SALT LAKE CITY — A new study from the Rand Corporation suggests that focusing on immigrants as a source of potential "jihadist terrorism" in the United States could miss the majority of potential terrorists. That’s because, according to the study, the more prominent threat is inside the country already: native-born Americans.
The study, “Trends in the Draw of Americans to Foreign Terrorist Organizations from 9/11 to Today,” found that in recent years the most common demographic profile for an accused terrorist motivated by “radical Islam” describes a native-born American, either white or African-American.
“Our analysis of the demographic profile of U.S. persons drawn to Islamist terrorism since the rise of ISIL may not match the mental image held by law enforcement, policymakers, and the general public,” the authors, Heather Williams, Nathan Chandler, and Eric Robinson, wrote, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS. “The changing racial and national demographic of terrorism suggests that the draw of extremism does not necessarily appeal to something unique among the Muslim or Middle Eastern communities.”
The Rand study identified 476 individuals implicated in cases of jihadi terrorism in the United States in the 16 years following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Of the individuals in the Rand study, 206 were of Middle Eastern, North African and/or South Asian background, accounting for about 43 percent of the cases. The study notes that this number is “somewhat surprisingly” trending downward relative to other demographics.
The findings add context to President Donald Trump’s claims of a direct connection between terrorism and immigration, especially that of immigrants of Middle Eastern origin.
Terrorism-related security concerns underpinned Trump's travel ban, which originally blocked entry to the U.S. from seven countries with majority-Muslim populations. In October 2018, Trump tweeted that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” were "mixed in" with the migrant caravan after a Fox News program floated the possibility that ISIS could have infiltrated the caravan. Trump later acknowledged he had no proof for his earlier statement.
The main driver of the trend toward homegrown terrorism appears to have been the rise of ISIS.
The study found that in the years 2014 to 2016 — when ISIS rose to the height of its recruitment in the U.S. — the majority of jihadi terrorist recruits in the country were Caucasian or African-American. Specifically, about 65 percent of U.S. persons drawn to ISIS since 2013 were either African-American or Caucasian, the study notes, two demographics not usually associated with modern immigration to the U.S.
ISIS’ embrace of social media played an important role in the organization's recruitment strategy in the United States, the study notes. The organization utilized Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to proliferate its message across borders, seeming to target a broad audience united by “feelings of social alienation” rather than by narrow religious, racial or national ideologies and grievances.
The study does not suggest that Caucasians or African-Americans are inherently more likely to support ISIS, as the total number from either demographic who have turned toward the militant group is too statistically small to allow such a generalization. It does suggest, however, that terrorism in the United States today could be more of a homegrown American problem than an immigrant problem.
“The portrait that emerges from our analysis suggests that the historic stereotype of a Muslim, Arab, immigrant male as the most vulnerable to extremism is not representative of many terrorist recruits today,” the study states. “Instead, recruits are more likely to be Caucasian/white or African-American/black; they are more likely to be U.S. born; and they are more likely to have converted to Islam as part of their radicalization process.”
For example, Damon Joseph, a 21-year-old Holland, Ohio, man, was arrested by the FBI this December 2018 for pledging to support ISIS and creating online propaganda in an effort to recruit others to join the organization. Joseph, who is white, was also planning to shoot up a local synagogue. In his conversations with an undercover FBI agent, he expressed sympathies for ISIS, as well as admiration for Robert Bowers, who killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in October.
“In a matter of months, Damon Joseph progressed from radicalized, virtual jihadist to attack planner,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Jeff Fortunato of the FBI. “He ultimately decided to target two Toledo-area synagogues for a mass-casualty attack in the name of ISIS.”
If there is a connection between immigration and radicalization, it's on a case-by-case basis and even then, it's hard to identify with certainty, said Bennett Clifford, a research fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism, which has also produced studies on ISIS recruitment in the United States.
For example, if someone immigrated to the United States at the age of 2 and then was recruited by ISIS in their 20s, “it is very difficult to parse out when and where and how immigration matters” in terms of its influence on his or her choices later in life, he said.
Bennett said in most cases, a combination of factors — such as psychological challenges, socio-economic issues, and network connections — drives people to become engaged in terrorist activity.
Indeed, the profile of individuals implicated in domestic jihadi plots in recent years have tended to be younger, less educated, and seemingly driven as much by mental problems as political issues, the study states.
A significant number of those implicated in U.S. terrorist plots in recent years, many of them ISIS-related, have had long histories of petty crime, drug abuse, and mental illness, making them vulnerable targets for radicalization.
Bennett said it is more relevant to understand radicalization in the United States as a “homegrown problem, through and through,” rather than an immigration-related issue that should be considered when developing immigration policy.
“Demonizing refugees and immigrants — whether with respect to the Muslim ban or even more recently the ‘unknown Middle Easterners’ coming from Latin America — only serves to dehumanize already marginalized communities. It has nothing to do with national security,” Amarnath Amarasingam, a counterterrorism expert and senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think-tank based in London, told The Intercept.
But Andrew Arthur, a resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that favors low immigration numbers, said it is America’s legal immigration process itself that, in part, protects the United States from terrorist threats.
“Part of the reason why the president pushes for legal entry of individuals in the United States, as opposed to individuals entering illegally, is that we have a robust system in the United States for screening out people with potential terrorism ties,” said Arthur.
That’s why Arthur said he doesn’t find the results of the study surprising, as America’s immigration screening process would likely have kept out immigrants who might have been inclined to join ISIS in the first place.
Of the total nonresident population of 52 people examined in the Rand study, only 19 persons were discovered to be in the country illegally. Similarly, of the 26 individuals responsible for the 23 domestic attacks in the United States since 9/11, only two were nonresidents, both of whom entered the country legally; by contrast, 13 were U.S.-born, seven were naturalized U.S. citizens, and four were legal permanent residents, according to the study.
“The national conversation on counterterrorism has often focused on enhancing screening of would-be refugees, asylum seekers, or visa holders or on tightening border controls to deny entry of would-be illegal aliens turned terrorists; however, these populations represented only a small fraction of our comprehensive data set,” the study notes.
Arthur said the study’s findings should inform national security policy by ensuring that America’s counterterrorism efforts are considering all potential sources of potential terrorism, not just focusing on one demographic profile.29 comments on this story
“We shouldn’t have tunnel vision and look at one population with respect to terrorism. We need to be vigilant about any potential terrorist recruit to ISIS or any other terrorist organization,” he said.
Amarasingam told The Intercept the solution to radicalization in the United States should come from within.
“The problem we face is largely homegrown — our kids, our citizens who are turning toward these violent organizations,” said Amarasingam. “Focusing your attention abroad as if terrorists are launching a stealthy ground invasion will almost certainly result in resources and time being wasted, looking for threats in all the wrong places."