WASHINGTON (CN) – With the number of Islamic State group-inspired and directed terror attacks in the West on the rise since 2014, members of the House Foreign Affairs committee heard from experts Tuesday about the growing threat of extremism with recommendations about how to focus counterterrorism efforts.
During a hearing on the terrorist threat in Europe, experts explained to joint subcommittees how the threat differs in the U.S. and across the Atlantic.
More than 5,000 European citizens have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight with Islamic State group, and up to 30 percent of them have now returned to their home countries, according to Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
In contrast, only 250 Americans have gone or attempted to go to Islamic State-held territory to join the fight.
According to Hughes, IS supporters are not radicalizing in large clusters in the U.S. like they are in Europe.
“Unlike Europe, the United States does not seem to possess extensive homegrown militant organizations that can provide in-person ideological and logistical support to individuals attracted to IS,” Hughes said during testimony, using an alternative abbreviation for the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
That said, the Islamic State group uses what Hughes calls “virtual entrepreneurs” to reach local recruits online and provide instruction on how to carry out attacks.
These virtual entrepreneurs have played a role in 21 percent of IS-inspired attacks in the U.S. and 50 percent of ISIS-linked plots in Europe.
Through interviews with several returnees, Hughes has been able to glean details about the Islamic State’s recruitment process.
According to Hughes, one returned fighter explained that an IS wing focused on external plots had encouraged enrollment with presentations to Westerners that encouraged them to redirect efforts to build a caliphate to their home countries.
“The external plotting wing reportedly told foreign fighters from Western countries that they could better serve the caliphate by carrying out attacks in their respective countries,” he said.
Despite its loss of territory, Hughes says some IS sympathizers still feel obligated to support the “beleaguered caliphate.”
“This is one of the main factors that explain the wave of attacks, both thwarted and successful, that have hit Europe and the United States in recent months,” he said.
While earlier American IS recruits were more commonly drawn to the fight because of atrocities carried out by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hughes said in an interview after the hearing that more recent recruits are motivated by perceived religious obligations.
“This idea of a so-called caliphate was a driver for these folks,” he said.
However, with the continued loss of its territory, the veneer of IS building a utopian society has been diminished.
“They’re no longer talking about giving candy out to kids in Raqqa or electricity in Mosul,” Hughes said. “They’re more talking about military victories, and so you’re less likely to get the random kid in Indiana interested anymore.”
Global Islamic leaders have condemned and deconstructed the ideology of IS in no uncertain terms in an open letter to IS leader ‘Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but the group has been able to exploit Muslims who lack a strong understanding of their faith.
“It’s such small numbers of individuals drawn to this,” Hughes said, describing it a counter culture of sorts. “But IS did package it in such a way in order to get those kids who don’t have a full understanding of their faith – or have questions about their faith – and kind of use that as the hook.”
A climate increasingly hostile to Islam and Muslims has made reaching and interacting with communities in the U.S. in order to counter the threat of radicalization more difficult, according to Hughes.
It used to be easier to get an invitation to speak at a mosque or a community center, but now Hughes says more relationship building is required to gain trust.
Providing context and not singling Muslims out is key to building that trust, Hughes said.
“If you’re going to talk about IS’ use of the internet, you’ve got to talk about sexting and cyber bullying and other threats online,” he said.
Hughes also spoke about a “reciprocal radicalization” among far right groups, which he said have been mobilized by IS-led and inspired terror attacks.
“These groups tend to ignore any distinction between Islam, Islamism, and jihadism, seeing all Muslims as a threat,” he told the joint subcommittees.
That narrative, Hughes said, has taken root in both the U.S. and Europe, and has led to attacks against innocent Muslims. It also feeds into IS’ narrative that the West is engaged in a war against Islam.
“This perverse dynamic of ‘reciprocal radicalization’ between jihadist and far right extremism is a troubling trend that needs to be monitored,” Hughes said. “Any prevention program developed both in the United States and Europe should seek to address all forms of extremism, lest we get caught up in a never-ending cycle of polarization and violence.”
Domestically, those efforts could be hampered. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced the organizations that will receive $10 million in grants as part of the Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE program.
The Trump administration excluded several organizations focused on fighting far right extremism even though the Obama administration had already approved them for CVE grants.
According to Hughes, the DHS said the groups did not have sufficient ties to law enforcement.
In the European context, IS-inspired attacks have risen annually since 2014.
Terror attacks across the Atlantic – utilizing suicide bombs, cars, knives and guns – have killed roughly 300 people and injured more than 1,400 since 2014.
Robin Simcox with conservative think tank Heritage Foundation warned that the danger this kind of terrorism poses to Europe will likely increase in the near future.
“To give an idea of the scale of this threat, the U.K. has approximately 23,000 terror suspects on the radar,” Simcox said as he addressed the joint subcommittees on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, and Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats.
Authorities believe that as many as 3,000 of them pose an imminent threat, he added.
According to his research, one of the challenges in addressing the threat is that no catch-all profile exists to help identify those vulnerable to radicalization; they range in age, gender and background.
“My research has even shown an uptick in plotting by teenagers and girls,” Simcox said.
Attacks have been carried out by “converts and those raised as Muslims; those who have a criminal record and those who do not; those who trained with terrorist groups and those who have not; those who are well educated or affluent, as well as those who are poorly educated or from a lower socioeconomic background,” he added.
Many IS-directed or inspired terror attacks in Europe have been carried out by foreign fighters returning home from the battlefield.
According to Simcox, at least 1,000 foreign fighters have returned to the UK, France and Germany alone.
“Past attacks in Europe have demonstrated that there is good reason to be wary of the dangers posed by these returning fighters,” he said. “Members of the cell that committed IS’ attacks in Paris in November 2015—killing 130 and wounding 368—had traveled to Syria from Europe, fought and trained with IS, and then returned to Europe to carry out an attack,” he added.
According to counterterrorism senior research fellow Kim Cragin with National Defense University, the Islamic State has exploited foreign fighters to pursue attacks outside the territory it controls, and does so more aggressively than al-Qaida.
While al-Qaida carried out only 10 percent of its attacks in Western countries between 2008 and 2010, 42 percent of ISIS attacks between June, 2014 and last month were conducted in Western countries.
“Over half – or 52 percent – of the Islamic State’s successful [emphasis original] external operations have been in the West,” Cragin’s written testimony states.
Although the Islamic State group continues to lose territory and governments have stymied the flow of foreign fighters, some 40,000 of them went to fight in Syria and Iraq, which Cragin says is higher than in any previous conflict.
The bad news, she said, is that fighters who return to their home countries have historically had a high recidivism rate. But the good news is that Western security services have taken definitive action to address the threat, she said.
“In fact, based on my research, the combined efforts by law enforcement, intelligence, and military forces led to a plummet in the number of successful external operations by foreign fighters in late summer 2016,” her written testimony states.
That threat, however, has not been sufficiently addressed yet. Cragin said police, judiciary, and prison systems need to be augmented to handle the return of foreign fighters through more training for police and prosecutors, social media exploitation and additional resources for rehabilitation programs.
Any diplomatic resolution to the Syrian conflict must also contain a provision requiring foreign fighters to leave Syria, she said.
And to deal with external operations, Cragin suggested that the U.S. put together a strategy that can counter the threats posed by foreign fighters and virtual entrepreneurs.