Islamic State Proves Greater Draw for U.S.-Born Recruits Than al Qaeda

For Release

December 18, 2018

A new RAND report finds that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been more successful than its predecessor organization, al Qaeda, in drawing Americans to its cause. Whereas al-Qaeda was more reliant on preexisting connections to the region or Islam, an ISIL candidate recruit is more likely to be younger, less educated, and a U.S.-born citizen.

Researchers analyzed all known cases of U.S. citizens or persons within the United States connected to a foreign terrorist organization with Islamist orientation since September 11, 2001. Their findings reveal that the number of U.S. recruits drawn to al Qaeda and its offshoot groups has declined precipitously, commensurate with the ascent of ISIL, and that the average terrorist recruited by ISIL is not only younger and less educated but more likely to be an African American/black or Caucasian/white U.S.-born citizen.

“The stereotype of a Muslim, Arab, immigrant male as the most vulnerable to extremism is not representative of many terrorist recruits today. Although they are still primarily male, recruits are also increasingly likely to be female,” said Heather Williams, lead author and a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. “Historically, terrorist recruits were more likely immigrants of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent.”

These findings are relevant to U.S. defense, intelligence, law enforcement officials and policymakers, who may have a perception of a likely terrorist recruit that could bias counterterrorism policy and efforts.

The researchers recommend greater cooperation with law enforcement units, in particular the FBI, which may be able to share additional information regarding factors such as recruits’ conversion to Islam, educational background and past criminal history that could be helpful to understanding the reasons why these individuals were drawn to foreign terrorist organizations.

Other authors of the report, “Trends in the Draw of Americans to Foreign Terrorist Organizations from 9/11 to Today,” include Nathan A. Chandler and Eric Robinson.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute (NDRI), a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense Intelligence Community.

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