Americans Not Immune to the Siren Song of ISIS, Other Extremist Groups


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At what point did Jaylyn Young, the daughter of a police officer, transition from being  a high achieving, practical chemistry major at Mississippi State University to a meticulous planner of a one way trip to join ISIS in Syria with her boyfriend Muhammad Dakhlalla? In online conversations with FBI agents posing as ISIS recruiters, Young allegedly said that she could not “wait to get to Dawlah [ISIS-controlled territory],” so she could be “amongst brothers and sisters under the protection of Allah and to raise little Dawlah cubs in sha Allah.”

When and how did Ali Shukri Amin become so viciously radicalized? Amin, 17, will be spending the next 11 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. The youth, from Manassas, Virginia, recruited and propagandized for ISIS on online platforms like Twitter and Ask.fm. In his blog, he glorified ISIS atrocities, defended beheading Western journalists and urged his followers to donate to ISIS anonymously using Bitcoin. At least one person, Reza Niknejad, was radicalized directly and went to Syria in January 2015. No one knows how many others were similarly affected.

In middle school and high school, Ohio resident Christopher Lee Cornell had been a wrestler. After graduation, he lived at home and was unemployed. His father said converting to Islam brought his son inner peace. Maybe not. Cornell was arrested in January 2015 in Cincinnati after he purchased two rifles and rounds of ammunition and stands accused of planning to attack the U.S. Capitol with pipe bombs and firearms to kill employees and officials. “… I would have unleashed more bullets on the Senate and the House of Representatives members, and I would have attacked the Israeli embassy and various other buildings full of Kafir [nonbelievers] who want to wage war against us Muslims.”

And what transformed Asia Siddiqui and her accomplice Noelle Velentzas, of Queens, New York, into alleged self-taught bomb-makers? They were arrested in April and were charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction. Objects found in their apartments allegedly included propane gas tanks, soldering tools, pipes, a pressure cooker, fertilizer, flux, machetes, daggers, and bomb recipes.

It is estimated that more than 20,000 people from around the world have traveled to join ISIS and other terror groups. America has not been immune to this troubling modern phenomenon.  In addition to joining or attempting to join ISIS, the Nusra Front and other groups, Americans stand accused of planning attacks on U.S. soil, providing financial assistance, or propaganda support to extremist groups.  Sixty-six of these homegrown extremists are profiled on CEP’s Global Extremist Registry, a unique searchable database and interactive map that details the world’s most notorious extremist leaders, propagandists, financiers, and their organizations.  

What can be done to prevent more Americans from becoming converts to a violent interpretation of Islam that condones rape and murder and has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of peace loving and tolerant Muslims around the world?

First, the evidence is clear that many people become exposed to violent hate-filled rhetoric through social media platforms. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have been a colossal force for good in empowering individuals and shining a bright light on abuses of power.  Yet these same platforms have now also become powerful tools exploited by extremists to radicalize and encourage violent behavior.

To counter this growing problem, CEP launched #CEPDigitalDisruption in late 2014 – an effort to find and expose ISIS fighters on Twitter. Through deep manual research into jihadi Twitter networks, CEP uncovered, exposed and reported hundreds of extremists inciting violence online. And under pressure from CEP and other like-minded organisations, Twitter broadened its rules of user conduct to include violence promoted by terrorist groups. Progress has been made but significant work remains to be done.

CEP is also working to promote promising youth-led local efforts at the local level to combat violent extremism that can be adapted and scaled up to meet specific community needs. In June, Missouri State University bested eentries from 23 universities from around the world in the first State Department sponsored “P2P (Peer to Peer): Challenging Extremism” initiative competition.

Called “One95,” the Missouri State program targets middle school-aged children, teaches collaboration and learning across cultures to help people unite and rise above violent extremism. In a very short period of time, the Missouri State team made contact with people in more than 90 countries and spread the hashtag #EndViolentExtremism across social media.

CEP is working with Missouri State to make the One95 platform a virtual permanent gathering place where youth from around the world interested in CVE can meet and share ideas and experiences; highlight positive success stories in building resilience against violent extremism; and link local, regional, and national youth-based and CVE-relevant programs around the world.

Clearly, combatting violent extremism continues to be a complex challenge. However, given the, dedication and persistence of non-profit groups, government and youth, many fewer people around the world will fall victim to radicalization in the future.