Small Wars Journal

The Fires Next Time: The ISIS Terrorist Threat in the West

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 4:38am

The Fires Next Time: The ISIS Terrorist Threat in the West

Thomas R. McCabe

The Fires Next Time…

Of the recent ISIS-related attacks in the West, the November 2015 Paris and March 2016 Brussels attacks must be considered the worst. They were massive intelligence failures, in many ways far worse than 9/11, and demonstrated dangerous Western vulnerability.[1] They were large multinational plots, planned by ISIS Central, which took place without detection by any major intelligence service. Further, ISIS plans for the attacks were far more ambitious than the attacks actually carried out, and only luck avoided much heavier casualties.[2] While Belgium had what was widely regarded as a mediocre security service,[3] France was noted for having a very hard-nosed one that was much less handicapped by political correctness than that of the United States. Further, the target countries did not have the 9/11 American excuses of peacetime rules and mentality. In spite of this, and in spite of disrupted precursor attacks by people involved in the network,[4] nobody saw the attacks coming. ISIS was able to get people in and out of Europe without much difficulty.[5] In the aftermath, despite strenuous efforts, the network continued to function in the aftermath, with additional attacks planned for June and November 2016.[6]

Unfortunately, things don’t end there—ISIS has ambitious plans for continuing to stage attacks around the world.[7] As part of this, we must consider the danger that ISIS is attempting to organize a terrorist underground in the West, especially in Europe.

To assess the danger, this analysis will evaluate two factors:

  • ISIS’s efforts to organize a terrorist underground in the West
  • The potential recruiting pool for such an organization.

The Threat: An Organized Terrorist Underground?

The West has not yet really faced an organized jihadi terrorist underground on our home ground. Al Qaeda has never really tried to establish major underground networks in the West, preferring to exploit previously existing networks and sometimes establishing small support cells for individual acts of terror. So far, according to EUROPOL, ISIS’s main tactic has also been to send teams to Europe to stage attacks.[8] In the United States, at least so far, there have been no solid indications of a widespread organized jihadi terrorist underground connected to foreign jihadis. Jihadi attacks here have been either individuals or local cells and have generally been ISIS-inspired rather than ISIS-directed. Evidently the Muslim Community in the U.S. has been reasonably cooperative in identifying would-be jihadis.[9] However, ISIS obviously has a base of support in the U.S.,[10] and knowledgeable sources have warned that we really don’t know the extent of the jihadi underground in America.[11]

Unfortunately this comparatively good fortune may not continue. While matters are bad enough if ISIS infiltrators sent into the West intend to stage actual terrorist attacks, an even worse prospect is if those infiltrators are intended to serve as cadres around which an organization (most likely a network of networks) will be built to recruit, train and lead other jihadis to wage an ongoing campaign of terrorism, or even guerilla warfare.[12]

This threat has at least two major dimensions: 1) building an organized terrorist underground for operations in the West; and 2) attempting to organize free-lance jihadis.[13]

Organizing a Terrorist Underground in the West

With some major exceptions, such as the Brussels and November 2015 Paris attacks, most recent ISIS-related attacks in the US and Europe are widely considered to have been self-initiated. However, ISIS has attempted to pursue more organized and systematic mayhem, and has been building an organization, the Amn al-Kharji,[14] (Arabic name “Emni”[15]) for that purpose. The organization’s operational head is reportedly a Moroccan-born French national named Abdelilah Himich[16] (nom de guerre Abu Sulayman al-Faransi[17]) with organizational theater/regional commanders, responsible for planning attacks in their regions,[18] reporting to him.[19] Regional branches have been reported for Asia, Europe, the Arab world,[20] and an English-speaking branch, the “Anwar al-Awlaki Brigade,” whose tasking includes planning operations in North America.[21] The English-speaking unit may have a female component, led by a British woman convert.[22]

ISIS has tried to recruit foreign fighters for foreign attacks and has been sending fighters abroad for at least two years,[23] [24] including establishing sleeper cells for later activation, which means it is willing to think, plan, and build long-term.[25] In early 2016, security officials warned ISIS claimed to have trained and sent to Europe at least 400 fighters to stage more attacks there.[26] (In November 2015, an ISIS operative claimed that ISIS had infiltrated 4000 jihadists into Europe among the refugees.[27]) ISIS may have established camps to train fighters for such attacks,[28] and has evidently established support networks--along with making arrangements with criminal networks[29]--in Europe.[30]

Attempting to Organize Free-Lance (A.K.A. “Lone Wolf”) Jihadis--Crowd-Sourcing Terrorism

As mentioned, most recent attacks in the US and Europe are widely considered to have been self-initiated rather than ISIS-directed. However, while they may be self-initiated, they may also be ISIS-orchestrated.[31] A 2016 defector from ISIS claimed that many supposedly individual attacks were actually coordinated and directed by ISIS, using recently converted “clean” Muslims as cutouts to contact the actual perpetrators.[32] This was done by a cadre of the Amn al-Kharji, “virtual planners,” who have identified a pool of ISIS adherents willing to undertake such attacks.[33] One of the most noted of these planners, Rachid Kassim, was implicated in more than 10 plots in France before being killed by a drone strike on 8 February 2017.[34] Further, Kassim used the internet to remotely form operational cells,[35] such as the Notre Dame bomb plot.[36] Another cell has targeted the United States.[37]

The Recruiting Pool

Unfortunately, ISIS has several potential recruiting pools to draw upon, especially in Europe. These include five potential sources of recruits: ISIS returnees; migrants and refugees; radical Islamic strata; the Muslim and nonMuslim alienated; and the criminal underclass.

ISIS Returnees

As of July 2016, an estimated 1500-1800 ISIS fighters had returned to Europe,[38] and undoubtedly more have returned since then. Reportedly only a small portion are disillusioned with ISIS’s ideology, and about half remain committed to it.[39] At least until recently, Europe as a whole has evidently had trouble with information-sharing, and in the past individual countries evidently have had trouble with identifying and tracking them and often made minimal efforts to detain and prosecute them.[40]

Migrants and Refugees[41]

These now number millions, including many who are unregistered or using false identity papers (up to 500,000 in Germany alone.[42]) While the vast majority are undoubtedly either genuine refugees or are actually economic migrants, they present four potential major dangers.

  • First, there is the obvious danger of ISIS sending infiltrators disguised as refugees. ISIS has done this,[43]and intends to do it again--in August 2016, EUROPOL found a cache of fake documents in a Greek refugee camp apparently intended for foreign fighters coming to Europe,[44] and ISIS reportedly has a stock of blank genuine Syrian passports.[45]
  • Next, there is a danger of a diaspora of ISIS sympathizers within the refugees. Representatives of the Iraqi Government (the Governor of Ninevah Province) has announced the intention of locking up ISIS members and expelling the rest of their families from Iraq.[46]Since ISIS has been a substantial force with a substantial bureaucracy (in the Mosul campaign alone the Iraqi Government had over 30,000 names on its list of suspects[47]) if this is actual Iraqi Government policy it could lead to a further large diaspora of ISIS supporters even if the Iraqi Government somehow manages to only target actual ISIS members. In addition to this is the likely fallout from the collapse of the Arab Spring in the Middle East. There the political failures and increasing repression of many “moderate” (in relative terms only) Islamist movements, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, means that portions of it--possibly much of it--are all too likely to conclude that their generation-long gamble on nonviolent revolution from below has failed, and they will turn to jihadism or at least to violence.[48] While this is obviously of most relevance to states in the region, it will be of relevance to the West if those new would-be jihadis seek sanctuary in the West.
  • Finally, a longer term danger is ISIS recruiting refuges after they arrive. Syrian refugees in particular are likely to be Sunni Muslims who undoubtedly view themselves as having been driven from their homes by a murderously sectarian Shia Muslim Government backed by Iran. This may make them vulnerable to the ISIS narrative of defending Sunnis against such attacks and seeking revenge against the Shia and other supposed enemies, like the West and the Jews. The German Government has reported 340 cases where Islamic extremists have infiltrated refugee camps looking for recruits.[49]

Radical Islamic Strata

As most recently demonstrated by the ability of ISIS to draw recruits from around the world, jihadism is now a worldwide phenomenon, and at the very least the jihadis have continued to retain a significant core of support in both the Muslim world and among Muslims worldwide.[50] (For example, past polling has indicated at least a small percentage of Muslims in the United States admitted to at least a degree of sympathy for al Qaeda.[51])  Even murderously violent ISIS continues to maintain considerable popular support, or at least sympathy,[52] in parts of the Muslim world today (even small percentages of support may still leave a potential support base of millions).[53] Also, the support may be broader than the polls indicate—how many ISIS supporters were unwilling to admit their support?[54]

Beyond the jihadis is the ambiguous situation presented by militant but not necessarily jihadi Islam. While Islam, like Christianity, is a diverse faith with many interpretations, many of those interpretations must be considered functionally radical. This radicalism can vary from individuals who just want to live what they consider a properly Islamic lifestyle, through the organized if generally (at present) nonviolent militant movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Dawah and Tabligh,[55]  who want to Islamicize their societies and governments from below, to those who sympathize with or support the murderous jihadis like ISIS without crossing the line into violence or illegality. Militant Islam, overall, shares much of the same narrative and psychology as the jihadis--a toxic mix of victimization, frustrated ambitions (frequently combined with delusions of grandeur[56]), virulent anti-Semitism, deeply illiberal views of society (especially about the role of women)[57], and a conspiratorial view of the world.[58] All too often, they are, are, functionally speaking, enemies of democracy.[59] In particular they share with the jihadis the beliefs that Western influence on the Muslim world is malign and frequently if not generally view the West as being at war with Islam. Of most concern here, they have often served as transmission belts for jihadi ideas and platforms for facilitators for jihadi recruitment.[60]

The Muslim and nonMuslim alienated

This includes economically and socially marginalized Muslims, and those Muslims and, for that matter, non-Muslims alienated enough to be willing to support ISIS,

Many European countries had substantial minorities of Muslim extraction even before the current refugee surges.  These are often demographically concentrated, poorly educated and unemployed or underemployed and poorly assimilated into the larger society, problems that are likely to be compounded by the arrival of large numbers of refuges from the Middle East. Even if not especially religious, they are likely to look at the greater society around them with a profound sense of grievance which ISIS recruiters could potentially exploit. Beyond this, there are also what we might call the fashionably alienated of ‘jihadi cool’ and ‘gangster Islam,’ who either overlap heavily with criminal strata or aspire to act like those who do.[61]

While Muslims in the United States tend to be rather well assimilated, this has not necessarily translated into American patriotism, and we clearly are not dealing with the ferocious loyalty of the Japanese-Americans of World War II.[62] The great future unknown here are the ultimate policies of the Trump Administration--if they are or can be portrayed as hostile to Islam--“Islamophobic”--they can be expected to increase Muslim alienation in the US, which may potentially increase the recruiting pool for ISIS and for radical Islam in general.

Beyond that are people who have any number of grievances and grudges. A potential example from the United States:

“I’m looking for 10,000 in the midst of a million. Ten thousand fearless men who say death is sweeter than continued life under tyranny. Death is sweeter than continuing to live and bury our children while the white folks give our killers hamburgers. Death is sweeter than watching us slaughter each other to the joy of a 400-year-old enemy. Death is sweeter. The Quran teaches persecution is worse than slaughter. Then it says retaliation is prescribed in matters of the slain. Retaliation is a prescription from God to calm the breasts of those whose children have been slain. So if the federal government won’t intercede in our affairs, then we must rise up and kill those who kill us; stalk them and kill them and let them feel the pain of death that we are feeling!”

-- Louis Farrakhan, July 2016. [63]

We should note that these alienated people need not necessarily be Muslim—they just need to be alienated enough to be willing to consider the enemy of their enemy to be at least an ally of convenience, even if they don’t necessarily agree with ISIS.  We should not be surprised if some of the more extreme anti-Trump people are willing to take this approach. [64]

Finally, There is the Criminal Underclass

This is especially the case where much of that underclass is of Muslim extraction. (For example, some estimates place the percentage of such prisoners in French prisons as high as 60-70%.[65]) ISIS has had considerable success in radicalizing and recruiting criminals[66]--six of ten Paris attackers had criminal records, as did all six of the Brussels attackers,[67] and in the past Hamas and al Qaeda had considerable success in recruiting in both European and American prisons.[68] Criminals joining radical political groups is hardly new. An obvious example was the Black Panther Party for Defense in the United States during the late 1960s, which included many members who either had criminal records or were street gang members.[69]  For those with a criminal background, jihadi Islam offers the practical appeal of an identity that confirms and justifies their hostility to Western society and offers a community and a mechanism for carrying out that hostility. Unlike conversion to, say, Christianity, which generally requires repudiating past criminal actions and the criminal identity that so often goes along with them, jihadi Islam doesn’t necessarily require criminals to change their violent lifestyle. In fact, it can provide a narrative justifying both their alienation and their crimes. Instead of robbing a bank because that’s where the money is they are now robbing it in the name of Allah[70]--“stealing for jihad,[71]” and any money they get is considered spoils of war. For ISIS, recruits from criminal backgrounds may also be useful since they are experienced at operating under the police radar and are probably used to violence,[72] and ISIS returnees with criminal background may have both improved skills and enhanced credibility on the street.[73] Ominously, Western Europe in particular evidently has a largely unadmitted crime wave with recent immigrants,[74] which could provide a base for recruiting.

Conclusions and Implications

We cannot expect ISIS to go away anytime soon, and its efforts to attack the West are ongoing. Even if the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq is successful, the civil war in Syria in particular is likely to go on for a considerable or extended period.[75] This means we must expect that ISIS will have the time to continue to mature its foreign terrorist efforts. Further, ISIS is not the only threat we face; Al Qaeda remains out there. We should remember that even if/when the ISIS statelet is finally eradicated, at least some of the survivors and whatever nets they have built might join or be annexed by al Qaeda,[76] giving it a reach and capability it has never had before.

Although we should fervently hope that the reports that ISIS foreign fighters are being identified and ISIS networks are being rolled up are correct,[77] we cannot assume that they are.[78] The jihadi terrorist and foreign fighter threats did not begin with ISIS and we should not expect them to end even if ISIS is somehow eliminated.  Aside from Iraq, Yemen, and especially Syria being proxy wars between various regional powers, it is all too likely that the Middle East is in the opening round of multiple civil wars within Islam, both among the jihadis and between Shia and Sunni Islam. These wars are likely to be very bloody, will further increase the religious polarization (and bloody-mindedness) within the region and within Islam, and will further devastate much of the Middle East. We must expect the fighting to be exported to the rest of the world. There is every reason to believe far worse is yet to come.

The author would like to thank Chief Warrant Officer James L. Fuller, US Army Special Forces (Ret) for his contributions.

End Notes

[1] Mitch Prothero, “Why Europe Can’t Find The Jihadis In Its Midst,” Buzzfeed News, 21 Aug 2016, , accessed 22 Aug 2016.

[2] Scott Bronstein, Nicole Gaouette, Laura Koran and Clarissa Ward, “First on CNN: ISIS planned for more operatives, targets during Paris attacks,” CNN, 5 Sept 2016, , accessed 6 Sept 2016.

[3] John Lloyd, “The world’s spies agree Belgian intelligence is broken,” Reuters, 24 March 2016, , accessed 25 Mar 2016. For Belgian improvement efforts, see Jeff Stein, “Belgian Federal Police Chief Braces for New ISIS Terror Attacks,” Newsweek, 29 Nov 2016, , accessed 2 Dec 2016.

[4] Plots were disrupted in both France and Spain. See Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “[Hot Issue] Recent Attacks Illuminate the Islamic State’s Europe Attack Network,” Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, 27 Apr 2016,  , accessed 1 May 2016.

[5] Soufan Group, “TSG IntelBrief: The Ease of Terror Travel,” TSG IntelBrief, 1 Dec 2015, , accessed 2 Dec 2015.

[7] “Seized documents reveal thousands of planned ISIS attacks around world,” Fox News, 28 Nov 2016, , accessed 30 Nov 2016.  In July 2017, Interpol circulated a list of 137 ISIS fighters suspected of having been trained to carry out suicide attacks in Europe. See Lorenzo Tondo, Patrick Wintour and Piero Messina, “Interpol circulates list of 173 suspected members of Isis suicide brigade,” The Guardian, 21 July 2017, , accessed 22 Jul 2017.

[8] EUROPOL, Changes in Modus Operandi of Islamic State (IS) revisited, Nov 2016, , accessed 3 Dec 2016.

[9] As of mid-2016, Muslims in the U.S. had reportedly identified 54 terrorists or would-be terrorists. Kevin Knodell, “The Islamic State’s Assault on the ‘Gray Zone,’” War is Boring, 29 July 2016, , accessed 30 Jul 2016.

[10] On 10 Sept 2016, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson warned that terror plots have been disrupted “all of the time” since he started running the agency. See Catherine Herridge, “On 9-11 anniversary, Homeland's Johnson says advanced plots unknown to public foiled 'all the time, Fox News,  10 Sept 2016, , accessed 12 Sep 2016.

[11] As warned by former FBI agent Gamal Abdul Hafez in “NBC News on Assignment: the Terrorist next door,” NBC News, 16 May 2016,, accessed 2 Sept 2016.

[12] As warned by Patrick Calvar, head of France’s DGSI domestic security agency.  See Nicholas Vinocur, “France’s mutating terror threat,” Politico, 12 July 2016, , accessed 13 July 2016. Also see Jeff Seldin, “Fears Islamic State Will Use Guerilla Tactics in Europe,” Voice of America, 30 March 2016, , accessed 31 Mar 2016.

[13] The term ‘free-lance jihadi’ is attributed to Daniel Pipes. See by A.J. Caschetta, “Freelance Jihad,”
The Washington Examiner, 11 August 2016,, accessed 21 Sep 2016. It is used instead of the term “lone wolf.”

[14] Gartenstein-Ross and Barr, “[Hot Issue] Recent Attacks Illuminate the Islamic State’s Europe Attack Network.”

[15] See Rukmini Callimachi, “How a Secretive Branch of ISIS Built a Global Network of Killers,” New York Times, ,   (3 Aug 2016). Other sources report the Emni is the ISIS security and intelligence apparatus. Other sources report the Emni is the ISIS security and intelligence apparatus. See Anne Speckhard and Ahmet Yayla, “The ISIS Emni: Origins and Inner Workings of ISIS’s Intelligence Apparatus,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 11, #1, February 2017, , accessed 1 Mar 2017.

[16] “Key Figure in Paris, Brussels Attacks Slapped With Sanctions,”  VOA News, 22 Nov 2016, , accessed 25 Nov 2016.

[17] Gartenstein-Ross and Barr, “[Hot Issue] Recent Attacks Illuminate the Islamic State’s Europe Attack Network.” According to a German defector from ISIS, this organization’s overall head was Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ISIS’s spokesman and propaganda chief and its leader in Syria. See Callimachi, “How a Secretive Branch of ISIS…”. Al-Adnani was killed in late August 2016, and who has replaced him in this role has not yet been determined.

[18] Callimachi, “How a Secretive Branch of ISIS…”.

[19] Gartenstein-Ross and Barr, “[Hot Issue] Recent Attacks Illuminate the Islamic State’s Europe Attack Network.”

[20] Callimachi, “How a Secretive Branch of ISIS…”.

[21] Alessandria Masi, “ISIS Creates English-Speaking Foreign Fighter 'Anwar al-Awlaki' Brigade For Attacks On The West: Report,” International Business Times, 22 Jan 2015, , accessed 4 Aug 2016. The article also refers to it as the al-Awlaki Battalion. Also see Florian Flade, “The Islamic State Threat to Germany: Evidence from the Investigations,” Counterterrorism Center Sentinel, 27 July 2016, , accessed 29 Jul 2016.

[22] Josie Ensor, “Revealed: Isil bride Sally Jones's role in training female recruits for attacks on West,” The Telegraph [UK], 11 Sep 2016, , accessed 20 Sep 2016.

[23] Flade, “The Islamic State Threat to Germany.”

[24] Callimachi, “How a Secretive Branch of ISIS…”.

[25] Marcel Fürstenau, “German intelligence agency says terror perpetrators are 'controlled from afar',” Deutsche Welle, 14 Sep 2016, , accessed 15 Sep 2016.

[26] Associated Press, “IS Trains 400 Fighters to Attack Europe in Wave of Bloodshed,” ABC News, 23 Mar 2016, , accessed 24 Mar 2016.

[27] Aaron Brown, “'Just wait…' Islamic State reveals it has smuggled THOUSANDS of extremists into Europe,” Sunday Express[UK], 18 Nov 2015, , accessed 4 Aug 2016.

[28] “IS Trains 400 Fighters to Attack Europe in Wave of Bloodshed.”

[29] Barbie L. Nadeau, “The Mafia Runs Guns for ISIS in Europe,” The Daily Beast, 24 Mar 2016, , accessed 25 Mar 2016.

[30] See Gartenstein-Ross and  Barr, “[Hot Issue] Recent Attacks Illuminate the Islamic State’s Europe Attack Network,” Also see Bronstein et al, “First on CNN: ISIS planned for more operatives, targets during Paris attacks.”

[31] Rukmini Callimachi, “Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots From Afar,” New York Times, 4 Feb 2017,, accessed 6 Feb 2017.

[32] See Callimachi, “How a Secretive Branch of ISIS…”.

[33] Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “Bloody Ramadan: How the Islamic State Coordinated a Global Terrorist Campaign,” War on the Rocks, 20 July 2016, , accessed 22 Jul 2016. Also see Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Blackman, “ISIL’s Virtual Planners: a Critical Terrorist Innovation,” War on the Rocks, 4 Jan 2017, , accessed 5 Jan 2017.

[34] See Jack Moore, “French ISIS Recruiter Behind Recent Atttacks Tells Followers to ‘Send Head to Elysee Palace’,” Newsweek, 15 Sep 2016, , accessed 16 Sep 2016, and Bridget Moreng, “ISIS’ Virtual Puppeteers,” Foreign Affairs Snapshot, 21 Sep 2016, , accessed 22 Sep 2016. For Rachid’s death, see W.J. Hennigan, “The U.S. military is targeting Islamic State's virtual caliphate by hunting & killing its online operatives one-by-one,” Los Angeles Times, 5 May 2017, , accessed 7 May 2017.

[35] Jason Burke, “The Age of Selfie Jihad: How Evolving Media Technology is Changing Terrorism.” CTC Sentinel, 30 November 2016,, accessed 2 Dec 2016.

[36]  Gartenstein-Ross and Blackman, “ISIL’s Virtual Planners: a Critical Terrorist Innovation.”

[39] Rick Noack  “Many Islamic State recruits who have returned to Europe remain committed to militant ideology, report says,” Washington Post, 29 Nov 2016, , accessed 1 Dec 2016.

[40] In a Belgian case, a totally unrepentant Belgian ISIS foreign fighter was prosecuted in Belgium. He was sentenced to three years suspended sentence and was free to walk the streets while collecting welfare payments from the Belgian Government. CNN Report: ISIS Behind the Mask, 31 March 2017, .

[41] Martin Beckford, “Terror links to migrants revealed in secret report by police who carried out security checks in refugee camps,” Daily Mail [UK], 28 May 2016, , accessed 29 May 2016.

[43] For two examples, see Nick Squires, Tom Whitehead, Peter Dominiczak, and Christopher Hope, “Afghan terrorists use migrant route to plot attacks on London, police fear, as Theresa May orders border review,” The Telegraph [UK],   10 May 2016, , accessed 11 May 2016, and Kate Connolly, “Three suspected ISIS Operatives Arrested at German Refugee Shelters,” The Guardian [UK], 13 Sep 2016, , accessed 14 Sep 2016.

[45]EUROPOL, Changes in Modus Operandi of Islamic State (IS) revisited, …

[47] The list had 40,000 names, 80% of which are connected with terrorism. Josie Ensor, “British jihadists fleeing Mosul could face the death sentence in Iraq's makeshift courts,” The Telegraph [UK], 2 Dec 2016, , accessed 3 Dec 2016.

[48] Alexander Velez-Green, “From Reform to Revolution: A Schism in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Rise of Homegrown Jihadism in Mainland Egypt,” Center for a New American Security, 23 Aug 2017, , accessed 24 Aug 2017.  Also see Eric Trager, “The Muslim Brotherhood's Fatal Mistake,” Foreign Affairs Snapshot, 21 Aug 2017, , accessed 23 Aug 2017.

[49] “Assimilation Report,” The Economist, Vol. 420, #9005, 3 Sept 2016. ISIS has also attempted to buy support from refugees. See Jack Moore, “ISIS Attempts to ‘buy allegiance’ of Refugees,” Newsweek, 6 Feb 2017, , accessed 10 Feb 2017.

[50] As of mid-2014, at least 11% of Jordanians, 15% of Egyptians and Indonesians, and 12% of Pakistanis admitted a favorable view of al Qaeda. Pew Research, Concerns about Islamic Extremism on the Rise in Middle East, 1 July 2014, , accessed 12 July 2014.

[51] In a poll in 2011, “Just 5%...” (Just?!?)  of Muslim Americans admitted some sympathy for al Qaeda. See Pew Research Center, MUSLIM AMERICANS: NO SIGNS OF GROWTH IN ALIENATION OR SUPPORT FOR EXTREMISM; Pew Research Center, August 2011, , accessed 12 July 2012. This may well be a low estimate; another 14% claimed not to know if they had a favorable or unfavorable view of al Qaeda. Such ignorance is, to put it mildly, highly suspicious—how many of these were not admitting what they truly thought? The latest Pew poll of U.S. Muslims did not ask the question. See Pew Research Center,  U.S. Muslims Concerned About Their Place in Society, but Continue to Believe in the American Dream, Pew Research Center, 26 July 2017 , accessed 1 Aug 2017.

[52] For a discussion of the distinction between support and sympathy, see Alex Schmid,  Data to Measure Sympathy and Support for Islamist Terrorism: A Look at Muslim Opinions on Al Qaeda and IS, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, Feb 2017, , accessed 1 Mar 2017, Pgs 6-9.

[53] One recent study estimated that overall 8.3% of adults in the Muslim world support ISIS, especially in Africa. See Russell A Berman and Arno Tausch, “Support for Terrorism in Muslim Majority Countries and Implications for Immigration Policies in the West,” Institute for National Security Studies Strategic Assessment,  Volume 20, Number 1, April 2017, , accessed 24 May 2017.

[54]As noted in Giulio Meotti, “ISIS in Europe: How Deep is the “Gray Zone?” Gatestone Institute, 4 Apr 2016, , accessed 5 Apr 2016.

[55] Formerly the Tablighi Jamaat. See Taylor Luck, “The mysterious Islamic movement quietly sweeping the Middle East,” Christian Science Monitor, 6 Dec 2015, , accessed 1 Oct 2016.

[56] For a study of the past delusions, see Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, New York, Vintage, 1999. While talking primarily about the failures of Arab Nationalism, it is equally applicable to the failures of the Islamic Republic of Iran and to the past, present, and coming failures of radical Sunni Islam.

[57] See Shadi Hamid, Temptations of Power, New York, Oxford University Press, 2014.

[58] Part of the induction process for the Muslim Brotherhood includes indoctrination on “the (Western-Zionist-Masonic) conspiracy against Islam.” See Hazem Kandil, Inside the Brotherhood, Malden, MA, Polity Press, 2015, Pg. 54.

[59] We should note that much of what is often labeled “moderate” Islam in the West, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, is moderate only in relative terms and is more correctly labeled “[currently] nonviolent radical Islam.” Nonviolent radical Islam is still radical Islam. See Shadi Hamid, Temptations of Power, New York, Oxford University Press, 2014. Also See Thomas R. McCabe, “The Muslim Middle East; Is There a Democratic Alternative?” Orbis, Vol. 51, #3, Summer 2007, Pgs 479-494.

[60] Timothy Holman, “‘Gonna Get Myself Connected’: The Role of Facilitation in Foreign Fighter Mobilizations,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 10, No 2, 2016, ,  accessed 29 April 2016.

[61] See Jason Burke, The New Threat From Islamic Militancy, London, Vintage, 2015, especially Chapter 8. Also see Andrew Higgins and Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “A Brussels Mentor Taught ‘Gangster Islam’ to the Young and Angry,” New York Times, 11 Apr 2016, , accessed 12 Apr 2016, and Timon Dias, “Gangster Islam; the Problem Europe Ignores,” Gatestone Institute, 5 Feb 2017, , accessed 6 Feb 2017.

[62] See Thomas R. McCabe, “Muslim Alienation in the United States:  Studies in Ambiguity—A Review Essay,” Security and Democracy, 5/2, (May-August 2009) 149-59.

[63] Richard B. Muhammad and Janiah Muhammad, “We are not asking for justice, we are demanding justice,” The Final Call, 4 Aug 2015, , accessed 28 Sep 2016.

[64] A potentially ominous indication of things to come was that one of the major organizers of the Women’s March in Washington DC in early 2017 was Linda Sarsour, a radical Muslim. Two of the other major organizers were radical leftists. See Bari Weiss, “When Progressives Embrace Hate,” New York Times, 1 Aug 2017, , accessed 9 Sep 2017.  ISIS may even be able to attract support from the extreme right, based on anti-Semitism and the hostility of both to ‘globalization.’

[65] Lisa Bryant, “France Looks at its Prisons as Ground Zero in Terror Battle,” Voice of America News, 13 Sep 2016, , accessed 14 Sep 2016. We should note that many of these are not religiously practicing, but it does present an opening wedge for recruitment.

[67]Vivienne Walt, “Europe’s Top Cop: It’s ‘Almost Certain’ Terrorists Will Try to Strike Again,” Time, 16 May 2016, , accessed 1 Sep 2016.

[68] Patrick Dunleavy, The Fertile Soil of Jihad, Washington D.C., Potomac Books, 2011. Also see Denis MacEoin, “Prisons: Harvard for Radicals,” Gatestone Institute, 6 Sept 2016, , accessed 7 Sept 2016.

[69] For example, see Peter Zimroth, Perversions of Justice; the Prosecution and Acquittal of the Panther 21, New York, Viking, 1974.

[70] See Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: An Interview with Alain Grignard, Brussels Federal Police,” CTC Sentinel, Aug. 21, 2015, , accessed 1 Sep 2016,  and Ann-Sophie Hemmingsen, Manni Crone, and Jakob Peter Witt, “The Politicisation Of Violence: Alternative to Radicalization,” Danish Institute for International Studies, Sept. 30, 2015, e20e7b9c13d4&lng=en&id=194081 , accessed 15 Oct 2015.

[71] Carla Bleiker, “Five Big German Terror Trials,” Deutsche Welle, 6 Sep 2016,, accessed 7 Sep 2016.

[72] A point made in Rajan Basra, Peter R. Neumann, and Claudia Brunner, Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures: European Jihadists and the New Crime-Terror Nexus, London, International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, 2016, , accessed 10 Oct 2016. Obviously this has to be judged on a case-by case basis.

[73] Martin Gallagher “‘Criminalised’ Islamic State Veterans– A Future Major Threat in Organised Crime Development?” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 10, No 5 (2016) , , accessed 10 Nov 2016.

[74] Soeren Kern, “Germany: Migrant Crime Skyrockets,” Gatestone Institute, 21 Feb 2016, , accessed 28 Feb 2016. Also see “Migrants linked to 69,000 would-be or actual crimes in Germany in first three months of 2016: police,” Reuters, 8 June 2016, , accessed 9 June 2016.

[75] Michael Georgy, After Mosul, Islamic State digs in for guerrilla warfare,” Reuters, 20 July 2017, , accessed 21 Jul 2017.

[76] Sirwan Kajjo, “2 Top IS Commanders Reportedly Flee Raqqa,” Voice of America News, 7 Dec 2016, , accessed 8 Dec 2016. They defected to al Qaeda’s then-current manifestation in Syria.

[77]For reports on recent major captures of intelligence on ISIS personnel, see the following: Idrees Ali and Yeganeh Torbati, “Fighters battling Islamic State gather trove of documents,” Reuters, 27 July 2016, , accessed 28 Jul 2016; Joby Warrick and Souad Mekhennet,  “A battered ISIS grows ever more dependent on ‘lone wolves,’ simple plans,” Washington Post, 20 July 2017, , accessed 21 July 2017; and W. J. Hennigan, “Vast new intelligence haul fuels next phase of fight against Islamic State,” Los Angeles Times, 8 Sep 2017, , accessed 9 Sep 2017. For ISIS networks being rolled up, see Warrick and  Mekhennet, “A battered ISIS grows ever more dependent on ‘lone wolves,’ simple plans.”

[78] Jennifer Cafarella with Jason Zhou “ISIS's Expanding Campaign in Europe,” Institute for the Study of War, 17 Sept 2017, , accessed 18 Sep 2017.



About the Author(s)

LtCol Thomas R. McCabe, USAFR (Ret) is a retired career analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense and a retired lieutenant Colonel from the U.S. Air Force Reserve. He worked for over ten years as a Middle East military analyst for the Air Force and for two years as a counterterrorism analyst after being mobilized after 9/11. He has been published in Small Wars Journal, Parameters, Orbis, Middle East Quarterly, and Democracy and Security. His articles should not be considered the opinion of any agency of the U.S. Government.