The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism has identified 64 cases of Americans who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join jihadist groups, representing “the most comprehensive, publicly available accounting of this phenomenon to date”[1]. Several of these stories have never been publicly released[2]. The report is the result of researchers attending court proceedings across the country, conducting interviews, and reviewing legal documents[3].

The report divides the travellers into three categories; pioneers, who attain leadership positions in jihadist organizations due to unique skills; networked travellers, who use personal contacts to facilitate their travel; and loners, who travel seemingly without the assistance of anyone whom they personally know[4].

The study finds the backgrounds, profiles, and threats posed by the travellers are diverse, though some notable trends are identifiable. They tend to be male (with an average age of 27), originate from more than 16 states, and most are affiliated with Islamic State. 34% died in Syria or Iraq, while 19% were apprehended in the U.S. or overseas and 12 returned to the U.S. Only one is believed to have returned with the intent of committing an attack[5]. Convicted returnees face a variation of jail sentences, but the average is 10 years in prison. This is in comparison to the 14 years given to attempted travellers who were arrested before reaching their destinations[6].

The study suggests that personal connections and networks still largely shape the dynamics of American jihadist travel, having more influence than the internet[7].

The press release about the significance of the report states, “[t]hese findings underline the need to re-conceptualize the threat posed by jihadist travelers. While, to date, returning travelers have not been involved in a significant way in domestic attacks, they can augment existing domestic jihadist networks by providing expertise and connections. Therefore, the U.S. must develop a proactive and comprehensive strategy to address jihadist travel, continuously adapting preexisting measures while developing more innovative approaches based on the lessons of the past six years”[8].

[1] The George Washington University, 2018.

[2] The George Washington University, 2018.

[3] The George Washington University, 2018.

[4] The George Washington University, 2018.

[5] The George Washington University, 2018.

[6] The George Washington University, 2018.

[7] The George Washington University, 2018.

[8] The George Washington University, 2018.

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Sources

The George Washington University. (2018) ‘Multiyear Investigation Uncovers 64 American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq’. [online] 6 February. https://mediarelations.gwu.edu/multiyear-investigation-uncovers-64-american-jihadists-syria-and-iraq. [Accessed 21 February 2018].