Is­lamic State ter­ror re­cruits dry up in U.S.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tions wane after routs on Syria, Iraq bat­tle­fields

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY JEFF MORDOCK

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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

LAST CATCH: Fish­er­man’s Wharf in San Fran­cisco was the tar­get of an Is­lamic State-re­lated crime in De­cem­ber, the FBI said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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,

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