Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Monday, July 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Experts Count Missteps in Fighting Islamic Radicalism

WASHINGTON (CN) - With the self-proclaimed Islamic State promising more carnage abroad as the Syrian conflict rages into its fifth year, the United States is grappling to understand the extent of homegrown radicalism here and how to address it.

Seamus Hughes, the director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism, says the most important thing for Americans to understand is that there is no typical ISIL recruit.

"They can be old, young, rich, poor, black or white," said Hughes, who co-authored a new report that studies the motivations of 80 suspected Islamic State sympathizers arrested in the United States since March 2014.

The December 2015 report finds that only a handful of these individuals reached midlevel leadership positions within the terror group commonly abbreviated as ISIL or ISIS.

Level of support for the group also varies widely among arrestees, Hughes said, noting that suspects range "from a 17-year-old tweeting in his parents' basement, to hardened terrorists."

Profiling someone who might become radicalized is a "highly individualized" process, where ideological and personal motivations are deeply intertwined, Hughes added.

Some commonalities do appear in the study, however, which found that 88 percent of suspects are male and that their average age is 26.

Most were arrested for "intent to do harm overseas or for providing material support - namely personnel and funds - to fighters in Syria and Iraq," the report says. About 30 percent were involved in plans for domestic attacks, and 40 percent were converts to Islam.

The FBI counts more than 900 active investigations of alleged ISIL sympathizers in all 50 states, and says 250 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the group.

That's more than in any single year since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Factors that had a magnetic draw for these American Muslims included feelings of disenfranchisement, a search for personal fulfillment and belonging, and a quest for a sense of identity, community, love, and counterculture, according to the report.

Some were also outraged by the horrific violence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and the perceived indifference and inaction of the international community while the regime slaughtered civilians.

"Pictures and videos capturing the aftermath of civilian massacres perpetrated by the regime, displayed widely in both social and mainstream media, rocked the consciences of many - from those with an existing strong Sunni identity to those who were not Muslim - and led some to take the first steps to militancy," the report says.

The report found many cases where an individual's link to the group was limited to online declarations of support. More than half of the arrests involved a sting operation or an informant - a controversial phenomenon that many have condemned as entrapment of individuals who would not have acted on their own.

Hughes distinguished the United States from other countries by its lack of outreach to help radicalized individuals before they end up in the criminal-justice system.

"If you have a 16-year-old and he's watching ISIS videos or talking about traveling abroad, who do you call?" Hughes asked. "You don't want to risk him being arrested. So you're stuck in an untenable position."


"In the vast majority of cases, loved ones - whether family members of friends - saw something that was concerning," Hughes added. "They knew something was off but they didn't know what to do."

Radicalization: Not Just a Muslim Thing

Leila Hudson, an associate professor of Middle East studies at the University of Arizona, warned against limiting a study of radicalization to Islamic extremists.

"You actually have to create a framework that looks at American gun violence in a single category," Hudson said. "We need to talk about violence in America, period."

Rather than focusing so much "on the axis of ethnicity, culture and religion," Hudson called it useful to look at gender and the "unstable combination of frustration, aspiration and imagination."

"Let's also look at rise of extremism, not just among these psychopaths who commit acts of violence, but also among extremists who engage in violent rhetoric, like Trump," she said of the real estate mogul making waves in his bid for the Republican presidential ticket.

The 14 people killed in the San Bernardino shooting last month are among 45 Americans killed in al-Qaida or ISIS-inspired attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, according to data compiled by Washington-based think tank New America.

Data from the Pew Research Center meanwhile shows that non-Muslim, right-wing extremists killed 48 Americans in the same timeframe, while gun homicides account for about 12,000 deaths per year.

Likewise 74 percent of the nearly 400 law-enforcement agencies surveyed by Duke University in 2014 reported anti-government extremism among the top three terrorist threats. Only 39 percent said Muslim extremists were a top threat.

Though ISIL's emergence has grown since then, one of the study's authors, Charles Kurzman, noted in a June editorial for The New York Times that follow-up interviews with counterterrorism specialists at law-enforcement agencies indicated that they still perceive right-wing extremists as a more dangerous threat.

The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 784 active hate groups in the United States as of 2014, including active chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi groups and white-nationalist groups.

That aside, Hudson says the problem of radicalism among Muslims more generally cannot be untangled from the political processes playing out on the ground in the Middle East, and the Obama administration's strategy against the Islamic State.

"ISIS is the symptom of a problem that we choose not to acknowledge," Hudson said, seeing the current strategy as only inflaming the symptom.

"What we're doing is a constant sort of provocation and stimulation," Hudson said of the air-strike campaign that gives the Islamic State its "biggest victories" by fanning the flames of war.

Calling the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq "the mother of all wrong turns historically," Hudson said it will take too long and will be too complicated "to really figure out what the root of this malignancy is, especially if we have to look back at ourselves and our own responsibility and our own culpability."

Meanwhile, other factors can up the ante, and feed radicalization.

"Our refugee policy is providing ISIS with a recruiting tool," Hudson said. "Every bomb dropped, every Trump utterance, every act of persecution against American-Muslims - these are real ISIS victories."

"Domestic radicalization is a phenomenon of mostly young men - and a few women - with enough resources - who are intelligent enough to understand gross injustices and hypocrisies that no one is addressing," she added.

Muslims in the Line of Fire, Too

In 2014, more than 120 top Islamic scholars around the world wrote on open letter to the leader, fighters and followers of ISIL, condemning and refuting point by point the group's philosophy and ideology.

Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, said this position is often overlooked when people define Muslims by extremism.

After the church shooting in Charleston, S.C., last June, the media narrative on the suspect, Dylan Roof, portrayed him as a lone wolf, mentally ill, Safi noted.

To discuss these other acts of terror, analysts rarely talk about white privilege or racism that has escalated to the level of violence, Safi added.

"Combine the horrific prevalence of gun culture with Islamaphobia and it's a recipe for disaster," he said.

Contradicting the image of Muslim extremists, Scott Lucas, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Arizona, highlighted research showing that a strong religious identity actually prevents radicalization.

"These people are joining militant groups because they're looking for something," Lucas said, adding that the "flashy radical groups do promise change."

For Lucas, the larger issue here is the failure by liberal reformists to capture "the hearts or imaginations of young people."

The issue is compounded by the "shortage of imams and spiritual leaders who can speak to the youth in a way that's engaging and that deals with a lot of the deeper spiritual and psychological issues Muslims are having," he added.

The Islamic Supreme Council of America has tied the phenomenon of radicalism to Wahabi Islam, an ideology that rejected traditional Islamic scholarship and thinking when it emerged in Saudi Arabia during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Safi said Wahibism is partly to blame for "the general impoverishment of Muslim thought."

"Even more dangerous in terms of radical recruitment is that the Internet serves as a superficial equalizer, and amplifier of more radical voices," Safi said.

For Safi, the skewed message harms Muslims and non-Muslims alike. "I actually think many of our own community members need to be educated about Islam," he said.

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.