June 9, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Western Recruitment Networks of the Islamic State

• On June 3, three Minneapolis men were found guilty in federal court on charges related to attempting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State

• The convictions were part of the largest Islamic State-related prosecution in the U.S. to date; six others involved in the case have already pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges, and a tenth successfully traveled to Syria in 2014 and was instrumental in recruiting the others via social media

• With as many as 6,000 Westerners that have traveled to Syria and Iraq—the majority of which have joined the Islamic State—the group’s Western recruitment efforts dwarf those of other violent Islamist groups historically

• The nature of recruitment is different in the United States than in Europe; U.S. recruitment primarily relies on social media, while community-based recruitment reliant on existing social networks appears to be the primary factor in the EU.


In the largest case of its kind in the United States, three young Somali-Americans were found guilty on June 3 of federal charges that included conspiring to support a foreign terrorist organization and conspiracy to commit murder abroad. The three men—Mohamed Farah, Abdirahman Daud, and Guled Omar—all in their early twenties, face the possibility of life in prison. The case represents one of the few examples of the development of an Islamic State recruitment cluster within the United States involving more than just a few people; six additional co-conspirators have already pleaded guilty. Sitting at the top of the recruitment cluster was Abdi Nur, a Somali-American from Minnesota in his early twenties who successfully traveled to Syria in June 2014. He was subsequently involved in communicating with the remainder of the group on social media—most of whom were already his friends or acquaintances—in efforts to persuade them to join him.

Of the approximately 250 Americans who have traveled or attempted to travel to join the so-called Islamic State and other groups in Syria and Iraq, the vast majority of cases involve a single individual or small groups of two or three drawn to the Islamic State exclusively through social media. Though peer-to-peer communication has played a pivotal role in known cases of Islamic State radicalization and recruitment within the United States, that communication takes place almost entirely online. The recent case in Minneapolis is exceptional, as it represents one of the few known larger clusters of Islamic State recruitment within the United States, in which the members—known to each other through existing social networks formed in high school and college—communicated and engaged in one-to-one, in-person contact to help persuade and reinforce sentiments to join the Islamic State.

Cases of this type of community-based Islamic State recruitment have been far more prevalent in Europe. In neighborhoods like Molenbeek in Brussels, charismatic Islamic State recruiters have been able to masterfully manipulate pockets of susceptible youth, leveraging preexisting social networks of known acquaintances, friends, and family members, and helping them evolve into entrenched Islamic State operational networks. The most notorious example of this is the network responsible for the November 2015 Paris attacks, of which Abdelhamid Abaaoud sat at the head; remnants of the same network were also tied to the March 2016 Brussels attacks. On May 25, Belgian authorities arrested four members of an unrelated Islamic State network in Antwerp, which was reported to include as many as nine members who had been in direct contact with Hicham Chaib—a Belgian now high in the ranks of the Islamic State in Syria, who has long been active in recruiting Belgian youth to join the Islamic State. These two distinct networks serve as evidence of the multiple clusters of Islamic State recruitment that have emerged in various parts of Europe. Such clusters pose a significantly larger threat than individual recruitment efforts over social media, as they provide tight-knit networks with greater resources and levels of commitment than individuals acting alone.

Despite the existence of the Minneapolis community-based network to which Farah, Daud, and Omar belonged, the presence of such a cluster inside the United States is an outlier rather than an indication of emerging trend. In May 2016, FBI Director James Comey stated there had been a steep decline in the number of cases of Islamic State recruitment within the United States over the past year. In 2014 and early 2015, anywhere between six and ten U.S. citizens were attempting to travel to Syria per month; since August 2015, that number had dropped to about one per month, according to Comey. This sharp decrease is likely the product of a variety of factors, and serves as an indication that efforts to stem the group’s social media footprint have taken a toll.

The relative prevalence of community-based Islamic State recruitment clusters in Europe compared to the U.S. is one of the primary reasons why the threat facing Europe is far higher than that facing the United States. Nonetheless, despite the focus on the unprecedented terror threat in Europe, the threat of Islamic State-inspired attacks in the U.S. persists. The Islamic State has repeated its call for the group’s sympathizers to carry out attacks by any means possible, and despite efforts to limit the group’s reach on social media, it still maintains a very active and influential presence online. As such, though the U.S. is less at risk for coordinated, simultaneous, and multi-location attacks like those seen in Paris and Brussels, the threat of lone-actor or San Berdardino-style attacks is still very present.


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