The threat of ISIS soldiers returning to the U.S. has not lived up to the expectation, according to a new study.
The report, by George Washington University's Program on Extremism, finds that far fewer Americans lured by the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq returned to the U.S. than previously predicted, and that the U.S.’s exposure to returning fighters is "limited" in comparison to other countries, specifically Western Europe.
Instead, researchers warn, “homegrown’ extremists currently appear to be more likely to commit domestic jihadist attacks than returning travelers.”
The 102-page report, entitled "The Travelers: American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq," found that of the 22 jihadist attacks that have occurred between 2011 and 2018, none of them were caused by ISIS returnees.
“As of January 1, 2018, no returned travelers from Syria and Iraq have successfully committed a terrorist attack in the U.S. following their re-entry,” the study’s authors wrote. “Only one of the 12 returnees identified in this study returned with the intent to carry out an attack on behalf of a jihadist group in Syria. This individual was apprehended in the early planning stages of their plot.”
Since 2011, roughly 300 Americans are believed to have traveled or attempted to travel to Iraq and Syria with the hope of fighting for the Islamic State group. Of the 64 identified in the study, just 12 have returned to the U.S., nine of whom have been arrested or charged with terrorism-related offenses.
That’s “miniscule” when compared to the number of foreign fighters who traveled from other Western countries to join ISIS, for several reasons, Seamus Hughes, one of the study’s authors, told VICE News. First, the physical distance between the U.S. and the Middle East creates more opportunities for interception by law enforcement. Second, the U.S.’s broad anti-terror mandate and encompassing laws have limited the avenues available to those attempting to travel to a foreign country to support a terrorist organization. And, third, the U.S. lacks the established extremist recruitment networks that run deep throughout much of Western Europe.
The study’s findings also sync up with recent statements from U.S. counterterrorism officials, who say they haven’t seen the wave of fighters returning from Iraq and Syria they feared just a few years earlier.
“[T]he conflict is not over in Syria by any means, but what we have not seen is what we expected a couple of years ago, which was a pretty significant, maybe even large-scale or massive out-flow of foreign fighters back to either their places of origin or other Western countries,” then-director of the National Counterterrorism Center Nicholas Rasmussen told reporters in December.
Hughes said the data was now pointing to a different kind of threat: “homegrown” extremism. He said ISIS’s loss of a physical caliphate — one of its greatest recruiting tools — played a significant role in this turn. The terror group’s propaganda reflects this shift as well, moving away from its utopian vision of an Islamic State to a narrative of revenge.
“For the short term, you’re going to see less travelers and more folks trying to do what they can where they are,” Hughes said.
Though the findings will undoubtedly come as welcome news to U.S. officials who once worried about a wave of returning fighters, the study identified other issues in the government’s counterterrorism apparatus, namely the lack of “deradicalization or rehabilitation programs for jihadist inmates in the U.S. federal prison system.”
Cover image: A masked man speaking in what is believed to be a North American accent in a video that Islamic State militants released in September 2014 is pictured in this still frame from video obtained by Reuters October 7, 2014. (FBI/Handout via Reuters)