Bottom Line Up Front:
• While the Islamic State is under pressure in Syria and Iraq, the group’s crowdsourced external operations capability remains a threat inside the United States, inspiring individuals to act in its name
• In the month of June alone, there have already been five arrests of individuals in the United States on Islamic State-related charges, an indication that law enforcement measures are working in overdrive
• A study by the Center on National Security found 56 arrests related to the Islamic State in the U.S. since March 2014, with an increase in monthly arrests through June 2015
• The shortened timeline from social media radicalization to potential violent action puts enormous pressure on law enforcement to ‘disrupt’ as soon as burgeoning criminal behavior is detected.
Inside the United States, the violent ideology of the so-called Islamic State continues to find individuals willing to violently act in the group’s name. There have already been five arrests of individuals inside the United States on charges related to the Islamic State since June 1, 2015. Those arrested were all at different stages on the extremist timeline, ranging from providing material support to plotting beheadings or providing weapons for attacks.
Recent arrests in June follow an all-too-familiar pattern of small groups or individuals moving from tacit to overt support for the Islamic State or its murderous ideology, and then from material support to operational support. According to a study by the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, 56 people have been arrested on various Islamic State-related charges in the 15 months since March 2014, with another three killed by law enforcement officials in the course of arrest.
There has been an increase in the number of arrests per month during this timeframe, from one Islamic State-related arrest per month to seven. This increase both reflects the results of effective law enforcement strategies and the threat posed by the Islamic State’s ubiquitous social media efforts. While law enforcement agencies are succeeding in disrupting potential acts of terror, they are not running out of potential suspects, as the group continues to attract followers in the United States. These disrupted plots and pre-plots varied widely in scope and threat but they all shared the characteristic of being inspired by the Islamic State rather than being directed by the group. Traditional notions of command-and-control do not apply to the Islamic State, leaving traditional methods of law enforcement scrambling to adjust to plots where the fuse is lit not by an order but by an ideology.
The recent arrests underscore the pressure that law enforcement is under as it relates to the detection, investigation, and disruption of terrorism cases. The timeline from the merely inspirational to the fatally operational has been compressed by social media, shortening the time investigators have to determine the scope of the case and threat. The spectre of Paris and the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in which very well-known ‘wolves of terror’ were detected but never deterred, hangs over domestic terrorism cases. With that in mind, federal authorities are moving quickly to arrest plotters in the earliest stages rather than risk one slipping through the cracks. This results in arrests that may appear to be trivial or not worthy of such massive effort, but are actually other ’new terror spectaculars‘ stopped well before lives were lost.
The threat of domestic terror attacks inspired and motivated by the Islamic State or groups of its ilk is both an immediate threat and a long-term challenge. Even if the group faces serious setbacks in Iraq and Syria, its social media messaging and, above all, its ideology of bin Ladinism, is not going anywhere anytime soon. This is the reality that law enforcement and counterterrorism agencies in the United States and across the globe face daily and will continue to face for the foreseeable future.