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Multiyear Investigation Uncovers 64 American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq

February 06, 2018
Jason Shevrin: [email protected], 202-994-5631
Timothy Pierce: [email protected], 202-994-5647
Analysis by GW Program on Extremism Assesses Scope of US Foreign Fighters
Report Includes Several Newly Uncovered Individuals; Highlights Responses to Returning Foreign Fighters
WASHINGTON (Feb. 6, 2018)—The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism released a study today identifying 64 Americans who traveled to Syria and Iraq to join jihadist groups. The report, “The Travelers: American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq,” represents the most comprehensive, publicly available accounting of this phenomenon to date. Included in the 64 are several travelers whose names and stories have never been publicly released, as well as 12 who have returned to the United States.
During the investigation, the program’s researchers interviewed law enforcement officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys, and attended relevant court proceedings in several states. Additionally, they reviewed thousands of pages of legal documents and filed information requests and federal court motions to unseal records where necessary. Finally, the authors conducted several interviews with American travelers who returned from the territories held by the Islamic State group.
The study finds the backgrounds, profiles and threats posed by these 64 travelers are diverse. However, it identifies some notable trends:
  • American jihadist travelers tend to be male, with an average age of 27;
  • They originated from more than 16 states; the states with the highest recruitment rates are Minnesota, Virginia and Ohio;
  • When they arrived in Syria and Iraq, most affiliated with the Islamic State;
  • 34 percent of American travelers were confirmed to have died in Syria and Iraq, while 19 percent were apprehended in the U.S. or overseas;
  • 12 travelers are known to have returned to the U.S. Only one is believed to have returned with the intent of committing an attack.
From the sample, the study classifies American travelers into three categories. Pioneers attain leadership positions in jihadist organizations due to unique skills, such as military training, past participation in jihadist movements, proficiency in religious doctrine or technical skills (bomb-making, computer skills, etc.). Networked travelers use personal contacts with like-minded supporters of jihadist groups in the U.S. to facilitate their travel. Loners travel seemingly without the assistance of anyone whom they know personally. The study includes several case studies of individual travelers to highlight each category.
While the internet provides useful facilitative tools for American travelers, findings suggest that personal connections and networks still largely shape dynamics of American jihadist travel. More than 85 percent of the travelers in this study had personal connections to other travelers or jihadist supporters in the U.S. prior to leaving for Syria or Iraq. 
U.S. law enforcement arrested nine out of 12 known returnees. However, criminal charges for returning American travelers and resultant prison sentences range drastically—so far, convicted returnees face an average of approximately 10 years in prison, versus the average of 14 years given to attempted travelers who were arrested before reaching Syria and Iraq. Alternative approaches outside of prosecutions are thus especially necessary to respond to returning travelers, particularly in the U.S. prison and parole systems. 
These findings underline the need to re-conceptualize the threat posed by jihadist travelers. While, to date, returning travelers have not been involved in a significant way in domestic attacks, they can augment existing domestic jihadist networks by providing expertise and connections. Therefore, the U.S. must develop a proactive and comprehensive strategy to address jihadist travel, continuously adapting preexisting measures while developing more innovative approaches based on the lessons of the past six years.