Paths to Destruction

A Group Portrait of America's Jihadists — Comparing Jihadist Travelers with Domestic Plotters

by Brian Michael Jenkins

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Research Questions

  1. What is the collective profile of Americans traveling or attempting to travel abroad to join jihadist groups?
  2. Among Americans associated with terrorism or terrorist organizations, are there significant differences in the demographics or backgrounds that propelled some to go abroad and some to instead join the jihadist movement at home?
  3. What can the collective profile of America's jihadists reveal about the dimensions and nature of the terrorist threat, the statistical profile of those who respond to jihadist recruiting appeals, the effectiveness of the U.S. response to the threat, and the results of that response?

Combating terrorism continues to be a focus of the U.S. government, and homegrown terrorists are a major concern. In this report, the author examines hundreds of U.S. residents who have traveled or attempted to travel to foreign lands to join or otherwise support terrorist organizations. The focus of the analysis is on the individuals' characteristics and what their collective demographic profile can reveal about who is going abroad to join jihadist groups. Along with the analysis described in the author's 2017 piece, titled The Origins of America's Jihadists, the findings in this report provide insight into the dimensions and nature of the terrorist threat, the statistical profile of those who respond to jihadist recruiting appeals, the effectiveness of the U.S. response to the threat, and the results of that response.

Key Findings

Travelers' collective profile provides insights into the nature of the jihadist threat

  • U.S. residents who traveled or attempted to travel abroad to join jihadists fronts — travelers, as defined in this report — were overwhelmingly male. About half were born in the United States; about one-third were converts to the Muslim faith.
  • More than half of the travelers left the United States after 2011, and almost all of those went to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. These findings suggest that Syria's civil war offered a unique confluence of appeal and accessibility.
  • Among foreign-born travelers, most arrived in the United States as children and spent roughly the same number of years there between their arrival and their attempt to join the jihad. Thus, America's jihadists do not reflect an immigration problem; that is, it does not appear that radicalized individuals are being admitted into the United States or that vetting is failing. America's jihadists are made in the United States.
  • Decisions both to travel and to plot involved individuals rather than larger groups, which indicates that jihadists have not been able to organize themselves in the United States' Muslim community.
  • The travelers' collective profile differs only marginally from that of the jihadists who plotted to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States.

The U.S. response has been remarkably effective

  • U.S. intelligence efforts, as well as military and assistance operations, in the Middle East and beyond have had far-reaching effects on terrorist groups: Such groups now depend primarily on exhortation of homegrown terrorists to carry out attacks in the United States. In addition, jihadist leaders have been driven underground, and many of them have been killed.
  • Of the jihadists examined in this report, 70 percent had been sent to prison; 60 percent remain there. At least half of those who slipped by U.S. authorities to join jihadist groups abroad had died. The attrition rate of approximately 90 percent is an undeniable success for U.S. authorities.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    A Brief History of Americans Leaving to Fight Abroad

  • Chapter Three

    Diverse Reasons for Joining Jihad

  • Chapter Four

    Profile of the Travelers

  • Chapter Five

    Comparing Those Who Traveled Before 2012 with Those Who Traveled in 2012 or Later

  • Chapter Six

    Comparing Homegrown Plotters with Travelers

  • Chapter Seven

    The Threat Posed by Returning Travelers

  • Chapter Eight

    Statistical Profile of the Combined Population of Travelers and Plotters

  • Chapter Nine

    Conclusions

  • Appendix A

    Traveler Data Set

  • Appendix B

    Additional Plotters Since the 2017 Analysis

Funding for this report was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations.

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