revocation of citizenship for naturalized citizens, life sentences for some terror-related crimes, and guidelines aimed to counter proliferation of extremist ideology, especially the contentious Yarovaya package.

A preference for the military-bureaucratic-judicial nexus and intelligence collection means psychological rehabilitation and cultural efforts receive less attention. Up until 2013, Russia applied such methods until preparations for the Sochi Olympics required hardline policies. However, emphasis on these two spheres provide Russian authorities with a humanitarian method to prevent radicalization before it takes root, and to counterbalance extremist teachings post-indoctrination, to those willing to relent. This is a key recommendation that needs to be met at many levels.

Those at risk of radicalization must be exposed to civil society organizations that promote tenets of inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue. Exposure to educational and employment prospects, tolerant views amongst peers, and wider community solidarity provide numerous opportunities for exchange.

Preservation of cultural traditions that display a wider understanding of ethnicity and religion — that have not been manipulated to advocate extremist or political views — teach at-risk youth they are already part of an important community, rather than a terrorist cell or a linked international organization. Sports provide additional occasions of solidarity, especially those that prioritize strength of character. For example, combat sports widely practiced across the region place the historic mindset of a ‘Caucasian warrior’ in a positive context, at the same time young girls practicing tightrope walking in Dagestan are taught to be ‘fearless’.

Psychological supports and deradicalization initiatives are of vital importance in the current context. These programs are especially beneficial to returnees willing to shun extremist views as they are offered a path towards redemption, as well as chances to inform at-risk peers of the realities of membership in such groups. The Comprehensive Plan of Counteraction of Ideology of Terrorism 2019-2023 reveals provisions covering this matter. As well, a member of the Russian State Duma announced the development of a rehabilitation center focused on individuals influenced by Hizb ut- Tahrir in annexed-Crimea, though it is viewed as politically motivated.

The Russian Federation strongly relies on military-bureaucratic-judicial methods as violent extremism and terrorism are serious infractions under the criminal code, as they should be. It seems easier to manage the localized and decentralized nature of domestic extremism in that framework. However, such hardline measures should be employed concurrently with softer methods aimed at prevention and redemption. They offer broader social advantages in totality.

Réjeanne Lacroix is the Editor-in-Chief at Rise to Peace.

Iraq in Rubble after ISIL

At the beginning of 2019, the size of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been reduced greatly by a coalition including the United States. Unfortunately, people return home to discover their towns in rubble.

The fight has been going on for over four and a half years yet ISIL has been forced to retreat to a small area in Eastern Syria called Marashida. At the height of ISIL’s power, they had controlled 10 million people.

This contributed to the massive refugee crisis out of Syria and Iraq.

Buildings are destroyed, streets are gone, and there are few public services  There are only bullet holes, twisted shrapnel, and dust. Yet despite their difficulties, the Iraqi government nor any other Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) is supporting them.

There are no hospitals either, or any sort of aid. They have no other choice but to rebuild alone. Civilians are exhausted from movement, fear, and the thought of uncertainty.

They just want a place they can have a healthy and safe life.

Yet some are worried because of President Trump’s announcement to withdraw troops from Syria. He claims that ISIL is destroyed yet that is incorrect.

The villagers are worried that ISIL will return to oppress them once the United States leaves. This will not only create havoc for the population, but ISIL could start to recruit again, thus growing in numbers and territory.

American military leaders do not know when they should withdraw from Syria, even though the president has made announcements about.  This uncertainty creates instability all over the world. Russia is going to involve themselves more in Syria, NATO is unsure on how to react.

President Trump might not follow through with this move. If he does pull out, it would be best if NATO and other European Union (EU) countries stepped in to make sure that the terrorists are defeated and that human rights and peace are achieved at the end of the conflict.

Having Russia being the only other party involved in Syria would be dangerous for the global order and regional order in the Middle East. It is against US and EU interests and would be detrimental on the process of having freedoms in the Middle East post-conflict.

The returning of refugees and civilians back to their hometowns in Syria have been dramatic due to the destruction of their schools, hospitals, and homes.

Many are hopeful for the future but struggle to rebuild because they are alone on this venture.  The uncertainty created by the US for proposing a pull out of military forces in Syria create worries for the people living there and that this will create the growth and spread of ISIL again.

It is imperative to have the EU and NATO to maintain strong even if the US pulls out to be a voice of freedom and human rights.

 

 


Nick Webb is the Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.