The Ohio State attack comes just two months after Ahmed Khan Rahimi detonated two bombs in New York and New Jersey. When pages from Rahimi’s blood-soaked journal were released to the public, its contents sparked confusion. In his scribblings, he had expressed support for — and clearly drew inspiration from — both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. How, many are asking, could jihadist allegiances be divided in such a way?
Many Western jihadists are not necessarily motivated by a specific group but rather the rhetoric, ideology and activities of the wider global jihadist movement, often referred to as the Salafi-jihadist movement. Indeed, the findings of a report released today by the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism show that since 2011, 79 people in the United States were convicted of jihadist-related offenses unconnected to the Islamic State. In many of these cases, the individuals displayed a general adherence to the movement more widely, as opposed to an obsession with specific group affiliation.
How global terrorist ideologies evolved beyond organizations
Terrorist groups do not emerge in a vacuum. Usually, they represent the most extreme and violent incarnations of a wider milieu or social movement. Global jihadism today is arguably the world’s most widespread and violent social movement, with a countercultural appeal that few can rival. Al-Qaeda, one of the first terrorist groups to emerge from this movement, was the spearhead and standard-bearer of global jihadism, a mantle that, for now at least, has been assumed by the Islamic State.
Jihadist strategists have been aware of the power of their movement for some time and long ago began to look beyond formal hierarchical networks. They sought to encourage the cultivation of a wider movement not overly reliant on groups or individual leaders to survive.
This means the deaths of leadership figures, from al-Qaeda’s popular English-language ideologue Awlaki to former Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, while impactful, will not entirely remove the threat. Indeed, the vast majority of our sample of the 79 individuals who were charged with jihadi offenses unrelated to the Islamic State between March 1, 2011, and July 31, 2016, had no formal links to any foreign terrorist organizations (FTO), underscoring the informal nature of the current threat.
Groups still matter, but for different reasons
This is not to say that groups are irrelevant. Our data set also shows Americans have associated with 13 different FTOs, from Ansar Dine in Mali to al-Shabab in Somalia. This is concerning, because the most effective terrorist attacks are usually the product of training received from specific terrorist organizations. For law enforcement, a suspected terrorist’s group affiliation is crucial to their investigations to prevent attacks and prosecutions to bring terrorists to justice.
There is also no doubt that the success of a certain group can help spread a movement and drive up recruitment. The successful realization of the long sought-after caliphate — the establishment of which forms the core of jihadist ideology no matter the group — has certainly helped the Islamic State inspire and attract adherents.
The lure of the Islamic State isn’t new or unique
It is therefore no surprise that of the 178 individuals charged with jihadi terrorism offenses (both related and not related to the Islamic State) in the United States during our sample period, 99 cases — 56 percent — were related to the Islamic State. The first Islamic State-linked arrest was in March 2014, with that number climbing to 12 by the end of the year. Islamic State-related arrests peaked in 2015 with a total of 62, and as of July 31, 2016, 21 more had been arrested. The remaining three individuals who face Islamic State-related charges have not been arrested and are thought to be in Syria.
Support for other jihadist groups also appears to be declining. Twenty-six — 33 percent — of those charged with non-Islamic State-related terrorism offenses were arrested in 2011, which was around the time that the Islamic State began to attract Western foreign fighters. In the years since, the annual number of non-Islamic State terrorism arrests has fallen, with 12 arrests in 2015 and only three through the end of this year’s sample period.
Of the non-Islamic State members charged in our study, 38 percent of these individuals attempted to or successfully traveled abroad. Destinations included Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. This compares to 46 percent among Islamic State-related cases in the same period, which is to be expected given that Islamic State has prioritized the migration of Muslims to its self-proclaimed caliphate. Nonetheless, our findings show that Islamic State is certainly not the first jihadist group to encourage Western Muslims to travel abroad and fight.
Who are these — largely — homegrown terrorists?
Approximately one-third — 34 percent — of the individuals in our data set were involved in plotting terrorist attacks in the United States. Their targets included religious institutions of other faiths, government buildings, banks, bars and universities. Only one of those charged — Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — successfully carried out a domestic attack.
The findings also underscore the truly homegrown nature of this threat. Despite ongoing fears about refugees and immigration, 52 of the 79 individuals charged with non-Islamic State-related jihadist terrorism offenses are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Only four are refugees, while two were in the United States illegally and one was in the country on a student visa.
The ages within the data set vary. Those charged with jihadist-inspired terrorism offenses unrelated to the Islamic State were on average 29 at the time of arrest. The youngest two of those charged were 17 at the time of their arrests. The oldest, Hafiz Muhammed Sher Ali Khan, was 76 when he was arrested in 2011. Fifty percent of those in the data set were 25 or older at the time of arrest. These figures differ only slightly when looking at Islamic State-related offenses, where the average age is 26.
The geographic locations of the individuals in the data set span 22 states. New York and California saw the highest number of non-Islamic State inspired cases, with 11 and nine respectively.
Sharing the same ideological foundations as its predecessor, the Islamic State is reaping the benefits of the groundwork laid by al-Qaeda and its Western preachers who introduced, popularized and tailored the global jihad movement’s ideology to their audiences. Terrorists like the San Bernardino shooters can be termed al-Qaeda “graduates,” who were introduced to Salafi-jihadist ideology by al-Qaeda and the work of Awlaki but acted in the name of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
While an unprecedented number of Americans have radicalized in support of the Islamic State in the past five years, terrorist arrests unrelated to the group indicate that American jihadists continue to draw their inspiration from a variety of sources. Understanding the long-term challenges of the global jihadist threat will require looking beyond specific groups and affiliation.
Sarah Gilkes is a graduate student at Georgetown University’s security studies program and a research associate at the GW’s Program on Extremism