Study looks at the unprecedented 'Minnesota cluster' of terror recruits that traveled to fight for ISIS

Travel to the Middle East to join extremist fighting is on the decline however.

What's happening?

The George Washington Program on Extremism has released a new report, American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq, that studies the motivations, methods and threats from terror suspects who traveled from the U.S. to join jihadist fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The study focused specifically on the 64 America-based suspects who were known to have successfully traveled from the U.S. to the Middle East to join the fighting, and 50 others who were stopped as they tried to leave.

More of these successful jihadist travelers came from Minnesota than any other state.

In total, around 300 Americans have left or attempted to leave for Syria and Iraq since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

The numbers in context

The number of people who successfully traveled from the U.S. to join jihadist groups like ISIS in the Middle East pales in comparison to the number in Europe, where radicalization rates are higher and thousands are able to make use of land borders that are easier to access.

While Minnesota had the highest rate of successful jihadist travelers in the country, the total of 7 represents a rate of just 0.127 people per 100,000 state residents.

This compares to recruitment levels seen in "European cities, towns and even small neighborhoods," the study says, which are "home to dozens of foreign fighters."

Why Minnesota is unusual

Minnesota is the location of one of the only known terror "clusters" linked to ISIS fighting in Syria and Iraq.

You may have read about it before, as it involved not just the 7 people who successfully managed to reach the Middle East between 2013 and 2017, but also at least 10 others who were stopped before they could leave the country.

This cluster has its roots in the exodus seen between 2007 to 2013, when 23 young men – predominantly Somali immigrants – traveled from the Twin Cities to Somalia to join the jihadist group al-Shabaab.

The ISIS-linked cluster led to a series of prosecutions of predominantly young, Somali-American men on multiple charges, as well as several prosecutions in-absentia against those who made it to the Middle East.

These cases prompted Minnesota's then U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger to say "Minnesota has a terror recruitment problem," and led to increased funding for anti-extremism programs.

The cluster is unusual because they show similarities to the networks of terror suspects at work in European cities, whereas jihadist travelers from other American cities tend to be lone wolfs or couples. 

Calling it the "one known exception to the norm of American traveler networks," the Minnesota cluster crossed several friend and family groups, with those who successfully made it to the Middle East attempting to then recruit relatives and friends in the Twin Cities to join them.

The Minnesota cluster however was nowhere near the scale of those found in European neighborhoods, the study says.

Travel is on the decline, but that brings risks

Travel to join the fighting in Syria and Iraq has been on the decline since 2015, the study found, with the Star Tribune reporting that nobody from Minnesota has been charged in a case since the cluster prosecutions in 2016.

There have however been unexpected red flags on recent cases, including the recent double stabbing at the Mall of America in which the suspect told a judge he was answering the call of the ISIS leader. This is despite him giving no indication that was his motivation during police interviews, and also showing signs of psychological problems, the Star Tribune notes.

But with travel from the U.S. to the Middle East to join jihadist fighting closely monitored and difficult to pull off, the great risk comes from retribution against the U.S. on a domestic scale.

"The concern is that, absent a physical space to travel to, their focus will shift elsewhere to avenging the loss of the Islamic State," the report says.

"We’ve seen Islamic State propaganda romanticizing the lost caliphate and calling for those to commit attacks out of revenge."

That said, the study concedes that while large-scale travel has concluded for now, "there may be a future mobilization of travelers when new battlefields emerge."

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