Who Are America's Suspected ISIS Followers?

Jun 5, 2015
Originally published on September 9, 2015 1:34 pm

More than two years after the self-proclaimed Islamic State burst on the scene, it is still difficult to quantify just how big the threat is in this country. Counterterrorism officials say nearly 200 Americans have traveled to Syria and Iraq, are thinking about doing so or have returned to the U.S. after spending time there.

NPR has learned that number of returnees in this country is nearly three dozen — but their cases remain sealed.

At the beginning of the year, FBI Director James Comey announced that the bureau had open investigations of supporters of ISIS in all 50 states. Every month seems to bring a roster of new cases and arrests.

NPR compiled all the known U.S. cases with an ISIS link. We've found more than 60 and analyzed them to try to understand how these cases are different from traditional terrorism arrests.

One notable difference: Very few of the ISIS suspects stand accused of plotting to attack the homeland.

If you look at the cases brought so far, the suspects' motivation for going to Syria is about defending Muslims, or battling the Syrian regime, or marrying a good Muslim.

While some say they were motivated by U.S. policy in the region, America doesn't appear to be the target. Instead, the suspected "travelers," which is what the FBI calls them, seem to be leaving because they want to be part of something bigger. More specifically, they want to help establish a Muslim caliphate. This notion is very different from what motivated those who left the U.S. to join al-Qaida, particularly after the Sept. 11 attacks. In those cases, the goal was most often to train for an attack on the U.S. or other Western targets.

The criminal complaints indicate that nearly all involve law enforcement officials intercepting the ISIS suspects at U.S. airports as they were boarding flights on trips that would eventually have taken them to Syria. They talk about Syria as a place where they hope to settle down, start a family and live. While fighting there is certainly part of the attraction, it isn't in every case.

The data also show that the people who choose to go to Syria defy generalization.

They come from a range of cultural, ethnic, educational and even religious backgrounds.

In Colorado, the only ISIS cases so far involve teenage women, three of whom were minors.

In Minnesota, 16 young men have been charged to date; nearly all of them are Somali-Americans in their 20s. None has been accused of plotting anything against America, so U.S. law enforcement officials appear to be coming around to the view that the ISIS travelers from Minnesota — at least at this point — are not going to Syria to become terrorists in a traditional sense.

That may be part of the reason why the Justice Department appears to be more open to the idea of deradicalization. One of the early Somali travelers, a 19-year-old named Abdullahi Yusuf, is the first American ever to be enrolled in what is essentially a jihadi rehab program.

To track these trends, the chart below is intended to be an evolving resource. It will be updated regularly with an eye to understanding what is motivating these men and women to leave the U.S. in hopes of establishing a modern caliphate.

Here's the chart:

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At the beginning of the year, the FBI announced that there were open investigations into supporters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, being conducted in all 50 states. Nearly every month seems to bring new cases and new arrests. Just this week, police officers in Boston shot and killed a man they say was a religious extremist. They say he was radicalized by following ISIS on the Internet. So how big is the ISIS problem in the U.S.? We wanted to try to quantify it. NPR has been compiling all the known U.S. cases with an ISIS link and analyzed them. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, is here to discuss what we discovered.

Dina, welcome to the program.


CORNISH: Dina, give us an idea of the scope of the ISIS problem the United States.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the FBI Director James Comey was the one who said at the beginning of the year that there was an open ISIS investigation in every single state, and that's what really generated this analysis. While it seems there are new cases almost every week, in fact, there are only 65 people who've been formally charged with some sort of ISIS-related crime over the last couple of years, and those cases are in just 17 of the states. Now, it's possible that there are some other cases that are still under seal and that's why we haven't heard about them. But still, the number of states that have actually had enough evidence to bring a case is still relatively small.

CORNISH: Are there particular ethnic groups traveling to meet up with ISIS or people who are from particular regions?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I think what surprised me most about the data was that the people who are suspected of having wanted to travel to Syria to join ISIS really defy any sort of categorization. They come from a range of culture, ethnic, educational and even religious backgrounds. In Colorado, the only ISIS cases we know about involve teenage women. In Minnesota, 16 young men have been charged and nearly every one of them is a Somali in his 20s.

CORNISH: Sixteen from Minnesota - why is that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the Twin Cities has a bit of history with these so-called travelers. Starting back in 2006, a lot of young men from the Somali community began traveling to Somalia to fight with a group there called Al-Shabaab. And at that time, the motivation was to go there to fight an invading Ethiopian force. Some returned, some were jailed and some stayed in Somalia and now have reached back to cousins or school buddies in the Twin Cities and have encouraged them to join ISIS instead of Shabaab. So that's why the Minnesota numbers are so big.

CORNISH: So what was the biggest take-away from the analysis?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I think the biggest take-away for me was how few of these cases actually talk about attacking the U.S. directly. The case this week, of course, was about killing police, but that's an unusual one. The people who've been going to Syria have been talking about fighting for Muslims, about battling the Syrian regime, or marrying a good Muslim. The fight is about what's going on there - in Syria - and in Iraq.

CORNISH: So when you say the U.S. isn't a target, you're saying it doesn't sound like what we've been hearing about, say, al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. When you look at the al-Qaida cases, the centerpiece of most of those cases that the FBI brings is terrorism - attacks against the West, attacks against iconic U.S. targets. These cases, at least so far, are really different from that. Law enforcement is picking up most of these suspects at airports as they're boarding flights on trips that will eventually take them to Syria and they're hoping to go there to live. It just has a much less sinister tenor than the terrorism cases that we're used to. And I think law enforcement is coming around to the view that these so-called travelers aren't going to Syria to become terrorists. It's just a lot more complicated than that.

CORNISH: NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston.

Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

CORNISH: And if you would like to see the full list of Americans accused of supporting or accused of planning to join ISIS, you can visit npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.