WASHINGTON — American jihadists who have gone to join ISIS abroad have found themselves not fitting in with their foreign counterparts and often have been relegated to serving as errand boys, a new study found.
“The Travelers: American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq,” issued by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, studied 64 jihadists who made it to ISIS territory — 11 percent female. The average age of these jihadists was 27 when they made the journey, and they originated from 16 different states; Minnesota, Virginia and Ohio produced the highest number of American jihadists.
Forty-four percent of them are still at large, while a little more than a third died overseas. A dozen were detained here or abroad, and three returned to the United States but faced no charges — one of the three eventually returned to Syria and conducted a suicide bombing.
More than 70 percent of the American jihadists in the study were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Nearly 83 percent joined ISIS once abroad, while the remainder picked other terror groups.
The study divides the jihadists into pioneers, who made the journey early in the caliphate and attained leadership positions while acquiring critical terrorism skills; networked travelers, who go through connections with family or acquaintances and comprise the majority of the U.S. jihadists studied; and loners, who make the journey without any connections and may network on the internet. Only four American jihadists in the group studied were deemed pioneers.
“Most of the 250 to 300 American jihadist recruits mentioned by authorities have not been publicly identified, suggesting on-going investigations, sealed indictments, and some uncertainty,” the report foreword notes, adding “there is no single profile of the American travelers and their motives vary greatly.”
Of the seven travelers who have been convicted in U.S. courts since 2011, the average prison sentence is 10 years behind bars. “In some cases, prosecution is infeasible. At times, it is difficult to garner evidence about a traveler’s activities in Syria and Iraq that is admissible in a court of law. As a result, prosecutors are often forced to charge returned travelers with lesser offenses.” None of the returnees in the report has been linked to a terror attack in the United States.
“Considering that many convicted American travelers will be released within the next five to ten years, prison deradicalization programs should be regarded as a priority. There are no deradicalization or rehabilitation programs for jihadist inmates in the U.S. federal prison system,” the report adds. “Without these programs, incarcerated travelers have few incentives to renege on their beliefs, and may attempt to build networks in prison or radicalize other prisoners.”
One of the first Americans to travel to Syria, an East Coaster referred to as Mo, went to join ISIS in June 2014 and turned himself in at a U.S. consulate in Turkey five months later. Mo told the authors of the report that he decided to go “live in a sharia environment” after one of his professors screened the Theo van Gogh movie Submission. He then began consuming the online lectures of American al-Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki; he claimed he chose ISIS because he determined they were less violent than al-Qaeda and hoped he could start a business in the sharia caliphate.
Mo said that he was disappointed in the other foreign fighters he first met at a safehouse, noting “they had a bad attitude towards sharing food” and “the bathrooms were kept terribly.” Mo told researchers that “most of the Americans I met during my time in Syria were very ideological and ready for fighting.” During training, he said, Mo encountered “this one guy from Harlem [who] saw what I did and criticized me in front of everyone.”
At each ISIS training, Mo said he had to fill out a Microsoft Access form with his personal details and whether he preferred to be a fighter, suicide bomber, or fighter clad in a suicide vest. Mo said he tried to “buy some time” by offering to research the construction of an electromagnetic pulse device for ISIS, though he “didn’t know [expletive] about making an EMP.”
He told the researchers that ISIS “was using Palestinians who had become experts in tunnel building for Hamas to dig routes for IS between Syria and Turkey.”
Mohamad Jamal Khweis, a former Metro Access driver from Northern Virginia, wasn’t exactly a pious Muslim when he decided to join ISIS — the report notes he was even drinking booze on the journey and stayed a couple nights in Amsterdam’s red light district. He joined a month after the November 2015 coordinated Paris attacks.
Khweis said he met “an unusually high number of Russian speakers” among his fellow recruits in Syria and Iraq.
“In a number of cases, when inexperienced recruits such as Khweis first arrive, they act as apprentices to IS fighters who pass through the safe houses, cleaning up after them, arranging their meals, and organizing their weapons. For many, this inauspicious and unglamorous experience goes against the expectations they had developed before joining,” the report states. “In Tal Afar, Khweis grew tired of running errands and became frustrated that he was not receiving any military training. He expressed his concerns to a senior IS member in the area and, while he was promised things would change, they did not. This may have influenced his eventual decision to leave the group.”
“…Living conditions were much harsher than they saw in the online magazines and videos, and the promises of companionship and camaraderie were rarely fulfilled. Instead, cultural clashes, bitter in-fighting and suspicion among recruits and leadership abounded. Many of the Americans had little to no combat experience and were assigned duties such as cleaning safehouses, cooking, and caring for the sick and injured.”
One of the highest-ranking American jihadists in ISIS, Ramo Pazara, was an ethnic Bosnian who left his experience with the Bosnian Serb Army (which could have gotten him tried for war crimes or deported) off his immigration forms when he came to the U.S. in the 1990s. He co-founded a commercial trucking company in Warren, Mich. After a divorce, Pazara moved to St. Louis in 2011 and embraced conservative Islam; shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen in May 2013, he left to fight in Syria. He was killed in the Kobane battle in 2014.
British jihadist Omar Hussain underscored the culture clash in a 2015 Tumblr post, complaining that Arabs would walk off with other guys’ shoes and that the Syrians in his midst kept the kitchen “appalling.”
“The Arabs are very scared of our brothers from Chechnya as they always raise their voices when speaking to Arabs in administration,” Hussain noted. “If you need something from an Arab in administration, it seems that the only way your request will be heard is if you raise your voice and show signs of slight irritation at their laziness to do simple tasks.”