ISIS Wannabes: Inside the Minds of Jihadis Born in the USA

NBC News/April 17, 2015

By Robert Windrem

American-based ISIS wannabes who have been arrested over the past two years were drawn in by the utopian fantasy of an Islamic caliphate and not necessarily a desire to commit terrorist acts on U.S. soil, a new study has found.

The survey by Fordham Law School's Center on National Security found other common threads among the 25 people charged with supporting ISIS: They tend to be young and U.S.-born, and none is Arab.

A third of them wanted to provide non-military support of the terror group that is bent on creating a single Islamic state — from financial assistance to bearing children for ISIS fighters, according to the study, which was based on a review of court cases filed over the last two years.

"The narrative is that they have bought into the idea of the caliphate that they have romanticized," said Karen Greenberg, director of the Fordham center.

"While some may want to fight, those arrested have wanted to do a wide variety of things to help the Islamic State, including nurse to wife to mother. They don't want to come home."

The Justice Department has dramatically stepped up its prosecution of those who want to travel to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and other jihadi groups. Just this week, an Ohio man was indicted for allegedly getting terror training in Syria, where his brother was killed fighting for the Al-Nusra Front.

As NBC News has previously reported, the government has relied on undercover agents, informants and confidential sources to build these cases. The study confirms that, finding 12 of the 25 used that strategy. In some of the cases, the FBI set up social media accounts purporting to be ISIS-friendly to draw in wannabes.

"I think these cases demonstrate that law enforcement has made a serious determination that they think they can stop the flow of foreign fighters," Greenberg said. "And the way to do that is to send a very clear message … 'Don't go there in any way, don't go there in thought or expression, don't even toy with the idea of becoming foreign fighters.'"

The study broke down the defendants by demographic:

  • A majority are Caucasian, none are Arabic. Three were Somali, and three others emigrated from Soviet Bloc nations — Bosnia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.
  • The average age of those who allegedly wanted to fight is 24; the average age for those who did not is 34. Nine of them were under 21.
  • More than half are from four states: Minnesota, North Carolina, New York and Illinois.
  • All but a few — including Shannon Conley of Denver and Keonna Thomas of Philadelphia — were male.
  • More than 80 percent were U.S. citizens, all but one American-born.

"They are so young. That's the biggest surprise," Greenberg said.

Beyond the 25 who were prosecuted, the study also looked at six other cases involving minors, including three Colorado girls who were stopped at Frankfurt Airport on their way to Turkey, and the two younger siblings of Illinois resident Mohammed Hamzah Khan who wanted to mirror his journey from Chicago to Syria. None are likely to be charged.

Five of the group either had military training or expressed interest in the military, but "it's just two with an actual background, including an Air Force veteran and another who was Army National Guard," said Susan Quatrone, the center's director of research.

The others included a California man who failed an aptitude test to join the National Guard and a North Carolina man who failed National Guard boot camp.

In the study group, only a couple of defendants expressed willingness to carry out violent attacks on the U.S.

Nicholas Teausant of Acampo, California, allegedly told an FBI undercover agent he wanted to fight with ISIS and see the U.S. "tumble and fall in the wake of a civil war."

He also texted about a "camping trip" where he and others discussed bombing the Los Angeles subway and even suggested "he wanted to bomb his daughter's day-care because it was at a "zionist reform church," according to court papers. His lawyer has said Teausant has psychological issues and couldn't "supply material support to a pup tent."

Two Chicago-area men, Hasan Edmonds and his cousin Jonas, were arrested last month and charged with conspiring to attack a military installation on behalf of ISIS. Hasan Edmonds, a member of the Army National Guard, was embarking on a trip to the Middle East when he was arrested.

National Intelligence Director James Clapper, in congressional testimony last month, put the number of U.S. nationals who've traveled to Syria at roughly 180 and indicated that law enforcement is monitoring those who have returned.

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