The Caliphate has fallen but it hasn’t taken all of its secrets down with it. In the years since ISIS lost the last vestiges of its territory, prosecutors and grand juries across America have been sifting through the rubble piecing together a fuller picture of the Americans who sought to defend it. But those fragments are scattered across 93 U.S. Attorney offices, 56 FBI field offices, thousands of official records, and dozens of interviews.
While researching for our book, Homegrown: ISIS in America, we thought we had a good sense of the scope and breadth of jihadist activity in the United States. But with every new piece of information came the realization that it will take years to fully understand it.
For three years, we collected and reviewed over 20,000 pages of court records from across the country and traveled to numerous courthouses to sit in on trials and retrieve documents only available in person. We submitted dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests and countless appeals in response to rejections of those requests. We also filed several motions in federal courts across the country to force the release of records. As a result, we obtained hundreds of pages of previously sealed documents. We also conducted interviews with prosecutors, defense attorneys, returning American ISIS members, and federal agents directly involved in investigating and apprehending ISIS supporters in America.
The result was a series of facts and stories that the public were never told. Until now.
In November 2015 Faisal Mohammad, a troubled UC Merced student, committed one of the first ISIS-inspired attacks in America when he burst into one of his classrooms dressed all in black and began stabbing his classmates, injuring four. A state court blocked the school and local authorities from releasing a written document found in his possession to the public. However, we discovered that the order did not extend to the federal level, and uncovered the handwritten document as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. In it, Mohammad outlines a 32-step plan for his attack that included tying up his classmates and methodically slitting their throats one by one. He detailed exactly who he wanted to target, what to say in a 911 call, and how to best achieve martyrdom. The directions are short and to the point. Step number two: “Put on balaclava, check both ways, say Bismillah [in the name of God].” Four: “zip-tie everyone’s hands behind their backs.” Twelve: “praise Allah while slitting.” Thirteen: “Hang/paste [ISIS] flag.” Also planning for the police response, he writes a few steps later, “charge from behind and slit calmly yet forcefully one of the officers with a gun.”
A chillingly calculating plot on paper, things didn't quite go to plan when put into action. Mohammed managed to injure four of his classmates with a knife before being barricaded out of the room and eventually killed by police outside of the university building.
“After an extensive investigation of all available evidence, no ties to co-conspirators or foreign terrorist organizations have been found. Every indication is that Mohammad acted on his own,” said the local FBI field office nearly a year after the rampage. That is not surprising. Of the 26 jihadist inspired attacks in the U.S. since 2014, the vast majority have little if any formal direction from terrorist leadership in Syria. Unlike some initial dire expectations, jihadist violence in America during the past five years has been characterized by a large number of unsophisticated (but sometimes deadly) attacks, rather than well-coordinated terrorist plots.
In the mid 2010s, one of the chief concerns among analysts and security officials was the threat of a wave of foreign fighters returning to the United States with specialized terrorist training. Unlike Europe, which experienced a number of terrorist attacks by members trained in Syria, this did not come to fruition in America. Of the 24 adults known to have returned, the overwhelming majority came back disillusioned and disenchanted with their participation in foreign jihadist groups. The one outlier was a young man from Ohio, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, who in April 2014 traveled to Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusrah, an al-Qaeda affiliate there. He was following in the footsteps of his brother Abdifatah Aden, who later died in Syria fighting for the same group. Mohamud was trained by al-Nusrah and sent back two months later to the U.S. in order to conduct an attack. He was arrested soon after in a sting operation, with the public indictment painting a picture of a man who planned to commit an attack largely on his own.
What was not known at the time, and only came to light in recent months with the quiet unsealing of a search warrant, was that, while in Syria, Mohamud had begun creating a cell with at least five of his friends based in Ohio and communicating with them online. They had known each other for years and as a group were known locally as “the River Pointe Kids” who played basketball together every week at the local “Y.” Upon contacting Mohamud while he was in Syria, the friends pledged allegiance to him as their “emir,” or leader, and began to discuss details of an attack.
The plan, as requested by Mohamud’s al-Nusrah handler, was to attack a prison in Texas which held Aafia Siddiqui, a female former Boston resident and al-Qaeda operative who was sentenced to 86 years in prison in 2010 for the attempted murder of a military officer while being held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. Freeing Siddiqui has long been a cause célèbre among jihadists in the West, who see themselves as the defenders of all women who require their protection, but this is the first known plot aimed at violently springing her from prison.
The plan was to travel to Texas and take hostages either among random civilians or soldiers based near the prison and use them to negotiate Siddiqui’s release. They had also discussed executing soldiers, something which al-Nusrah leadership had pressed upon Mohamud before sending him back to the United States. However, their meetings soon became subject to FBI surveillance and infiltration using confidential sources and Mohamud was eventually arrested. The remaining cell members in Ohio were subject to intense FBI surveillance, but were never charged with a crime. The Siddiqui plot remains the only known jihadist operation undertaken by a American jihadist returning from the battlefields of Syria.
Mohamud represents one of more than 295 people who, according to the FBI, traveled or attempted to travel to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Of that, in our research we were able to identify 85 Americans by name who successfully joined groups including ISIS and al-Nusrah. But identifying those 85 has been an uphill and, at times, slow-moving battle. Nonetheless, new cases of travel and attempted travel continue to turn up. This last month we obtained a court record which set out details of a hitherto unknown Chicago-based network of extremist adherents who planned to join ISIS in 2015.
In mid-May 2015, members of a Chicago mosque reached out to local law enforcement with a tip: Three young men from their congregation were believed to be on their way to join the Islamic State. Two brothers, Faress Muhammad Shraiteh and Omar Muhammad Shraiteh, and their cousin, Muhammad Nader Shraiteh were staying together at a local Motel 6 and preparing to take a flight from Illinois to Turkey via Egypt in the hope of crossing into Syria to join ISIS. The tip-off came a little too late. FBI agents visited the mosque soon after and spoke to their fathers, but they confirmed that the boys had already left home, taking their passports with them.
It later emerged that they had flown out of the U.S. around a week earlier without any trouble. Faress was stopped at the Turkish border and denied entry, opting instead to visit family in Jerusalem where he was promptly arrested by Israeli authorities and charged for his involvement with ISIS. The other two, however, successfully joined and fought for ISIS before being killed, Nader in Iraq and Omar in Syria. In interviews with FBI agents in Jerusalem, Faress denied any involvement with ISIS, blaming the situation on his dead brother, Omar.
While a newly uncovered case, the networked nature of this mobilization is important to note. The internet is often credited as a key mobilizing force behind what is sometimes referred to, usually erroneously, as “self-radicalization.” This case, as with most of those covered in our book who traveled to join ISIS, shows again the importance of real-world, often friendship or kinship networks in influencing decisions to join and fight for ISIS.
In the coming years, it’s possible that new cases made available to the public may help complete a more thorough picture of American women’s participation in jihadist groups during the past five years. At present, this remains misunderstood in some quarters. A study by Audrey Alexander and Rebecca Turkington, for example, found that women in jihadist groups were less likely to face criminal prosecution in the U.S. for participating in terrorist groups, despite evidence that they engaged in the same types of support as their male counterparts. In our sample, approximately 90 percent of the cases were men—but incidents of women supporting jihadist groups continue to emerge, strongly suggesting that figure is an overestimation. It also doesn’t help that the U.S. government occasionally doesn’t issue press releases on arrests of female jihadists.
In August 2019, for example, a Tennessee-licensed clinical social worker named Georgianna Giampietro was indicted in federal court for attempting to provide material support to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a prominent Syrian jihadist group. In 2016, Giampietro allegedly communicated with an undercover FBI employee online, telling the agent that she was planning on traveling to Syria to meet her fiancé, a jihadist fighting in Syria named Abu Abdullah. Relying on marriage as the sole explanation for Giampietro’s motivations, however, would be a mistake: She claimed to be intent on fighting alongside her future husband and also encouraged several of her contacts to travel to Syria. She reportedly “provided specific advice as to how to travel without being detected by law enforcement, including cutting off contact with others, purchasing round-trip tickets, and traveling through Italy instead of London.” Finally, Giampietro was responsible for coordinating several Western Union transfers to purported jihadists in Syria via Egypt and Turkey. Her trial is scheduled for September of next year.
These are just some of the stories that never hit the press. We know there are more. Things we couldn’t fully track down but warrant another look. From the first American suicide bomber in Syria who traveled with a previously unreported companion, a California ISIS supporter tripped up in a Spanish love affair, to the high school teenager who delivered his friend’s farewell jihadi letter.
Terrorism investigations are understandably clouded in secrecy. There are high stakes involved in every decision. The wrong law enforcement approach in an FBI investigation could leave people dead or, conversely, violate First Amendment rights of individuals holding extreme but protected beliefs. However, without a bit a digging, the public may never know the full extent of jihadist support in America.
Seamus Hughes, Bennett Clifford, and Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens are the authors of Homegrown: ISIS in America. They are also researchers at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.