Six Minnesota men were arrested on Sunday after authorities discovered plans to travel to Syria to join up with militant jihadist group ISIS. According to court documents, the young men, ranging in age from 19 to 21, had arranged to fly into neighboring countries from airports in San Diego and New York City, but were stopped before boarding and taken into custody. The incident is the latest in a concerning trend of American recruits joining and pledging allegiance to the fundamentalist group, which has been ramping up its attacks in recent days with the release of execution videos and Saturday's suicide bombing in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, which killed 33 and injured over 100 others. But behind the frenzied headlines, how many American ISIS recruits have authorities actually stopped?
"They are not confused young men; they were not easily influenced," said U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota Andrew Luger of the six men. "These were focused men who were intent on joining a terrorist organization by any means possible." Luger added that the state had a serious "terror recruiting problem."
Minnesota, however, isn't the only U.S. region on watch for ISIS-friendly verbiage of late: In March, a 21-year-old California man was arrested by authorities attempting to travel to Syria to join up with the cell. Only a few days later, CNN reported that a Virginia teen had been arrested for assisting with U.S. recruitment. In the past year and a half alone, dozens of other arrests have been made — the official count stands at around 30 to 40 so far — but its the numbers that officials can't see that concerns them most.
In an interview with NBC last September, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center and analyst Michael Leiter suggested that the fight to stem homegrown recruits might potentially be more important than fighting the group on foreign soil.
From a U.S. counterterrorism perspective, nothing is more important — and often more difficult — than identifying U.S. citizens who fight and train in Syria. In many cases, U.S. citizens fighting overseas have become operatives or key operational planners and leaders in terror groups. Because of this, the U.S. intelligence community is laser-focused on knowing the who, when, where and why of U.S. citizens — and Westerners more broadly — who are in Syria today.
So far, the numbers seem relatively low. With only a dozen confirmed reports of American fighters overseas, the war against rapid recruitment seems to be working. But on a much broader scale, the statistics become much more staggering.
In August 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explained in an interview with CNN that the number could be in the hundreds, and that current intelligence gathering couldn't pinpoint exactly how many citizens had joined up due to conflicting reports. "There may be more, we don’t know," Hagel admitted.
Although intelligence officials point out that the U.S. recruits tend not to launch attacks on their home country, the tech-savvy ISIS has used American defectors to their advantage in other ways. In August 2014, CBS reported that new propaganda videos featuring American fighters alongside their Middle Eastern counterparts had become a mainstay in the Western recruitment process. Those who joined from U.S. soil had also been utilized as suicide bombers in Syria, as was the case with Florida college student Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who died in an explosion outside a government complex in May 2014. Initial reports of the bombing referred to Abusalha only as "Abu Hurayra al-Amriki" — "al-Amriki" translating to "the American."
A September report by The Daily Beast indicated that difficulty in keeping track of these ISIS recruits wasn't a new trend, at least according to one interviewed CIA analyst. "Counting numbers of insurgents and terrorists is an inherently difficult problem," said Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. "Not every American who goes to fight Bashar Assad necessarily joins ISIS, not all of them end up fighting, some become hospital workers, and then some who go to become hospital workers end up becoming ISIS fighters."
Whatever the case, intelligence officials aren't giving up.
"Disrupting individuals from traveling to join and fight for ISIL is an important part of our counter terrorism strategy," explained FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard T. Thornton in a statement on Monday. "These arrests today signify this continued commitment."
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