Over the last few years, the United States has witnessed an Islamic State-related domestic mobilization that is proportionally smaller than that of most Western countries but unprecedented for a country that had historically seen low levels of radicalization of jihadi inspiration. Since the first arrest in 2013, U.S. authorities have arrested 204 individuals for Islamic State-related activities as of January 2020 and estimate that more than 250 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the group. (1) (a)
Previous research has analyzed various aspects of this mobilization, from its demographic profile to the role social media played in it. (2) This article, which summarizes the findings of a forthcoming George Washington University Program on Extremism (PoE) report, examines the financial component. It analyzes how U.S.-based Islamic State supporters have raised and moved funds for their activities, whether that entailed traveling abroad to join the Islamic State, sending funds overseas to support the group and/or its operatives, or carrying out attacks in the group's name.
In order to do so, PoE researchers collected all publicly available court documents for all the individuals charged in the United States for Islamic State-related activities and integrated the information contained in them with interviews with national security professionals and news articles. There are inherent limitations in conducting a study of this kind. While court records are generally reliable and accurate sources of information, some details will naturally be missing or withheld depending on how far the case has progressed procedurally and the sensitivity of some information. They may also be limited by the scope of an investigation, which might not be primarily focused on the financial details and records of the Islamic State's American supporters. In addition, there are no court records available for the subset of Americans who traveled abroad to join the Islamic State but have not been charged, and the handful of individuals that died carrying out attacks. Despite these limits, this stands to be the first comprehensive study on the subject and provides a solid overview of the financial dynamics of the U.S.-based Islamic State scene.
A Small Financial Footprint
The vast majority of U.S.-based Islamic State supporters left a remarkably small financial footprint, rarely more than a few thousand dollars. While outliers exist, the financial activities of the vast majority of the 204 U.S.-based Islamic State supporters in the Program on Extremism database were extremely low in both scale and sophistication. The most common funding source for American Islamic State supporters was personal savings. Most of the suspects studied, in fact, held jobs, which ranged from menial and relatively low paying to, in a few cases, fairly high-earning positions. This allowed these individuals to count on amounts that were enough to support the generally low-cost activities they engaged in to support the Islamic State.
In substance, most American Islamic State supporters appear not to have felt the need to engage in specific activities to obtain more funds. Those who did so engaged in either legal or illegal fundraising activities. While terrorism financing constitutes a federal crime, there are several terrorism-aimed fundraising activities that are not by themselves illegal in nature. In fact, 46 American Islamic State supporters (22.5 percent) used funds that came from donations (38 cases), legal asset sales (five), opening a new credit line (two), and injury lawsuits (one, the curious case of Minnesota resident, Mohamed Amin Ali Roble, who allegedly used his $91,654 settlement for the injuries he sustained in the 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State (3)) to fund their Islamic State-related activities. (11) A smaller number of American Islamic State supporters (14, 6.9 percent) (c) employed various illegal methods to support the group's or their own activities. They include financial aid fraud (four cases), illegal firearms sale (three), armed robbery (two), drug trafficking (two), bank fraud (two), and embezzlement (one).
Many American Islamic State supporters operated as lone actors, without any known or identifiable forms of direct support from the organization." (1) This dynamic is common throughout the West but particularly prominent in the United States, where there is a smaller jihadi scene and Islamic State sympathizers often find it particularly challenging to connect with like-minded individuals outside of the virtual space. From a financial point of view, this means that many Islamic State supporters raised funds (in most cases, amounts no more than a few thousand dollars) for themselves, without transferring them to anybody else.
In several cases, American Islamic State supporters acted in small groups. Some of these clusters were constituted by individuals whose relations predated their radicalization. A textbook example of this dynamic is the relatively large group of high-school friends and relatives from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that allegedly pooled resources to facilitate the travel to Syria of some of their members around 2014. (4) Other clusters were formed by individuals who did not have preexisting ties but who fell into each other's orbit, for the most part on social media platforms, because of a joint interest in jihadi ideology. While some of these connections evolved purely in the virtual realm, (e) others eventually transcended into the physical world.
Most commonly, these small groups consisted of only two to four individuals and involved small amounts of money. Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla, for example, made plans to travel together in August 2015 to Istanbul and from there join the Islamic State in Syria. (5) The two met at Mississippi State University, where they started dating and eventually married in June 2015. (6) By that time, they had already expressed their desire to travel to Syria to FBI undercovers online, and took steps to make that travel possible. (7) The two applied for passports in June 2015, for which Dakhlalla paid $340 to have them expedited. After receiving the passports, they used Young's mother's credit card to purchase flight tickets to Istanbul where they expected to meet an Islamic State recruiter who was, in fact, an FBI online undercover. Young and Dakhlalla were arrested on August 8, 2015, before they could board their flight. (8) Their story is representative of dynamics seen in many U.S. Islamic State cases, the financial component consisting only of a couple of small purchases (two passports and two tickets, the latter purchased using a relative's credit card) and no specific fundraising activities. Both were sentenced in August 2016 for conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State. (9)
Still other cases did not even pass that small financial threshold. For example, Joseph Jones and Edward Schimenti, two 35-year-old Zion, Illinois, residents, were arrested in April 2017 for conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State. (10) The two men began helping an FBI cooperating source plan travel to join the Islamic State overseas in the fall of 2015. (11) Although they did not purchase flight tickets for the cooperating source and did not make any plans to travel themselves, Jones and Schimenti did provide the source with several cell phones they believed would be used by Islamic State fighters overseas to detonate explosive devices in attacks. When asked by the cooperating source how much he paid for the phone, Schimenti responded "five dollars," and added that he hoped they would have been used to kill "many kuffar [infidels]." Whether seeking to travel themselves, facilitate travel for others, provide support to the Islamic State overseas (as in the case of Jones and Schimenti), or plan attacks in the United States, in the vast majority of cases the financial threshold was very low and no specific fondraising activity was implemented. The Zion, Illinois, pair were convicted of conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State in June 2 019. (12)
Fund and asset movement methods employed by American Islamic State supporters vary, but like the Jones-Schimenti case, they generally tend to be fairly unsophisticated. In most of the cases, the small amounts raised were simply transported and hand delivered to Islamic State operatives in person/ Only occasionally...