Unveiled – The Increasing Sophistication and Legitimacy of the Islamic State

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has become the preeminent terror group among U.S.-based extremists according to an assessment authored by the Department of Homeland Security and more than a dozen state and local fusion centers. Individuals determined to fight “overseas in a Muslim-majority country” or conduct attacks domestically will be “more likely to derive inspiration from ISIL than [al-Qaeda] or any of its affiliates” as long as ISIL can maintain its “current level of perceived legitimacy and relevancy.” This assessment of ISIL’s increasing popularity among domestic extremists is the focus of a ten page Field Analysis Report obtained by Public Intelligence titled Assessing ISIL’s Influence and Perceived Legitimacy in the Homeland: A State and Local Perspective. Drawing on suspicious activity reports from around the country as well as intelligence reporting from DHS and the Bureau of Prisons, the report finds that ISIL’s military successes in Iraq and Syria along with the group’s self-proclaimed re-establishment of the caliphate have captured the attention of violent extremists likely to buy in to its “violent extremist counterculture.”

While this may mean that more “lone offender” attacks against U.S. targets are on the way, an assessment from the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis sees more sophisticated plots on the horizon. Focusing on a plot disrupted in January 2015 by Belgian authorities in which “a large group of terrorists possibly operating under ISIL direction” were found to have stockpiled explosive precursors and sophisticated weaponry, DHS concludes that the group may have “developed the capability to launch more complex operations in the West.” The assessment titled Future ISIL Operations in West Could Resemble Disrupted Belgian Plot was released to law enforcement last month and was also obtained by Public Intelligence.

An Increase in Suspicious Activity

In the second half of 2014, the volume of ISIL-related suspicious activity reports that were received by state, local and federal authorities “increased sharply,” indicating a trend that “signifies a penetration of ISIL’s messaging into the Homeland.” This increase coincides with the group’s recent military successes including “rapid territorial gains” and the “self-declared re-establishment of a caliphate.” ISIL has also rapidly expanded its English-language messaging to include armies of social media accounts, elaborate and gruesome videos as well as an English-language magazine that highlights life inside of the Islamic State, including “government services” such as “banking, health care and education.” Previous assessments from DHS have noted the “savvy” use of media by ISIL, though the Field Analysis Report studying the group’s legitimacy focuses on the activity this messaging has inspired domestically. According to the report, graffiti, symbols, paraphernalia and other ISIL-related imagery has been reported to law enforcement throughout the U.S.  Personnel at Marine Corps Base Quantico reportedly discovered leaflets with an ISIL banner discussing “coming from Mexico on a train.” Small ISIL flags were found on the windshields of vehicles in a residential neighborhood in Falls Church, Virginia. ISIL stickers have also been reported on highway signs and other public structures in Arizona, Nevada and Texas.

Though suspicious activity reports related to ISIL have increased significantly, many of the reports are likely not a legitimate indicator of ISIL activity. In preparing their Field Analysis Report, fusion center personnel reviewed a number of incidents that resulted in suspicious activity reports being filed into the national Information Sharing Environment and found that half of those were based on anonymous tips “that were likely not credible.” These reports often described “aspirational threats of violence against family or friends, where ISIL-affiliation appeared to be used only as a means to intimidate the victim(s).” The other incidents reviewed, “most of which . . . were also likely not credible” related to public threats against political targets. These include threats made against the President as well as public calls for the assassination of Twitter employees following the company’s suspension of accounts associated with ISIL in 2014. Over one-third of the reports were related to “social media postings” including the dissemination of “official ISIL messaging.”

ISIL’s Legitimacy Surpasses al-Qaeda

Whether the increase in suspicious activity reporting related to ISIL is an accurate indicator of the group’s increasing operational presence or simply an artifact of the group’s increasing notoriety, the Field Analysis Report argues it is a reflection of the group’s increasing legitimacy.  Through its bloody tactics, the group wins converts by asserting their defense of “Muslims against enemy attacks” as well as the defense of the “self-proclaimed re-establishment of the caliphate.”  Citing surveillance of inmate communications conducted by the Bureau of Prisons, the Field Analysis Report lists a number of incidents where U.S. involvement in the Middle East was listed as a justification of ISIL’s tactics.  In multiple conversations with family members, one inmate reportedly stated his belief that the group needed to “finish Shiites and other disbelievers.”  Criminal indictments of U.S. persons inspired by ISIL to either travel overseas or conduct attacks domestically also indicate a “general desire to fight overseas, defend Muslims against aggressors and join like-minded violent extremists.”