Slightly more than 10 percent of Americans who are arrested on charges of providing or trying to provide support to the Islamic State have served in the U.S. armed forces, a study says.
Fordham University’s Center on National Security examined cases from March 2014, when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria became a serious global threat, through August 2017. The researchers identified 144 investigations of Americans trying to help the Islamic State. Of those cases, 135 resulted in charges with 77 convictions.
Since the report was published, the total number of U.S.-based Islamic State prosecutions has risen to 162, according to a fact sheet provided to The Washington Times. Of those charged, 17 had served in the U.S. military, including one Iraqi who worked as a translator.
“Cases involving individuals with military history or training have been a constant yet small share of ISIS prosecutions over time. Some of the earliest cases had military backgrounds, and some of the most recent had military backgrounds as well,” the Center on National Security’s fact sheet reads.
Five of the 17 had served short times in the military, and three of them did not advance beyond basic training. Eleven veterans tried to join Islamic State after leaving the armed forces.
Only one-active duty soldier, Ikaika Kang, has been captured. He was serving in Hawaii and was arrested in a sting.
One of the most recent cases involved a Marine who was discharged for not disclosing health concerns. The Justice Department announced June 4 that Everitt Aaron Jameson pleaded guilty to trying to provide support to the Islamic State.
“Jameson stated that he was ready to do whatever they need done here and noted that his time in the military had trained him for combat and things of war,” the Justice Department said in a press release.
Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, said the Islamic State cases involving military personnel “ran the gamut” of potential threats. Some were arrested in sting operations, while others were plotting credible attacks.
Ms. Greenberg said many of these individuals sought to “be involved with some sort of military endeavor” and that being associated with the military was part of their radicalization process.
Patrick James, project manager at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism, said Fordham University’s report is similar to data from his organization.
Mr. James works on the consortium’s Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States project, which examined cases from 2013 through 2016 and found 149 instances of U.S.-based Islamic State supporters, nine of whom were former U.S. military members.
“It wasn’t all that surprising, honestly,” he said of Fordham’s report. “It seemed like that was pretty in line with what we expected.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs declined to comment on policies for assessing veterans for radicalization and referred inquiries to the Department of Homeland Security, which is tasked in part with rooting out potential homegrown terrorists. The FBI also declined to comment and referred questions to Homeland Security and the Defense Department.
A Homeland Security spokeswoman said the agency has no specific policy for monitoring radicalization of former military personnel.
“DHS terrorism prevention programs are not targeted to a specific audience; rather, they are designed to be applicable to a variety of audiences and can be tailored as appropriate,” said Lesley Fulop.
The Defense Department, however, has policies aimed at preventing radicalization within the ranks.
Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman, explained that Defense Department instruction 1325.06 addresses dissident behavior. While the policy is more commonly used for issues of white supremacy, it prohibits military personnel from “actively advocating supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology or causes.”
Maj. Gleason said the policy authorizes commanders to use the “full range of administrative and disciplinary actions,” including criminal proceedings. Counseling, reprimands, orders and performance evaluations are methods to deter radicalization.
“It is DoD policy that the military departments ensure that the policy and procedures on prohibited activities in this instruction are included in initial active-duty training, precommissioning training, professional military education, commander training and other appropriate service training programs,” Maj. Gleason said.
Seth Jones, a senior adviser in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that soldiers are under high levels of stress. Issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, physical injury, divorce and suicidal thoughts take tolls on military personnel, he said.
“It’s a jump to get from that level to terrorism, but it does mean that soldiers have had additional levels of stress, certainly over the past two decades,” Mr. Jones said.
The National Consortium’s Mr. James suggested that those who receive sympathy from Islamic State could be swayed by the terrorist group’s high-tech marketing efforts.
“A lot of the content [Islamic State operatives] put out really emphasizes the idea of gaining adventure, gaining personal significance, going off and finding an exotic place,” he said.
Mr. Jones said former military members did not pose most of the serious threats, in terms of potential damage and likelihood of success. He noted that Islamic State does try to inspire military and law enforcement to attack but is more focused on targeting them for violence.
“I think that’s been the more primary push from ISIS is more targeting [of military and law enforcement] than recruiting,” he said.
Richard Rudnick, director of operations at the National Veterans Foundation, said he wasn’t surprised that “a small handful” of people took an extreme path.
Mr. Rudnick, who served in the Navy in the late 1970s, said his experience in the military exposed him to people with extreme views on the left and the right.
Joe Penzler, director of media relations for the American Legion and a former Marine, said the military can take in extremists from time to time, but he stressed that the large majority of veterans stand by their commitments to the country.
“These are clear outliers,” he said. “Most veterans will tell you when you raise your right hand in the air, and you swear an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States, that oath doesn’t end when you leave active duty.”
• Gabriella Muñoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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