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Research Questions

  1. Is ISIL more skillful and adaptive than al Qaeda at recruiting?
  2. Has ISIL appealed to a different segment of the population than that touched by al Qaeda?
  3. Has ISIL simply displaced al Qaeda as the most infectious voice reaching American audiences who are vulnerable to radicalization, and has this trend continued since ISIL's founding in 2013?

This report seeks to better understand why the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been more successful than its predecessor organization, al Qaeda, in recruiting individuals within the United States. The authors consider whether the demographic profile of individuals drawn to foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) has changed over time or whether new groups are more successful appealing to the same segment of the population. They take an expansive approach, analyzing all known cases of U.S. citizens or persons within the United States connected to a FTO with Islamist orientation since September 11, 2001, and use consistent criteria for inclusion and exclusion to identify individuals meeting this definition, and coding multiple demographic variables. They then conduct a quantitative analysis of the entire population, as well as the population broken down by group and by role (i.e., foreign fighters, homegrown violent extremists, etc.). Their findings reveal that the number of U.S. recruits drawn to al Qaeda and its affiliate 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 African American/black or Caucasian/white and a U.S.-born citizen. Historically, terrorist recruits were more likely immigrants of Middle Eastern descent. These findings are relevant to U.S. defense, intelligence, and law enforcement officials, as well as to civilian academic and policymaking audiences, who may be unaware of this altered demographic profile, a perception that could bias counterterrorism policy and efforts.

Key Findings

Terrorist Recruits in the Present Day

  • The historic stereotype of a Muslim, Arab, immigrant male as the most vulnerable to extremism is not representative of many terrorist recruits today.
  • Recruits are more likely to be Caucasian/white or African American/black, and to have been born in the United States.
  • Recruits are more likely to be younger and less educated.
  • Recruits are more likely to have converted to Islam as part of their radicalization process.
  • Although they are still primarily male, recruits are increasingly likely to be female.
  • Perhaps most important, recruits are at present more likely to be drawn to or influenced by ISIL rather than al Qaeda or its affiliates during their process of radicalization and journey to terrorism.

Recommendations

  • A more thorough inquiry into this topic would benefit from the cooperation of law enforcement, and particularly the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which may be aware of additional cases that should be included and may have additional information regarding recruits' conversion to Islam, educational background, and past criminal history. A research project done in collaboration with law enforcement could also gauge whether some of the increases or decreases in arrests could reflect a change in the posture or priorities of law enforcement.
  • A more precise inquiry into how FTOs inspire terrorist actions would also consider the date when an individual began radicalizing, or at least when a law enforcement investigation was opened; ideally, it would probe the sequencing of the radicalization process of individuals in fine biographical detail. Incorporating these dates and data points would better reflect events that inspired an individual to conduct a terrorist act.
  • Research efforts should consider whether to include the entire population of domestic terrorists inside the United States (e.g., individuals connected to white supremacists, sovereign citizens, militant environmentalists, revolutionary organizations, etc.). Doing so would require careful attention to definitions and coding criteria, as there is no universally set definition of terrorism.
  • Focusing more on the motivation of actors — and resisting the temptation to label an attack as terrorism simply because the individual involved may have been Muslim or had a Middle Eastern background — could help us better understand, and therefore combat, the threat of terrorism in the United States.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Findings

  • Chapter Three

    Conclusions

  • Appendix

    Individuals and Variables in the Terrorist Data Set

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, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense intelligence community.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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