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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How Many American Jihadists?

UPDATED 1/14/2011: This post has been updated with new material derived from my forthcoming book, "Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War In The Name Of Islam," the first comprehensive look at the phenomenon of American jihadists from the 1970s to the present. The book is scheduled to be released in April/May 2011. Pre-orders are available now. For information about review copies or for media interviews on American jihadists, contact me here.

The question "How many American jihadists are out there?" has been posed to me by reporters and other interested people from time to time. In 2009 and 2010, a series of stories were published by journalists around the country who are just "discovering" that Americans have signed up for jihad. So I wanted to give a little bit of perspective on the history of American jihadists, which will be greatly expanded on in the book.

How long has this been going on? And how many are there?

It seems as if most people writing on this issue believe that American jihadists sprang into existence after 9/11. The linked article is particularly disappointing in its shallow pool approach, given the source.

Not only is this untrue, but it's desperately important. What U.S. policymakers need to understand is that Americans have been involved in these activities since the dawn of the modern age of terrorism -- to be more specific, at least two American citizens took part in the Siege of Mecca in 1979.

There were a few incidents before this which qualify as "jihadist," but they aren't networked jihad, more like individual expressions of political frustration. I discuss one of the most memorable of these incidents in the book.

Since 1979, Americans have taken part in every single major jihadist conflict around the globe, to a greater or lesser extent. Americans fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, they fought the Serbs in Bosnia. Every major Islamic terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland has included American collaborators, and many attacks overseas have as well.

For the book and thereafter, I have examined the following numbers of cases:

  • 160 U.S.-born citizens have taken part in significant jihadist activity.
  • 113 jihadists have been naturalized U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
  • 353 people residing in the U.S., legally or illegally, for a substantial period of time (i.e., years) who have taken part in jihadist activity.

    A few important things to remember about this list:

  • These are documented cases, which means cases that have resulted in prosecutions, associates of people who were prosecuted, and a number of people who I have personally become aware of, but who were not part of a prosecution. The call as to who is serious enough to merit inclusion is subjective on my part.
  • There are huge gaps in the data. This list is the tip of an iceberg. For instance, no one in the U.S. government tracked of how many Americans fought in Afghanistan or Bosnia. There are no figures except what can be mined from court transcripts and jihadist histories. I estimate at least 150 Americans fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and at least 30 Americans fought in Bosnia, but these are only educated guesses. These are guesses. The real numbers -- especially Afghanistan -- could be much higher.
  • With a few exceptions I deemed significant enough to transcend local politics, I did not document Hamas and Hezbollah cases for this list, focusing instead on the global jihad movement most dangerously represented by Al Qaeda.
  • The people on this list generally have a clear connection to an established jihadist movement or explicitly espoused jihadist ideology. Only one or two cases on my list are judgment calls where you could easily argue for other motives.
  • Keep in mind that the list covers the last 30 years.

    Also important to keep in mind is that these are people whose involvement in jihadism amounted to more than just idle talk. So if you're counting the Internet "jihobbyists" (as Jarret Brachman calls them), there are still more people to think about.

    How many? It depends on where you draw the line for the definition of jihobbyist. Someone who is a daily consumer of jihadist material and only an occasional contributor? Or should they be daily contributors? Do you count only those who participate on the top 10 forums (a relatively small number)? Do you count people who take part only in jihadist forums, or those who sign up for strict Salafist forums? Do they have to take part in those forums' jihadist section, or should we count those who merely enable and legitimize forums which have jihadist sections?

    For every case we know about, there are X cases we don't know about. Depending on what value you assign to X and what you consider "significant" jihadist activity, the total number of Americans likely to have taken part in jihadist activity is at least in the thousands, and possibly tens of thousands.

    More data will likely surface in coming months (of 2011) which will help create a more precise estimate of current activity, which I expect to on the high end. But most data is likely to focus on the post-September 11 era.

    Hopefully all of this illuminates the fact that American jihadists are not necessarily a wacky new trend.

    At this point, I do believe that the number of current American jihadists is higher than it was prior to September 11, but the increase is likely not as dramatic as some in the media would like to portray it.

    Rather, I think the trend is that the Americans who do sign up are much more visible now, in part because we care more than we did in the 1980s and 1990s,and in part because the Internet encourages them to identify themselves, as opposed to the pre-9/11 era, when most individual consumers of jihadist propaganda talked about their interests in person and (mostly) behind closed doors.

    Beyond the "significant" jihadists, lie the jihobbyists. I think the number of people casually interested in jihad is growing thanks to the Internet. Until fairly recently, we haven't seen a lot of indicators that jihobbyists were becoming active jihadists. But in 2010 and 2011, there has been a notable uptick in such cases. The conversion rate of jihobbyists to jihadists is a massive concern going forward.

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    Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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    INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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