A recent University of Chicago study concluded the majority of men and women who carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil are homegrown – a stark contrast from the past.
Dr. Robert Pape, Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST), and a team of researchers studied cases of 125 people who have been indicted in the United States for ISIS-related offenses or who carried out attacks for ISIS since March 2014.
Of the 125 indictees profiled, the “American Face of ISIS” report found 83 percent are American citizens and 65 percent were born in the U.S.
Pape said these homegrown terrorists look more like average Americans than commonly misunderstood. Two-thirds attended college, the study found, and many were not loners or outcasts. About a half had been engaged, married or divorced.
Pape said one of the most important findings in the report was that an overwhelming majority – 85 percent – were inspired by watching ISIS videos.
“This is not radicalization of established Muslim communities within the United States,” said Pape. “This is radicalization of a much broader swath of American society, and it’s very important to also see that radicalization is coming from online propaganda.”
Pape said the rise of online propaganda was the terrorists’ response to tightened immigration controls in the U.S. after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
“On 9/11, the 19 hijackers were all foreign nationals who essentially slipped through the cracks in our immigration system. We have sequentially tightened those cracks year after year,” said Pape. “Now the terrorists are not trying to smuggle in one or two people or in groups. What they’re doing is radicalizing people here in the United States. They’re using social media and online propaganda to leap over our immigration controls.”
CPOST researchers pointed to a local case as an example.
The Edmonds cousins from Aurora, who were born in the U.S., were convicted in 2016 of plotting to shoot up the Joliet Armory and to travel overseas to join ISIS fighters. Hasan Edmonds, a former Illinois National Guardsman, admitted he was led astray by hateful rhetoric.
Similar to the Edmonds case, the CPOST study found a third of indictees were recent converts to Islam.
“One of the most significant takeaways of this report is that Islam is not the problem. ISIS propaganda is,” said Ahmed Rehab from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Rehab said this study undercuts the Trump administration’s recent travel bans. The White House said an executive order barring citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States is a matter of national security.
But Pape said the travel bans fuel ISIS messaging.
“A lot of the videos focus on the harm that America is doing to Muslim populations,” said Pape. “There is nothing amplifying ISIS’ propaganda more than the current administration’s travel ban.”
Pape said what policy makers should do is continually act on specific pieces of intelligence.
Officials have just banned electronics larger than a smart phone in the cabin of flights into the U.S. from ten airports. Sources told NBC News those restrictions were put into place after “extremely sensitive” intelligence suggested ISIS operatives were seeking to plant explosives on planes.
Pape said the CPOST study should serve as a fact-based, non-partisan report to help policymakers tackle the true threat.
“It’ll help us develop better counter messaging and counter diversion strategies to deal with ISIS propaganda,” said Pape.