Washington — The arrests of six Minnesota men accused earlier this month of attempting to join the Islamic State group highlights an unprecedented marketing effort being waged by the militant group in Iraq and Syria, U.S. law enforcement officials and terror analysts said.
It's a campaign that is finding resonance from urban metros to the American heartland.
"This is not so much a recruitment effort as it is a global marketing campaign, beyond anything that al-Qaida has ever done," said a senior law enforcement official.
The official, who is not authorized to comment publicly, said the Islamic State's slick multimedia productions, its use of social media and personal "peer-to-peer" communication are proving to be effective parts of a sophisticated program aimed at the West.
"I don't think there has been one case in which we haven't found some connection to the videos or other media the group has produced," the official said.
Federal authorities have identified more than 150 U.S. residents who have sought to join the ranks of the terror organization or rival groups in Syria. There is evidence that about 40 of those have traveled to the region and returned to the U.S. Most have been charged; an undisclosed number are free and subjects of intense surveillance, the senior official said. The smallest subset of the group, an estimated dozen, represents those who have actually joined the fighting ranks.
But the official said the breadth of the ongoing inquiries suggests that the actual numbers of Islamic State sympathizers, or those contemplating travel to join the group and other rival organizations, are likely much higher.
The threat posed by aspiring foreign fighters has been a blinking red light within the nation's counterterrorism network for months. But the flurry of new cases suggests a persistent problem for law enforcement officials who fear that some of the recruits could launch attacks against U.S. targets when they return home or will be inspired to lash out on their own.
They are young women and men who are "responding to the call to join violent jihad abroad at an alarming rate," Assistant Attorney General John Carlin, chief of the Justice Department's National Security Division, told a homeland security summit last weekend. He said the federal government has brought 35 such cases involving aspiring foreign fighters, many of whom have been arrested before leaving the country.
FBI Director James Comey also has expressed serious concern.
Varied nature of threat
A series of criminal cases filed in the past month highlight the varied nature of the threat facing the U.S., and the Islamic State's aggressive pursuit of U.S.-based and other converts.
In the most recent Minnesota case involving six young suspects, all intercepted by authorities before their planned travel to Syria, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said the militants demonstrated a powerful recruiting tool that is difficult to counter.
Luger described a so-called "peer-to-peer" or "brother-to-brother" campaign in which the close group of suspects engaged in the radicalization of each other, providing encouragement during each phase of a nearly year-long mission to reach Syria.
At the same time, the group also was getting support directly from the battlefield. Abdi Nur, a former associate of the Minnesota suspects, slipped past authorities last May and is believed to be in Syria with the terror group.
Since Nur reached Syria, Luger asserted that the suspected terror operative has been serving as the chief "foreign fighter recruiter" for his former associates in Minneapolis.
Michael Leiter, former director of the U.S. Counterterrorism Center, said the recruiting strategy, personal outreach efforts, application of slick YouTube productions and other social media, represents an unmatched level of sophistication demonstrated by terror organizations in the aftermath of 9/11.
"Al-Qaida in Pakistan represented Version 1.0, with its static video of [Osama] bin Laden's face. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula became Version 2.0, with [American cleric] Anwar al-Awlaki using graphics and the online magazine Inspire to reach potential English-speaking converts. Think of ISIL as Version 3.0."
While officials believe that the U.S. will never produce the volume of recruits being drawn from Western Europe, where a disaffected Muslim population and a lack of integration has helped contribute thousands of foreign fighters to the Islamic State, Leiter and others said the U.S. nevertheless remains an important focus.
Terror sympathizer back in the U.S.
Among the most striking of the recent foreign fighter cases brought by federal prosecutors involves Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud.
The 23-year-old Columbus, Ohio, man, charged last week, returned from Syria last year. While there, he allegedly joined his brother, Abdifatah Aden, and received some training in a camp operated by the Al-Nusrah Front, an affiliate of al-Qaida and rival of the Islamic State. Following Aden's death last June, Mohamud returned to the U.S. and began discussing an unspecified attack against the homeland.
Although the outlines of the plot remain under investigation, Mohamud's alleged interest in such an attack strikes at the heart of a long-held fear by U.S. authorities: a terror sympathizer back in the U.S., searching for a target.
According to court documents, Mohamud "talked about doing something big in the United States."
In conversations with one government informant who believed the suspect was attempting to recruit him for a U.S.-based attack, Mohamud "wanted to go to a military base in Texas and kill three or four American soldiers execution-style."
The senior law enforcement official, who is familiar with Mohamud's case, said such suspects who have demonstrated a greater commitment by traveling to the region and returning are generally "graded higher" as possible threats. The official cautioned that investigators are still gathering information on the extent of Mohamud's activities.
"We have very little patience for letting subjects plan, mature and develop," the official said, adding that the suspects' planning and known travel activities are dictating the timing of recent arrests across the country.
Mohamud has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Sam Shamansky, declined comment.
Hoffman said Mohamud's alleged designs on a potential U.S. target, as described in court documents, were "too opaque" to assess as a credible threat.
"I want to know a lot more. ... The good news is that we're catching them, but that may be just the tip of larger problem."
[Kevin Johnson writes for USA Today.]