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ISIS sympathizers, recruits big on social media, report finds

A George Washington University study Tuesday titled “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa” examined social media accounts and legal documents of Americans who have been recruited by the Islamic State group. PHOTO COURTESY ALATELE FR/FLICKR
A George Washington University study Tuesday titled “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa” examined social media accounts and legal documents of Americans who have been recruited by the Islamic State group. PHOTO COURTESY ALATELE FR/FLICKR

Amid increased concern about the Islamic State group and terrorism worldwide, George Washington University’s Program on Extremism has found that social media plays a role in radicalizing and mobilizing ISIS sympathizers in the United States.

Looking into social media accounts and legal documents, a report titled “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa” found that the group’s stateside sympathizers were mostly males, U.S. citizens or permanent residents and converts to Islam, according to a Tuesday press release.

Seamus Hughes, deputy director of GW’s Program on Extremism, said social media is one of the biggest ways that Americans come into contact with ISIS.

“ISIS and its supporters are adept at using social media to radicalize and recruit Americans,” Hughes said in the release. “A small number of Americans have whole-heartedly embraced their new-found ISIS support system online. The bar for Americans to join these terrorist organizations has been lowered, allowing a level of connectivity and interaction with recruiters and propagandists unheard of just a few years ago.”

The program’s report examined nearly 400 American ISIS sympathizers through their social media accounts, the release stated, yet contact with the group extends beyond online interactions.

“ISIS-related radicalization is by no means limited to social media,” the report states. “While instances of purely web-driven, individual radicalization are numerous, in several cases U.S.-based individuals initially cultivated and later strengthened their interest in ISIS’s narrative through face-to-face relationships. In most cases online and offline dynamics complement one another.”

Since March, 2014, 71 individuals have been charged with ISIS-related activities, 56 of whom have been arrested in 2015, according to the report.

“Other than size, diversity is the other main characteristic of this phenomenon,” Lorenzo Vidino, director of GW’s Program on Extremism, said in the release. “We have seen cases in big cities and rural towns. The individuals involved range from hardened militants to teenage girls, petty criminals and college students. While some seek to join the self-declared caliphate in ISIS-controlled territory, others plan attacks within the U.S.”

The report referenced the case of Roslindale resident Usaamah Abdullah Rahim, who was reportedly “shot and killed by police officers in his hometown after charging them with a knife.”

Rahim allegedly had been conspiring with his nephew and other conspirators in order to assassinate American individuals on behalf of ISIS, the report states.

In a case in Western Massachusetts, 23-year-old Alexander Ciccolo, son of a Boston Police Department captain, was taken into custody by members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on July 4 in connection with an allegedly ISIS-related terror plot. He was arraigned on weapons charges in U.S. District Court in Springfield.

Robert Loftis, a professor in the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, however, said that while there is a possibility of an attack taking place within the United States, the American population tends to overreact to a small number of threats in the area.

“If you saw about 55 cases nationwide, I would say that that is not prevalent. There aren’t a lot of supporters in this country,” Loftis said. “There is way too much fear of something that is far away. The things that they do are horrific, but they are not an existential threat to the United States or our way of life. Our overreaction is a much bigger danger.”

William Keylor, also a professor in the Pardee School, said people should trust authorities to handle any threats that are present in the United States, as we have these numbers from authorities acting on threats.

“There is always the possibility that there could be someone who is organizing and preparing a terrorist attack, like the one we saw in Paris, but my suspicion is that law enforcement agencies at every level are preparing for that and taking steps to prevent that from happening,” Keylor said. “We have to trust the existing authorities and hope and trust that they’re doing a good job.”

While some residents said the number of incidents was too low to suggest a real danger, others felt that it was cause for concern.

Kelly Glew, 50, of Brighton, said it’s important to always be aware that incidents like this are even popular in America.

“When we think of ISIS, we think of the Middle East,” she said. “It’s important to be aware that anything can happen anywhere and just because we live an ocean away from the Middle East does not mean we are completely protected from anything that could happen.”

April Yarboro, 42, of Roslindale, said being aware of what is happening in the world is important, but it shouldn’t overpower people’s thoughts.

“Of course there’s always a chance that anything can happen, we saw that with Paris,” she said. “We live in a dangerous world, and things happen. While that’s terrible, we can’t let the fact that these things happen control our entire lives.”

Grant Reig, 31, of the North End, said people should know that there is a low number of ISIS-related incidents in the United States.

“Yes, these things are present in America,” he said. “It’s not everybody though. These people are going to be everywhere, but it does not mean that America is a hotbed for ISIS or anything like that. Just two incidents in Massachusetts is not a very high number.”

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