Academic experts fear that American support for radical Islamism has reached “unprecedented” levels, even while it stays well below the support for the extremists seen in other countries.
Academics at George Washington University’s program on extremism found that the types of Americans drawn to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) vary widely in terms of race, age, education and family background. Yet they are largely all united by their use of social media, which ISIS has been able to master as its reach has grown.
“It is not as big as some of the European countries that have been affected by the phenomenon,” he added. “But it is, in a historical sense, unprecedented.”
The findings are likely to add new urgency to officials’ concerns about ISIS, which have peaked in the weeks following attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. The Paris violence came on the heels of bombings in Beirut and the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, a troubling sign of ISIS’s expansion beyond its self-proclaimed caliphate.
Intelligence and law enforcement officials have repeatedly warned that ISIS’s fluency on the Internet has made it attractive to disaffected Americans who grow radicalized online.
Critics of the Obama administration’s increasing focus on extremists online say that federal officials arrest people who would be unable to carry out plots on their own.
FBI Director James Comey has previously said that federal officials have launched ISIS-related investigations in all 50 states.
According to the GWU data, 71 Americans have been arrested for crimes linked to the extremist group since March 2014. Of those, 86 percent were male, 27 percent were involved in plots to launch attacks on U.S. soil and the average age was 26. Roughly half attempted to travel abroad or succeeded in doing so, and the vast majority were U.S. citizens or permanent residents. More than half were arrested in a sting operation involving an undercover agent or an informant.
“The spectrum of U.S.-based sympathizers’ actual involvement with ISIS varies significantly, ranging from those who are merely inspired by its message to those few who reached mid-level leadership positions within the group," the report claimed.
Analysts reviewed more than 7,000 pages of legal documents related to the 71 people charged with a crime, as well as nearly 300 Twitter accounts of Americans who support ISIS.