How America’s choice to ignore the plight of Syrians has fueled support for ISIS inside the U.S.

Given the reputation ISIS has earned as the largest and most violent terrorist organization of this era, it’s difficult for many observers to fathom why anyone — especially someone who has enjoyed the privileges of growing up in America — would choose to join this death cult. Surely it could only appeal to individuals suffering from some underlying pathology or profound social dysfunction?

A newly published study by researchers at George Washington University, ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa, examines the cases of 71 individuals who have been charged with ISIS-related activities since March 2014, of whom 56 were arrested in 2015 alone — the highest number of terrorism-related arrests in the U.S. since 9/11.

While ISIS has found foreign recruits in much larger numbers in other countries, such as Tunisia, Russia, and France, support in the U.S. is widespread and significant.

U.S. authorities say there are 250 Americans who have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria/Iraq to join ISIS and there are 900 active investigations against ISIS sympathizers in all 50 states.

As public support for expanding military action against ISIS increases, in tandem with a widening sense that Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria is the “lesser evil,” perhaps the most significant finding in the new study is this:

In many cases examined by our research team, an underlying sense of sympathy and compassion appeared to play an important role in initially motivating young Americans to become interested and invested in the Syrian conflict. Many were outraged by the appalling violence Bashar al Assad’s regime used to suppress the Syrian rebellion and the subsequent inaction on the part of the international community. Pictures and videos capturing the aftermath of civilian massacres perpetrated by the regime, displayed widely in both social and mainstream media, rocked the consciences of many — from those with an existing strong Sunni identity to those who were not Muslim — and led some to take the first steps to militancy.

From the vantage point of the ISIS leadership in Raqqa, the prospects for finding new recruits in the U.S. have probably never before looked so promising.

After years of disinterest in the war, American public sympathy towards Syrian refugees briefly spiked in September in response to a photograph of a single drowned infant, but just as quickly largely evaporated after the Paris attacks — even though the perpetrators were mostly European.

Russia’s intervention in Syria has, among other things, had the effect of removing the modest amount of pressure the Obama administration has long faced to impose a no-fly zone.

The Paris attacks have put ISIS at the top of the international agenda, reinvigorating the broad rallying cry that “ISIS must be destroyed.”

Those who once imagined that they could go to Syria to fight for defenseless Muslims in a territorially-defined war, are now even more likely to embrace the ideology which believes in a global war against Muslims, in response to which Muslims are called to take up arms wherever they are.

If the military campaign to contain, degrade and destroy ISIS, also has the ancillary effect of consolidating the Assad regime’s hold on power, the weakening of ISIS’s territorial base will no doubt lead to the expansion of its international operations.

The price we are likely to pay for imagining that the disaster in Syria was something we could comfortably ignore, separated as we are by a vast ocean, is that the war will open on new fronts most often discerned only after the fact.

As the Syrian writer and political dissident, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, recently said:

the Syrian struggle is not something confined to Syria, it is a global issue. And because the world did not help Syria change for better, I think that Syria is changing the whole world for worse.

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2 thoughts on “How America’s choice to ignore the plight of Syrians has fueled support for ISIS inside the U.S.

  1. hquain

    The greatest concern here should be that we might be near to a ‘Reichstag fire’ kind of event that will turn the discourse, and the country, over to the authoritarians, who are indeed ready to spring. On the face of it, the numbers cited in the study are not impressive — is it surprising that 1/1,000,000th of the population of this country behaves oddly, or that law enforcement agencies conduct investigations with enthusiasm? We have a nice threat narrative building up (echoed in the cited study), and one suspects that an incident like the Paris one, or a fraction of that, will transform us overnight.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    There’s little doubt that ISIS has an interest in instigating/precipitating/witnessing such a polarizing event — it’s not just a question of authoritarians wanting to seize that kind of opportunity. Neither would I draw much comfort from the numbers — it only took 20 people to carry out 9/11 with the backing of an organization a fraction of the size of ISIS.

    The prospect of a Paris-style attack is indeed horrific in terms of the fallout. The problem with downplaying the risk of such an event is that when it happens, those who minimized the risk will look like victims of their own wishful thinking, while those who trumpeted the danger will be able to pose as realists. This is a scenario in which Trump doesn’t just win the GOP nomination — he becomes president!

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