In 2013 an independent journalist named Trevor Aaronson blew the lid off of one the most fascinating and frightful stories of the 21st century. In his book The Terror Factory, he chronicled the development of the FBI’s counter terrorism mission in the years after 9/11 into a system of policing that relied almost exclusively on entrapment jobs and stings led by low level informants, and targeting economically desperate, and in some cases even mentally disabled, would-be conspirators. Due in large part to his work, more and more reputable media outlets are focusing their attention of the effectiveness of these FBI programs. Despite numerous reports on the FBI’s ugly history, including a 2014 report released by Human Rights Watch on some of the more abhorrent instances of abuse, there is little evidence that the FBI has done anything substantial to change its methodology. This story does, however, highlight an extremely important aspect of the state of international terrorism. It is all but nonexistent.

Trevor Aaronson giving a Ted Talk in 2015

Trevor Aaronson giving a Ted Talk in 2015

According to Aaronsen, there have only been about 6 terrorism related plots in the United States since 9/11 that were conceived of without the help from the FBI. This number is relatively miniscule compared to the over 400 convictions of terrorist crimes accumulated in the same period. Of those attacks that were not essentially manufactured, including the Fort Hood shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing, and failed attacks such as the Underwear Bombing plot which would have succeeded if not for error on the part of the actual terrorist, the FBI has a success rate lower than would warrant their engagement in these areas. Luckily, up until recently the FBI’s abysmal failure rate has not really been much of an issue for the American public mostly due to the lack of any real threat.

Over the course of the past few months, that threat has begun to materialize. Across the globe, acts of violence committed by radical Islamic jihadists are happening with more and more regularity: incidents of terrorism like the Garland shooting, Charlie Hebdo, and the 2014 Ottawa shootings, to name a few. In February 2015, 3 men were arrested in Florida for attempting to give material support to ISIS. In the month of June, 5 terrorism related arrests have been made in the New York Tri-State area. The vast majority of these cases involve people who have overtly tried to travel to and join the cause of the Islamic State.  Major western powers are experiencing an unprecedented increase in radical Islamic extremism. At first glance, anyone with foreknowledge might assume that these cases are just more of the same. After a more comprehensive analysis of the most recent volley of terror arrests, an unsettling conclusion arises. While they all have the appearance of individual, isolated incidents, it is precisely this characteristic that connects them. These attacks are taking place without any indication or connection with a global terrorist network, and with startling rates of success.



Is ISIS the cause?

In the summer of 2013, a chemical weapons attack took place in the city of Damascus, Syria. Mainstream sources immediately asserted that the attacks had been conducted by the Assad regime and the US government attempted to lead a coalition of western powers against Syrian military targets in response. This was not the first time the west had threatened military action against the Syrian government. A few months prior to the July attacks, mainstream reports made separate claims of sarin use by the regime. Obama responded by saying that there would be a “very vigorous investigation” and that use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game changer.” Unfortunately for the administration, two weeks later the commissioner of a UN panel of inspectors announced that in all likelihood the rebels had been responsible, and the whole story was quickly swept under the rug.

With the help of video footage of the July attacks conveniently posted on YouTube, the administration wasted no time making the case for surgical strikes against the Assad government. Notwithstanding the valiant attempts of the war party, the American people could not be mobilized. As John Kerry and President Obama lobbied congressional leadership, the American people called on their representatives in congress to stop the war. A series of photos, allegedly of active duty military members with signs over their faces that read “I didn’t join the [military] to fight for Al Qaeda in a Syrian civil war” gained national attention. The war was defeated.

It had long been known that the rebel groups fighting against the Assad government were largely dominated by radical Islamic extremists. Prominent news outlets covering the story made it clear from the beginning of the Syrian uprising. It has also been discovered recently that the highest levels of US intelligence as well as the pentagon were deeply aware of the composition of the rebel forces. As of 2012 the intention of western powers who supported the opposition was to see the “establish[ment] of a declared or undeclared salafist principality in eastern Syria” for the purpose of isolat[ing] the Syrian regime”. Al Qaeda In Iraq, who later morphed into the Al Nusra Front and ISIS, was acknowledged in the same memo as the driving force behind the rebellion.

ISIS split off from Al Qaeda in February 2014, 8 months after the US attempted to use its military to leverage the advantage from the regime. Up until that point the group received little or no mention from US media. Their reign of terror in the region however, had begun long before the split, and long before the US made the political decision to back the rebellion. From the beginning of the rebellion, journalists exposed the brutality of the would be freedom fighters. In 2013, at the same time that Sec. Kerry was lobbying congress to allow for the bombing of Syrian military targets, reports came in of “Al-Qaeda linked fighters” massacring a Christian village in territory now held by the Islamic state.

Up until the sack of Mosul the US attitude towards ISIS seemed no different than its attitude towards any one of the rebel groups. The narrative changed immediately with the fall of Mosul in may of 2014. After multiple attempts of trying to reengage the middle east, the USG decided to switch strategies. US media quickly began painting ISIS as the new bogeyman. They started drawing attention for the first time to the horrific acts committed by the group which had been ignored just years prior. They claimed that ISIS was going to commit a genocide on a helpless population of mountain folk. The Obama administration said ISIS “will target US cities and kill without abandon”. Lindsey Graham said their takeover of Syria and Iraq would lead to “Hell on Earth”. The Air Force and Navy began dropping bombs in Iraq, and within a few months they had already begun dropping bombs in Syria as well.

For ISIS this was a major victory. As was made apparent by Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in Iraq, there is no way to rally tens of thousands of soldiers to a cause than by becoming the declared enemy of US imperialism. ISIS wasted no time asserting their role as international enemy #1. They began filming propaganda videos, beheading western journalists.  On June 29th 2014, the Islamic State declared their sovereignty, and called on Muslims around the world to pledge allegiance to their caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Thousands of young, impressionable, and economically desperate Muslims around the world, including many in the west, began to see ISIS as more than just another terrorist militia in the middle east.

What does ISIS have to do with Muslims in the west?

As evident by their systematic targeting for FBI entrapment jobs, life in the US for Muslim Americans has its ups and downs. On 9/11, nineteen hijackers from US imperial satellite states took the lives of 3000 Americans, citing occupation and persecution in their own lands as motives for their attacks. The Bush administrations decided to say that it was because they were Muslims who hated us because our way of life was antithetical to their religious piety. It cannot be understated the way that narrative shaped the psychology of not only Americans, but Muslims around the world. Fourteen years later this divisive rhetoric has completely isolated an entire section of American population, quite a novel notion for the melting pot of the world.

The Muslim American community has been the target of much bigoted vitriol. On the 10th of February 2015, three seemingly innocent Muslim students were murdered in cold blood. Major media outlets spent little time reporting on the story. Unlike with the case of Dylan Roof a few months later, the American people couldn’t be bothered to recall the killer’s name. A month later, 31 year old Ahmed Al-Jumaili was gunned down in the streets of Dallas while taking pictures of his first snowfall without any notice from the media. Gatherings referred to as “Patriot rallies” across the country draw support from many Americans who believe that Muslims are actively attempting to introduce Sharia law in the United States. Some counties have gone so far as to write legislation prohibiting the adoption of Sharia law, as though Muslim political action were even viable in the United States. When political engagement is even attempted by Muslims, as was the case at the Texas capital in January 2015, it is met with harsh protest, criticism, and even threats of violence.

Fox News reports on Garland Shooting. Calls anti-lslamic cartoon contest "Art Exhibit:"

Fox News reports on Garland Shooting. Calls anti-Islamic cartoon contest “Art Exhibit:”

The situation in Europe is even more dire. The two men who were responsible for the brutal killings at French satirical cartoon outlet Charlie Hebdo were born and raised in a French Muslim ghetto. At first glance, it might seem that these communities developed naturally as immigrants entered the country in search of fellow migrants with common ancestry and cultural heritage. The truth is that these ghettos are yet another product of central planning failure, which “resulted in the residential concentration of stigmatized” and predominantly Islamic immigrants, who are now dealing with similar issues to those which plague the American near-permanent underclass in her most densely populated cities. The western world has gone from melting pot to pressure cooker, and it would only be a matter of time before she blew over.

ISIS and the role of social media in generating terrorism.

On may 4th 2015, two radical Islamists attacked a “Draw Mohammed” rally put together by radical christian Pamela Geller. The two men were killed before they could do any physical harm. Like the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January and an incident in Copenhagen, Denmark involving cartoonist Lars Vilks, the motivation behind the attacks appears to be rooted in  Islamic extremism, albeit provoked. What made the case of the Garland shooting different was the use of social media leading up to the attacks.

Moments before the attack, one of the killers tweeted “May Allah accept us as mujahideen”, and pledged allegiance to “The leader of the faithful” presumably ISIS-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr. ISIS quickly claimed credit for the attack. While it appears that neither of the attackers had any actual communication with the group, this incident does highlight a few important developments in Islamic extremism. According to J.M. Berger, resident scholar the Brookings Institute “The evidence as it stands strongly suggests these guys were wired into a formal ISIS support network, and one which specifically suggested targeting this event.” What Berger probably means here is that the attackers were followers on twitter of known Muslim extremists and ISIS sympathizers. While this does not mean that ISIS had anything to do with the attack, it does demonstrate the power of social media in uniting dispersed groups across the globe who have shared ideology. It also demonstrates the effect to which ISIS uses social media to communicate goals and coordinate efforts in a decentralized manner.

ISIS has been carefully developing its social media effort over the years. When the USG decided to make ISIS the #1 bogeyman, ISIS responded immediately by putting its social media effort into overdrive. The English language beheading videos were only the beginning. In the months following they began a social media blitz unprecedented in radical Islamic terrorism. The Al Hayat Media Center began a large scale effort of distributing a wide range of videos, including many made for the explicit purpose of recruitment, in multiple languages targeting economically desperate and politically disenfranchised Muslims in Europe and America. Western governments were left completely off guard.

It is not surprising that within the year, ISIS was beginning to have an impact on the independent actions of lone wolf extremists. The state of the international Muslim community is such that many seem to be receptive to the message of radical Islam. With the advent of ISIS’S well-funded social media apparatus, many of these young Muslims are being reached in ways they could never have been before. According to many Anti-Terrorism experts, ISIS recruitment propaganda explicitly directs lone wolf terrorists not to reach out to the group proper. Instead, they encourage independent action that cannot be tracked by monitoring agencies. It appears that the Garland shootings may have been the first attack of this nature, and evidently a watershed moment. Since the attack, the number of terror plots which have been associated to ISIS in a similar way are increasing daily. Unlike the terror plots of yesteryear, these seem to be genuine, and they don’t seem to be letting up any time soon.


James Reilly is an independent analyst and opinion writer.