Abstract: While details are still emerging, evidence appears to indicate that the perpetrators of the December 2 San Bernardino shooting had radicalized, supported the Islamic State, and had long been planning an attack. While still at a significantly lower level than seen in most Western European countries, the degree of recent Islamic State-related mobilization in the United States is unprecedented in this country, with more than 70 individuals arrested and 900 open investigations throughout the country. 

On December 2, 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, attacked a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. After the attack, which killed 14 and injured 21, the duo fled the scene before engaging in a firefight with police that ended in their death.[1] Information about the Farooks’ lives and motives has been slow to emerge, but the FBI labeled it an act of terrorism after combing through the couple’s belongings and their digital footprint.

Farook was born in Illinois and raised in California, while his wife, Malik, was born in Pakistan and reportedly had lived in Saudi Arabia for some time.[2] The couple lived in a modest Redwoods home and pursued a seemingly unremarkable life, Farook working as a health inspector and Malik as a stay-at-home mother.

Initial reports do not seem to point to any direct link between the couple and any jihadist group or network. Yet there are clear indications, as the FBI stated, that “both subjects were radicalized and [had] been for quite some time.”[3] While many reports initially claimed that Malik radicalized her husband, investigators suggest that Farook held militant views prior to meeting his wife.[4] It is very difficult to determine who influenced whom or if, as is equally likely, it was a mutual radicalization. It is clear that the couple had been preparing for some kind of operation for an extensive period of time. Investigators believe that Farook “may have discussed an attack as many as three years ago,” even before marrying Malik.[5] At the time of writing, investigators have been exploring the possibility that in 2012 Farook had discussed carrying out attacks together with his friend and neighbor Enrique Martinez. According to the Latino convert, Farook and Martinez abandoned their plans once authorities caught four local men seeking to travel to Afghanistan to kill Americans.[6] Reports suggest that Farook was “in the social circle” of the group’s ringleader.[7]

Farook’s intentions seemed to have grown stronger once he married. Leading up to the attack, he and his wife[5] both frequented local gun ranges and made financial arrangements regarding their daughter and Farook’s mother. Malik’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State on behalf of both, reportedly posted on Facebook shortly before the attack, while not necessarily indicating any kind of operational connection with the group, would be the culmination of her and her husband’s seemingly quiet and long radicalization trajectory.[8]

The Islamic State Mobilization in America
While the exact details are still emerging, the Farooks’ actions appear to follow a trend seen in the United States over the last few years. In 2010, then-Attorney General Eric Holder indicated that the terrorist threat had “changed from simply worrying about foreigners coming here, to worrying about people in the United States, American citizens—raised here, born here—and who for whatever reason, have decided that they are going to become radicalized and take up arms against the nation in which they were born.”[9] Authorities have thwarted most of these domestic plots, many of which were prodded in part by the FBI through sting operations. On other occasions, however, American militants succeeded, as in the cases of Little Rock (2009),[10] Fort Hood (2009),[11] and Boston (2013).[12] These fears have become heightened with the rise of the Islamic State, which has triggered an unprecedented mobilization among U.S.-based jihadist sympathizers. The reasons are multifaceted. As in other countries, small but not insignificant numbers of Americans have been attracted by the emotional and religious appeal of the self-proclaimed caliphate. And the Islamic State has conveyed its powerful message through a masterful social media campaign that has managed to reach countries like the United States that traditionally have not hosted a large jihadist/Salafist network.

While still significantly less dramatic than what has been seen in Western European countries, the degree of recent mobilization in the United States by Islamic State sympathizers shows the magnitude of the phenomenon. Publicly available information confirms a sharp surge in jihadist activities, especially when compared to the relative lull seen after the wave of arrests following 9/11. While U.S. authorities arrested 209 people on terrorism-related charges between 2001 and 2012,[13] 71 individuals linked to the Islamic State have been charged since March 2014. The number of arrests has spiked in recent months, with 56 arrested since January 2015. In the same period, a handful of attacks have occurred across the country, to include Garland, Texas, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In June 2015, the FBI stated that “upwards of 200 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to participate in the conflict.”[14] A few weeks later, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence estimated that more than 250 individuals from the United States had traveled or attempted to travel to the conflict area, while a few dozen had joined the Islamic State and around 20 had died.[15]

The number of American foreign fighters is small compared to those who sympathize with and embrace the Islamic State’s ideology. U.S. authorities have said consistently that the popularity of the Islamic State’s propaganda, driven largely by its savvy social media tactics, wholly overshadows that of al-Qa`ida. Tellingly, in May 2015, FBI Director James Comey spoke of “hundreds, maybe thousands” of Islamic State sympathizers and potential recruits across the country, disclosing that the Bureau had related investigations running in all 50 states.[16] A few months later, in October 2015, Comey revealed that the FBI had 900 active investigations against homegrown violent extremists.[17]

The Islamic State Community in the United States
While early reports point to a link, albeit purely inspirational and not operational, between the Farooks and the Islamic State, there has not yet been any public confirmation. While husbands and wives have been implicated before in similar attacks, there is no typical profile for an Islamic State sympathizer in the United States.[a] A report by these authors recently released by the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa, examined the cases of all 71 individuals charged in the United States in relation to Islamic State activities. The findings clearly indicate that Islamic State supporters are extremely heterogeneous, ranging from grown men who had flirted with jihadist militancy for over a decade to teenagers who have only recently converted to Islam, from the son of a Boston-area police officer to a single mother of two young children, these individuals differ widely in race, age, class, education, and background.

Equally important, Islamic State sympathizers in the United States have different patterns of radicalization and degrees of connectivity to the group. For many Americans, involvement with the Islamic State is a purely virtual experience. Shannon Conley[b] and Christopher Cornell[c] are quintessential examples of individuals whose radicalization was confined to the online space, completely devoid of contact with like-minded individuals in the physical world. The role of social media in recent developments in the jihadist scene in the United States, as elsewhere, is unquestionably central. Indeed, the Islamic State’s ability to directly and constantly reach Americans through social media has manifested itself in a number of ways, to include triggering or advancing their radicalization process, helping them leave for Syria, and inciting them to carry out attacks in United States.

It would be wrong, however, to overemphasize the impact of social media by considering it the sole medium of radicalization and mobilization for American supporters of the Islamic State. A close examination reveals a significantly more nuanced reality in the United States where social media, while almost ubiquitous, plays many different roles. In many cases, the role of the internet is not all encompassing, but rather complementary to equally, if not more, important dynamics in the physical world. In these cases, individual Islamic State sympathizers did not begin their radicalization alone in front of a computer screen, but rather via face-to-face interactions with preexisting social contacts who had already embraced jihadist ideology. Over time, these individuals tend to form a cluster, a small, informal knot of like-minded individuals whose group dynamics reinforce the beliefs of its members. Such clusters were identified, for example, in various FBI investigations in Minneapolis, St. Louis, and the greater New York area. Just as the virtual community of Islamic State supporters acts as an echo chamber, these real-life connections reinforce and strengthen individual commitment to the Islamic State.

The diversity of American Islamic State recruits also extends to the roles they take in support of the cause. At one end of the spectrum is the small, yet alarming, number of Americans who have managed to establish deep connections to the Islamic State, in some cases even occupying mid-level leadership positions.[d] On the opposite end of the mobilization spectrum, a more common typology are those whose contributions to the Islamic State fail to exceed online declarations of support and personal fantasies of joining the group.

Travel or Stay?
A little more than half (51 percent) of those indicted on Islamic State–related charges in the United States had attempted to travel abroad or successfully left the country for Syria and/or Iraq. Yet, over the last few months, authorities have noted a decline in the number of Americans seeking to travel overseas.[16] It is not clear what has caused this shift. Possible overlapping factors include an aggressive arrest campaign carried out by the FBI over the summer and increased difficulties in reaching Syrian territory. It cannot be ruled out, however, that the Islamic State’s exhortation to supporters worldwide to “rise and defend your state [Islamic State] from your place wherever you may be” might have a role in the decline, the implication being that Islamic State sympathizers like the Farooks might be more inclined to carry out domestic attacks rather than attempt the arduous journey to join the caliphate.[17]

The U.S. counterterrorism community is facing a new and unprecedented challenge. The number of U.S.-based individuals who espouse jihadist ideology, while still not comparable to central and northern European dynamics, has boomed over the last three years. Most of the participants in this counter-culture will never make the leap from talk to action, and will never move from the sterile echo chamber of keyboard jihad to actual militancy. But, like their European counterparts, U.S. authorities are struggling with the legal and manpower challenges inherent in attempting to distinguish between who is exercising free speech and who is about to commit acts of terrorism.

The potential threat environment for the United States appears to be multifaceted. Individuals and small clusters who, in one way or the other, have managed to acquire operational skills from radical Islamist groups and who could carry out attacks either independently or under direct operational control are one dimension. Another, perhaps less sophisticated, but, maybe more difficult to detect dimension are those individuals and small clusters (perhaps like the Farooks) who, without any operational links with foreign organizations, can still pose a significant threat.

Lorenzo Vidino is the director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. 

Seamus Hughes is the deputy director of the Program and you can follow them @gwupoe

Substantive Notes
[a] One notable example is Texas resident Michael Todd Wolfe, who attempted to travel to Syria with his wife and two children.

[b] Colorado native Shannon Conley is a convert who was arrested in April 2014. She had developed an obsessive infatuation with the Islamic State and had engaged Islamic State sympathizers online but never interacted with any like-minded individual in the physical space.

[c] Ohio native Christopher Cornell, a loner who lived with his parents, developed an online persona as Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah and a network of online contacts. One of them was an FBI undercover operative and Cornell was arrested in January 2015.

[d] That is the case, for example, of Bosnian native Abdullah Ramo Pazara, a naturalized U.S. citizen from St. Louis who became the emir of an Islamic State khatiba in Syria and died in Kobani in the fall of 2014.

[1] Faith Karimi, Jason Hanna, and Yousuf Basil, “San Bernardino Shooters ‘Supporters’ Of ISIS, Terror Group Says,” CNN, December 5, 2015.

[2] Adam Nagourney, Ian Lovett, Julie Turkewitz, and Benjamin Mueller, “Couple Kept Tight Lid On Plans For San Bernardino Shooting,” New York Times, December 4, 2015.

[3] Adam Nagourney, Adam, Salman Masood, and Michael Schmidt, “Killers Were Long Radicalized, F.B.I. Investigators Say,” New York Times, December 8, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Andrew Blankstein, Robert Windrem, Pete Williams, Richard Esposito, and Hannah Rappleye, “San Bernardino Shooters Practiced for Attack a Year in Advance,” NBC, December 8, 2015.

[6] Joel Achenbach, Sari Horwitz, and Adam Goldman, “Friend of San Bernardino shooter is at center of FBI investigation,” Washington Post, December 13, 2015.

[7] Evan Perez and Pamela Brown, “San Bernardino shooting: Farook tied to jihadist recruiter, officials say,” CNN, December 11, 2015.

[8] Michael S. Schmidt and Richard Perez-Peñadec, “F.B.I. Treating San Bernardino Attack as Terrorism Case,” New York Times, December 4, 2015.

[9] Jack Cloherty and Pierre Thomas, “Attorney General’s Blunt Warning on Terror Attacks,” ABC News, December 21, 2010.

[10] Steve Barnes and James Dao, “Gunman Kills Solider Outside Recruiting Station,” New York Times, June 1, 2009.

[11] Ellen Wulfhorst and Jana J. Pruet, “Fort Hood Shooter Sentenced to Death for 2009 Killings,” Reuters, August 28, 2013.

[12] Jennifer Levitz, “Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Sentenced to Death, Apologizes to Victims,” Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2015.

[13] Charles Kurzman, “Muslim-American Terrorism in 2013,” Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, February 5, 2014, p. 2.

[14] Testimony of Michael B. Steinbach, Assistant Director of the FBI, Terrorism Gone Viral: The Attack in Garland, Texas and Beyond, House Homeland Security Committee, June 3, 2015.

[15] Barbara Starr, “‘A Few Dozen Americans’ in ISIS Ranks,” CNN, July 15, 2015.

[16] Tom Vanden Brook, “ISIL Activity Drives up Pentagon Threat Level,” USA Today, May 8, 2015.

[17] Kevin Johnson, “Comey: Feds have Roughly 900 Domestic Probes about Islamic State Operatives,” USA Today, October 23, 2015.

[18] Johnson, “Comey: Feds have Roughly 900 Domestic Probes about Islamic State Operatives.”

[19] “Just Terror,” Dabiq, 1:12, 2014, p. 40.




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