April 21, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Terror Recruitment in the United States

• The arrests of six Somali-Americans for attempting to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State shows the power of peer-to-peer extremist recruitment in the so-called age of virtual recruitment

• As in the case of Fredrikstad, Norway, in which at least eight young men left the small town to join the Islamic State in Syria, Minneapolis is seeing a disproportionate number of men seeking to join the terrorist group, an example of how extremist beliefs can take hold in a small social network and feed off one another

• There is likely a logistical or inspirational connection between Minneapolis and San Diego, where the arrests took place; the first two Americans known to have died fighting for the Islamic State in 2014 were from Minneapolis and had spent time in San Diego

• Even accounting for this most recent arrest, the total numbers and percentage of the population who have tried to join the Islamic State from the U.S. are remarkably low and an indication that while the threat is real, it is also manageable.


The arrests of six young Americans of Somali-descent from the Minneapolis area on charges of trying to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State is evidence that the group’s recruitment efforts inside the United States continue to find their target audience. The six men—four of whom were arrested in Minneapolis while the other two were arrested in San Diego—represent the troubling phenomenon in which violent extremist ideology takes hold of a small social network and eats it apart from the inside.

The six men, ranging in age from 19-21, were not the first of their community to try to join the Islamic State. One of their peers, Abdi Nur, managed to make his way to Syria in May 2014, where he exhorted his companions to join him. Previously, Douglas MacArthur McCain became the first American known to have died fighting for the Islamic State. He was from Minneapolis and had spent time in San Diego. A few days after his death in August 2014, there were reports that a second American, Abdirahmaan Muhumed, also of Minneapolis, died fighting with the group. While overall the United States has had a remarkably low number of people attempt or succeed to join the Islamic State, it is clear there is a vulnerable cluster in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis is not alone in this phenomenon. The relatively small town of Fredrikstad, Norway, has seen at least eight of its residents travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. The young men differed in ethnicity, socio-economic background, and personality. Reports suggest the group was influenced by Abdullah Chaib, who was one of the first of the cluster to leave for Syria. His influence highlights the power of what is called ‘peer-to-peer’ recruitment, the most direct method of radicalization and recruitment, and the most difficult to detect and disrupt. A charismatic individual with a compelling but violent message is a dangerous individual, as seen at the macro-level with Usama bin Ladin and Anwar al-Awlaki, and at the micro-level, in Norway and Minnesota.

For all its social media success, the Islamic State still depends on individuals who can bridge the divide between online sympathies or interest and real-world commitment and action. The skill set of a good Islamic State recruiter is the same as any recruiter or salesperson; the ability to properly assess the motivation of the individual, to create a situation in which you provide the most obvious solution to their problem, and to use the power of personality or rapport to overcome hesitation. Writing witty tweets in support of the Islamic State is certainly worrisome for authorities, but being able to slowly persuade face-to-face a group of friends to sacrifice their lives is the true threat to communities such as Minneapolis and Fredrikstad. With over 20,000 foreign fighters in the Islamic State, there are likely many unknown recruiters helping take people from their computers to the battlefield. Some of the recruiters are entirely online, others in various communities.

Once a small social network has fully bought into the ideology of bin Ladinism, it becomes a single-focus entity, and won’t be easily deterred: the Paris attackers continued on their destructive path after repeated detentions; the Minneapolis cell made multiple attempts to travel abroad despite arousing suspicions. The strongest social bonds are found in the smallest social circles, be it family or friends. Informants are a vital weapon against such as small target, but it’s often hard to penetrate a tight-knit group in which every member feeds off the extremism of the other. Still, what applies to good recruiting by the Islamic State also applies to law enforcement and intelligence services; finding people with access to the groups of interest, determining their true motivation, and helping to fill that motivation. The disruption of cells such as the one in Minneapolis shows the continued need for human intelligence even in an age of social media.


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