- In early January, US-backed Syrian fighters captured an American citizen on a northern Syria battlefield named Warren Clark, who said he joined the group out of curiosity.
- His background and loose connection to the terrorist organisation represent the changing, more diverse range of people drawn to foreign terror groups in the post-9/11 era.
- Since 2013, roughly 65% of US-born ISIS recruits are either African-American or Caucasian, a study by the RAND Corporation found.
- “The historic stereotype of a Muslim, Arab, immigrant male as the most vulnerable to extremism is not representative of many terrorist recruits today,” the report said.
The man from Sugar Land, Texas with a passion for travel and teaching children doesn’t seem like a stereotypical ISIS recruit.
Warren Christopher Clark, a black, Texas native who sent a cover letter and resume to ISIS as early as 2015, the New York Times revealed, was captured in Syria by US allies. His goal was not to become a militant or fighter, he later told NBC News. He just wanted to teach English.
Clark, who was charged Friday for material support to ISIS, may not be the type of person who comes to mind at the mention of ISIS. But a study published by the RAND Corporation, which analysed US-based jihadist terrorism activities in the post-9/11 era, shows that the Texan represents aspects of the new reality of terrorism.
“The portrait that emerges from our analysis suggests that the historic stereotype of a Muslim, Arab, immigrant male as the most vulnerable to extremism is not representative of many terrorist recruits today,” the report says.
The changing face of terrorism
That US citizens pose the greatest terrorism-related threat within the US is not a recent development.
In 2015, the George Washington University Program on Extremism reported that of 71 people arrested for ISIS-related activities in the US in that year, 58 of them were US-born citizens.
The GWU study for the most part matches a trend reported by RAND, which independently found that as ISIS gained influence in the post-9/11 era, the number of US-born recruits drawn to jihadist terrorism started to grow.
Of the 152 US persons with known affiliations with ISIS, RAND found that 106 were citizens born in the US.
Comparatively, only 59 of 131 al-Qaeda affiliates were US-born citizens.
In another revelation, RAND showed US-based ISIS recruits have become more racially and ethnically diverse as the group gained influence, and are notably more diverse than those with known al-Qaeda affiliations.
About 65% of US-born ISIS recruits since 2013 are either African-American/black or Caucasian/white. This is a shift from the group’s earlier years, and an even more radical shift from those persons drawn to al-Qaeda.
ISIS has a broader appeal
Aided by the internet, terror organisations began targeting more vulnerable populations over time, specifically young and socially alienated people who find a sense of belonging in a far-away group.
While ISIS has a far more sophisticated understanding and usage of social media, al-Qaeda has shown an ability to tap into the vortex of the internet – RAND reports that the number of “terrorist-related websites exploded from 100 in 1998 … to approximately 4,300 by 2005.”
In that year, ISIS was still in its infancy.
Even so, al-Qaeda’s marketing typically appealed to a narrower field of recruits in terms of religion, race, and nationalism. ISIS, on the other hand, appealed to a wider range of people. Heather Williams, the lead author for the RAND study, told Business Insider that Clark represents an increasingly common type of recruit who is not necessarily drawn to violence, but some other component of terrorist organisations.
“There were people who fit that before, but they are more frequently fitting that profile now,” Williams said.
Terrorism may be changing, but experts caution against reliance on stereotypes
Clark, the 34-year-old teacher from Texas who was recently captured in Northern Syria, doesn’t quite fit into any stereotypical “terrorist” category.
Clark is a US-born American citizen. According to an interview with NBC News, he did not initially leave the US with intentions of joining ISIS, but sought travel opportunities that ultimately drew him to Turkey, Iraq, and then Syria.
He told NBC that he never took up arms for ISIS and was even detained by the terrorist organisation after trying to defect, maintaining that he was drawn to ISIS out of curiosity, not a desire to become a militant.
“The take-away is that the ties [people drawn to ISIS] have to the terrorist organisation can be very loose,” Williams said.
The RAND report was published in December, nearly a month before Clark’s capture. But Williams said his background is a good example of the range of individuals answering ISIS’ call.
“A great number of the individuals studied were lured to the call of jihad in Muslim lands abroad rather than domestically; whether adventure seekers or inspired by misguided senses of religious duty, they were not necessarily aggrieved with the US homeland,” the report states.
Still, Williams cautioned against stereotyping a particular profile, especially one based on nationality.
“I don’t think that’s a productive diagnostic tool, and can also lead to bias,” she told Business Insider.
The Trump administration’s travel ban, which targets many Muslim-majority countries, is not necessarily a helpful counterterrorism policy, Williams said, and may even be a distraction.
“If [law enforcement agency] perceptions are based on history, there is validity but they should recognise the shift.”
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