Islamic State terror recruits dry up in U.S.
Federal prosecutions wane after routs on Syria, Iraq battlefields
The Justice Department has not publicly lodged charges against anyone associated with the Islamic State since February in what analysts said suggests the terrorist organization’s reach is waning in the U.S.
As the number of cases slims, the ages of those charged has been climbing, indicating that the Islamic State’s attraction to younger people in the U.S. is cratering and leaving the movement with fewer recruits for terrorist attacks, an analysis by The Washington Times has found.
The Times analyzed 128 publicly announced prosecutions involving Islamic State from 2014 through 2018 and found that the number of cases against the terrorist organization’s supporters has dropped dramatically from a peak of 62 in 2015 — including 15 in April of that year alone.
So far this year, two indictments were unsealed in January, though both were charged in 2017. A third indictment unsealed in February involved charges lodged in 2016.
In fact, the last person charged at the federal level for an Islamic State-related crime is 26-year-old Everitt Aaron Jameson. He was arrested on Dec. 22 and accused of plotting a Christmas Day terrorist attack at a San Francisco tourist attraction.
“Compared to all the years in the past, we’ve never gone through 4½ months like this,” said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at the Fordham University School of Law.
The U.S. government charged its first Islamic State sympathizer in March 2014. Nicholas Teausant was accused of plotting to travel to Syria to join the fight.
Thirteen others were charged that year. Accusations included
plotting a domestic attack, committing a domestic terrorist attack, traveling overseas to fight for the movement, and offering financial or material support to the Islamic State, which is also known by the acronym ISIS.
The number of prosecutions exploded to more than five dozen in 2015 before dropping to 35 in 2016 and 17 last year. Those numbers are based on The Times’ review of Justice Department announcements, federal court records and a Fordham Law study. It is not a complete accounting of every case against Islamic State sympathizers because some cases are sealed.
Terrorism analysts said the decline tracks the rise and fall of the Islamic State caliphate, which the group declared over the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria in 2014.
“There is a direct correlation between the intensifying of military efforts against ISIS and decline in prosecutions because there are fewer and fewer Americans seeking to join ISIS,” said Jimmy Gurule, a Notre Dame law professor who helped implement the Treasury Department’s global strategy to fight terrorist financing.
After years of pitched fighting, the caliphate collapsed late last year when Iraqi security forces routed Islamic State fighters in cities along the Iraq-Syria border. After thousands of Islamic State fighters surrendered, one State Department official remarked on Twitter that the group was “now pathetic and a lost cause.”
With the organization’s fortunes dramatically reversed, those living in America who dreamed of traveling to Syria and Iraq to join the fight suddenly had no place to go. Those travelers — dubbed “foreign fighter cases” — accounted for more than half of all the Islamic State prosecutions over the past four years, according to The Times’ analysis.
Mr. Gurule said the Justice Department targets foreign fighter cases because they require fewer resources and are fairly easy to prosecute. Most of the suspects are arrested at the airport before they even board a plane.
The Justice Department does not appear to have the same fervor for prosecuting people who have spread Islamic State propaganda on social media, Mr. Gurule said. Those cases require a more sophisticated skill set and use of technology.
“The Justice Department wasn’t focused on the masterminds, but rather the disaffected and disillusioned individuals who thought they were going to join ISIS,” Mr. Gurule said. “These ISIS wannabes were basically the lowhanging fruit of prosecutions.”
While the number of foreign fighter cases declined, the average age of Islamic State defendants increased as the government focused more on those providing support for the organization.
In 2014, the average age of an Islamic State defendant was 23.5, according to The Times’ analysis. Only one was older than 30, and 11 out of the 14 people charged with crimes were 25 or younger.
Just three years later, the number of people younger than 25 charged with Islamic State-related crimes was about the same as those older than 30. Of the 17 charged last year, six were younger than 25, seven were older than 30 and four were older than 35.
“People who wanted to go and fight overseas tend to be younger, and people who provide resources tend to be older,” said Alejandro Albanez, data manager for the University of Chicago’s Project on Security & Threats. “It makes sense because if you have the resources you might be a little more stable in life.”
One of those arrested in 2016 was a 55-year-old Kentucky woman, Marie Antoinette Castelli. She had posted the full names, dates of births and addresses of certain members of the U.S. military on Facebook and called for their executions on behalf of Islamic State.
Castelli referred to service members and their families as “targets” and listed a series of “atrocities” they had committed against Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, an al Qaeda recruiter killed in a 2011 drone strike, according to court documents.
She is believed to be the oldest U.S. defendant charged with an Islamic State-related crime and is one of three older than 50. Castelli was sentenced this year to 90 months in prison for the threats.
Terrorism analysts differ on whether Islamic State prosecutions will surge. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray told Congress in December that the bureau is investigating 1,000 Islamic State-related threats across the country.
William Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, predicts that arrests will continue to abate with the caliphate gone and Islamic State support dwindling even among Muslims.
“There would have to be a pretty significant event for the number of prosecutions to increase dramatically,” he said. “Something like another conflict zone opening up or a conflict between Israel and Muslim country that would get people animated or excited.”
But Mr. Gurule said Islamic State views its recent defeats as temporary setbacks and is seeking to reinvent itself, likely leading to more recruits and an increase in arrests.
“Groups like ISIS are in this for the long term,” he said. “They will retreat, go underground and look for an opportunity to regroup and mount another effort.”
LAST CATCH: Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco was the target of an Islamic State-related crime in December, the FBI said.
Dozens of people were killed in December when an Islamic State suicide bomber struck a Shiite cultural center in Kabul, Afghanistan. Although Americans’ interest in joining the terrorist group has dwindled since its self-styled caliphate was dismantled,