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Research Report


Copyright Date: Sep. 1, 2017
Published by: New America
Pages: 72
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 2-2)

    To assess the scope of the jihadist terrorism threat, this paper is organized into nine sections:

    First, key findings

    Second, a taxonomy of ISIS terrorism

    Third, an assessment of the war on ISIS and other extremist groups

    Fourth, the state of the current jihadist terrorist threat to the United States

    Fifth, an analysis of ISIS’ American recruits

    Sixth, an assessment of the ISIS threat to Europe

    Seventh, an examination of the big drivers of jihadist terrorism

    Eighth, a discussion of future trends in terrorism

    And, finally, what can be done to reduce the threat from jihadist terrorists....

  2. (pp. 3-7)

    Al-Qaeda and its breakaway faction, ISIS, have failed to direct a deadly attack inside the United States since 9/11. Indeed, no foreign terrorist organization has carried out a successful attack in the United States since 9/11, and none of the perpetrators of the 11 lethal jihadist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11 received training from a foreign terrorist group.

    Every lethal jihadist terrorist in the United States since 9/11 was either a U.S. citizen or permanent resident of the United States at the time of the attack. Of the 13 deadly attackers, eight — more than half — were born...

  3. (pp. 8-15)

    Since it seized Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, in 2014, ISIS as well as groups and individuals linked to it have conducted attacks across the globe. In 2016, the National Counterterrorism Center briefed the White House that ISIS was fully operational in 18 countries and had aspirational branches taking root in six more.⁷ In addition to its branches, ISIS or its followers have conducted attacks in countries where it does not have affiliates, including the United States, France, and the United Kingdom.

    Yet not all ISIS-linked attacks are equal. There are five types of terrorist attacks that can in some way...

  4. (pp. 16-23)

    By September 2016, it was already clear that ISIS was in retreat. It had lost key Iraqi cities including Baiji, Fallujah, Ramadi, and Tikrit, as well as the Syrian city of Manbij. The coalition also reported killing tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and at least 134 ISIS leaders. ISIS was forced to cut salaries for its fighters and saw the flow of foreign fighters dwindle from a high of 2,000 per month to fewer than 50 per month.71 72

    This was the result of ISIS’ incoherent strategy. When the group stuck to its goal of conquering territory in Iraq...

  5. (pp. 24-33)

    The most likely threat to the United States comes from terrorists inspired by ISIS or in contact with its virtual recruitment networks, as opposed to ISIS-directed attacks of the sort seen in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016. The most typical threat to the United States remains homegrown rather than from infiltrating foreign nationals.

    New America’s “Terrorism in America After 9/11” project tracks the 415 cases of individuals who have been charged with jihadist terrorism-related activity in the United States since 9/11.g In the 16 years since the 9/11 attacks, individuals motivated by jihadist ideology have killed 95 people...

  6. (pp. 34-35)

    The Syrian civil war and ISIS’ declaration of a caliphate produced a massive flow of “foreign fighters” to Iraq and Syria — a total of roughly 40,000 over the course of the conflict, according to Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition.211 While the vast majority of these fighters came from the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and the former Soviet republics, the United States was the source of a small number of ISIS recruits.

    The Americans drawn to the Syrian jihad — 250 have tried or have succeeded in getting to Syria, according to former FBI...

  7. (pp. 36-39)

    While the threat in the United States consists of attacks inspired — or in some cases enabled — by ISIS, the threat in Europe is more severe, consisting of a mixture of attacks directed by ISIS and its affiliates as well as homegrown ISIS-enabled and ISIS-inspired attacks.

    While the United States has experienced no attacks directed by foreign terrorist organizations since 9/11, there have been five ISIS-directed attacks in Europe since 2014:

    The November 2015 attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, by terrorists trained in Syria and sent back to Europe by ISIS. The Paris attacks showed how a...

  8. (pp. 40-42)

    At the macro level, ISIS is not itself the problem — though it certainly amplifies existing problems — but rather is the symptom of nine major problems and trends that are driving jihadist terrorism around the globe and that will continue to do so even when ISIS is largely defeated.236

    The sectarian regional civil war is being driven by a variety of factors, including the failure of the largely Shia Iraqi government to give Sunnis a real place at the table and the brutal civil war that the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is waging on his largely Sunni population. Also...

  9. (pp. 43-50)

    Since 2014, there have been 12 attacks in the West involving explosives.k Of those, five used TATP, triacetone triperoxide, an explosive that has long been the bomb of choice for jihadists in the West due to the ease of acquiring the components to make it, as compared to military-grade explosives. It can be built using the common household ingredient hydrogen peroxide, which is used to bleach hair.

    Yet making a TATP bomb is tricky because the ingredients are highly unstable and can explode if improperly handled. The danger of building TATP bombs without training can be seen in the case...

  10. (pp. 51-55)

    There seems to be some conceptual confusion in the U.S. government about what “Countering Violent Extremism” programs are attempting to do: Is it counter-radicalization? Or is it counter-recruitment? Counter-radicalization — turning many millions of Muslims around the world away from radical ideas — seems both a nebulous mission and one that may not be achievable. A far more specific task is to stop the relatively small number of Muslims trying to join ISIS or al-Qaeda, or signing up for their ideology, from doing so. From a U.S. national security perspective, that recruitment is, after all, what we want to prevent....