Today, Deputy Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University Seamus Hughes joined McCain Institute Senior Director of the Preventing Targeted Violence Program Brette Steele for a conversation about his book “Homegrown: ISIS in America.” This was a unique discussion between two experts in violent extremism and targeted violence. The talk hit many topics including the overall problem of homegrown violent extremism, the problems facing prosecutors and law enforcement officials in going after all types of support of terrorist organizations, the differences between levels of support for terrorist organizations, the state and future of deradicalization programs, and the similarities between recruiting tactics of foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS and of hate groups based here in the United States.
“The vast majority of ISIS in America folks fall in that second category of travelers. I say travelers instead of foreign fighters because some of them do go over there and join up and shoot guns and build bombs but others become kind of Joe-citizen in the Islamic State. I interviewed a guy who changed oil for the Islamic State, he was working for the Emir of Logistics. Most of our folks fall into travelers, they heard the message from Baghdadi, they wanted to get on a plane they get to Turkey and they cross the border.”
“Finally I think the most important of all of it is we’ve got this thing called the material support to terrorism clause in our statute. And its kind of unique for most western countries. Material support can be ‘I’m sending somebody a bunch of guns and money’ ok that’s material support to ISIS, that’s an arrest. Material can also be yourself as personnel. If I drive to O’Hare Airport I can be arrested as material support to terrorism and it’s a relatively easier case to build than our European counterparts would have to build a case.”
“Now the question of recidivism has been something that’s talked about in government and also in academia like we should worry about these guys. In fact we’ve arrested something north of 800-900 people for terrorism charges in the last 20 years, we’re coming up on the anniversary of 9/11, the average prison sentence is 11.2 years, you do the math a lot of these guys are getting out. But, here’s the asterisk, in many ways it’s been the dog that hasn’t bit. If you look at crime statistics and terrorism is a form of crime, there’s a higher level of recidivism for other forms of crime than there is terrorism. What usually happens is someone stays in their belief system when they go to jail, they’re all hanging out in supermax, in Terre Haute with all guys who like ISIS, but a lot of these folks I interview, when they get out they’re kind of done. With some notable exceptions. John Georgelas gets arrested for defacing AIPAC’s website on behalf of Hamas and then joins ISIS and becomes a pretty high level guy but for the most part he’s an outlier.
“We can’t discount what is old may become new again, which is al-Qaeda. In fact, just yesterday they put out another video called America burns where they basically just mocked us for January 6th. But those guys have kind of kept their head down for a while and ISIS was a flash and they had the coalition against them and everyone focused on ISIS and al-Qaeda is kind of the old school guys. They’re gonna plan for two years they’re gonna have the 40 page treatus about why they’re right, they’re not doing the tweets so those are the folks you should be more concerned about with sophisticated type of attacks. The other thing to look at is not the threat from outward in but from inward out. So if you’re still an ISIS supporter now you missed your window to travel. So sometimes we see folks going to Mali or Somalia or like Pakistan en route to Afghanistan it’s just kind of a mess there’s not that one bug light like Syria and Iraq was. So a lot of these folks are turning their focus inward on domestic plotting. And they have a sense of ‘well I missed my window and I have to avenge what happened to ISIS or bring it back and the only way I can do it is through violence.”
“I think they have responsibility to police their site, I think you saw Facebook and particularly Twitter at the height of ISIS was the platform of choice. Everyone who was ISIS was on Twitter. Once Twitter realized that there was a bunch of bad stories in the Washington Post and New York Times, once Congress started throwing letters at them they started hiring up. They got analysts and intelligence folks and they started policing their site at a higher clip. And that is true of most of the big four. Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Twitter have more agents than the FBI does full stop. Not only content moderation but strategic looking and things like that. The bureau would be very jealous to have that crew of folks looking at their content at a regular basis. I think the social media companies got very good at doing content moderation for ISIS, I think the big ones have not gotten particularly good at domestic extremism. To be fair it’s a harder data set to look at. It’s easy to look at an ISIS video with the ISIS flag in the corner and say ‘that’s ISIS that’s terrorism take it down.’ And you can build up algorithms to do so. It is harder when you look at something like Qanon which has hashtag save our children and from all outward appearances it looks like its perfectly normal lets stop the human trafficking of children. When in actuality they’re talking about elites drinking the blood of children.”