Sometime in 2014, a U.S. citizen named Abdullah Ramo Pazara was killed in Syria fighting Kurdish forces on behalf of the Islamic State. He was one of the first of many Americans to do so.
The Islamic State and those it has inspired are responsible for the deaths of dozens of Americans, yet the group still has drawn hundreds of U.S. persons to its black banner in the past four years.
But who are the people who would turn on their country to join one of the most vicious terrorist groups in history? And how did they do it?
The answer, like terrorism itself, is complicated.
“We found there wasn’t a single profile of a member of IS [Islamic State] or an American member of IS,” Bennett Clifford, a research fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told me in an interview. “What we found is there are some general trends, most of them tend to be young. We also found that they come from a variety of different backgrounds.”
Clifford and his colleagues recently released a report from a study they conducted on 64 Americans who traveled to Syria and Iraq since 2011 to join terrorist groups in the area. Unsurprisingly, most are male, 89 percent in fact. What was more unexpected was the fact that 70 percent were either U.S. citizens or permanent residents, meaning few were actually immigrants. Their backgrounds vary widely, and they come from across the country, though Minnesota, Virginia and Ohio had the highest rates.
The report refers to the Americans as “travelers,” and classifies them in three types: pioneers, loners and networked travelers, based on how they were able to get to the so-called caliphate.
“They have some kind of experience and key skills used by jihadist groups prior to traveling to Syria and Iraq,” explained Clifford.
Pazara was one of these men. Born near Teslic, Bosnia, Pazara was a member of the former Yugoslavia’s Muslim minority. Ironically, he was recruited as a child soldier by a Serbian militia to fight against his fellow Muslims during the country’s civil war in the 1990s. After the war, he found his way to the U.S., where he worked as a truck driver. At some point while he was in the U.S., Pazara found religion and became radicalized. He traveled to Syria in 2013, around the time he became a U.S. citizen.
Pazara leveraged his military skills to rise up the ranks in the ISIS hierarchy. He maintained connections to Bosnian immigrants back in the U.S. and created a network which supplied him with everything from knives to hot cocoa.
The pioneers are your career jihadists, the worst of the worst. They are bomb makers, computer specialists and recruiters. When you think of a typical hardcore terrorist, the pioneers are who come to mind. They joined ISIS early, and were the ones who were able to rise up through the ranks the fastest. Many of them fought for other groups before in notorious battlegrounds like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Yemen.
Few of the travelers in the report were pioneers (6.3%), though their influence and abilities make up for what they lack in numbers.
“The bulk of the study is made up of people in the middle,” noted Clifford. “People who made connections, usually in small groups of two or three, but sometimes up to seven or eight people, who all use each other’s contacts, their skills and their knowledge to travel toegether to Syria and Iraq.”
These aspiring jihadis leverage their family, friends and occasionally communities to travel to the caliphate in a group. This offers some distinct advantages, such as financial and logistical support. It’s also raises less suspicion, as authorities will more likely be on the look out for military-aged males traveling alone to terrorist havens.
“On the other end of that spectrum we have loners,” explained Clifford. “Individual guys who found jihadist groups via the internet or on their own with seemingly no other connections that somehow reached their destinations.”
These guys are the exceptions to the rule that you need a network of contacts and sources to get the the so-called caliphate. Generally speaking, getting to a war zone like Syria or Iraq is not a simple feat. At its peak, ISIS used a network of recruiters who would help would-be fighters plan their journey, from buying their plane tickets to having liaisons meet them at the Turkish-Syrian border ferrying them to their final destination. The loners used minimal information found on the internet and essentially just showed up on ISIS’s front door. That wasn’t a problem for ISIS, according to Clifford. The group would simply have each fighter put their information in a Microsoft Access form detailing where they were from and what they might like to do in their new life. Less than 10 percent of the group studied were classified as loners.
Approximately one third of the travelers who went to the caliphate died overseas. Another 19 percent have been apprehended by authorities, with another 5 percent who have returned without charges. But the bulk of the group (44 percent) remain at large, or their status is unknown. ISIS is on its last legs in Iraq and Afghanistan, though it is still putting up a fight. The larger concern, however, is what will happen to the Americans who joined up after the group falls apart.
“What we’re worried about is some of these Americans particularly those who have risen to status, i.e. the pioneers, might travel onwards to what the next jihadist conflict becomes and promote another wave of mobilization of American travlers to that location.”
ISIS has a presence in North Africa, Yemen, Afghanistan and several other countries, leaving the travelers plenty of options to move onto next.