The House Homeland Security Committee released a report on domestic terrorist recruitment on Tuesday that found the largest number of American ISIS recruits came from Minnesota, with California and New York vying for second place.
Fifteen of the 58 American recruits who have attempted to join ISIS in Syria since 2011 were Minnesotans, according to KMSP News in Minneapolis. All but one of them were between the ages of 18 and 21.
The report found social media to be an indispensable tool for terrorist recruitment. “In almost 80 percent of cases, we found examples of U.S. foreign fighter aspirants downloading extremist propaganda, promoting it online, or engaging with other extremists on social media,” said the report. One example cited by KMSP spotlighted the danger of ISIS recruits reaching into their home countries through social media networks after arriving in Syria, and persuading other impressionable youngsters to follow in their footsteps.
The Homeland Security Committee report, which can be read in full here, states that “we are witnessing the largest global convergence of jihadists in history in Syria, and foreign fighters have taken the lead in recruiting a new generation of terrorists to spread terror back home.”
Among the report’s key findings are that the U.S. government has “largely failed to stop Americans from traveling overseas to join jihadists,” thwarting only a fraction of the efforts by recruits to travel to various conflict zones.
The committee worries that terrorists have mastered the art of using secure Internet websites and apps to communicate with Americans, while also developing “broken travel” techniques that make tracking foreign fighters more difficult.
“The U.S. government lacks a national strategy for combating terrorist travel and has not produced one in nearly a decade,” asserts the report.
The rest of the Western world is not doing much better, as the report warns “gaping security weaknesses overseas” are endangering U.S. homeland security by “making it easier for aspiring foreign fighters to migrate to terrorist hotspots and for jihadists to return to the West.”
The bipartisan report, billed as “one of the most extensive public examinations of U.S. government efforts to counter terrorist travel since the 9/11 Commission’s final report in 2004,” describes jihadi recruits from Western nations as a “triple threat,” because they provide manpower for terrorist groups, incite associates back home to carry out violent attacks, and can return home with combat experience and extremist connections to launch acts of terror.
The committee’s recommendations include creating a comprehensive global database of foreign fighters, which all partner nations can access to quickly and reliably identify extremists. The current state of information sharing between the U.S. and other governments is described as “ad hoc, intermittent, and often incomplete.”
The committee also recommends better coordination between the federal government and state and local law enforcement agencies, making certain the latter have the information they need to assist counter-terrorism investigations. Better coordination with local communities to help them identify potential recruits is also advised.
The most difficult challenge offered by the report is developing reliable “off-ramps to radicalization” – in other words, effective early intervention strategies that can help young recruits evade the clutches of ISIS and other terrorist organizations. This idea is often discussed – most recently in a meeting between the State Department and some players in the entertainment industry, including Mark Boal, screenwriter of the film about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty.
The problem is that efforts to design a media strategy that will counter ISIS recruiting efforts tend to focus on form rather than substance, too easily degenerating into absurd nonsense like responding to Boko Haram’s mass kidnappings with Twitter hashtags. ISIS might be using some slick production techniques in its recruitment videos, but the very real beheadings, immolations, and other grisly executions are the big draw. It is the supreme, bloody-minded confidence projected by terrorist recruiters that appeals to disaffected young men and women. Only an equally confident “off-ramp” appeal has much hope of reaching them.