On October 31, 2018, Aws Mohammed Younis al-Jayab, a 25-year-old Iraq-born Sacramento, California resident, pleaded guilty in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to providing material support to Ansar al-Islam, a designated foreign terrorist organization, and making false statements in an international terrorism case. (a) Al-Jayab's guilty plea concluded a protracted legal process featuring indictments in two separate district courts, motions for a change of venue, and motions to suppress evidence gained from a FISA warrant and related proceedings against co-conspirators in a third district. (1) While investigating al-Jayab, law enforcement uncovered his links to a network of jihadi attack planners based in Switzerland who were connected to individuals in Syria, Turkey, and other countries.
Al-Jayab is amongst the rare few who returned to the United States after fighting for a jihadi organization in Iraq or Syria. (2) According to statistics compiled by George Washington University's Program on Extremism, al-Jayab is one of the 72 identified American "travelers" who successfully joined jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. Of the 72, 24 (33.3%) are believed to have died overseas, and 31 more (43.1%) are ostensibly at large. For the latter, there is no credible confirmation of their deaths or reports on their current statuses. (3) Three of the 72 identified travelers are in the custody of foreign governments. (4) Meanwhile, 15 travelers (20.8%) have returned to the United States; of that number, the United States has publicly charged 12 with terrorism-related offenses. (5) Al-Jayab is the ninth known traveler to be convicted in a U.S. court. (6)
While lawyers and scholars are intrigued by the uniqueness of foreign fighter returnee prosecution in the United States, media and public interest in this case is sparked by al-Jayab's social media presence, looks, and background. In a marked departure from the austere mien of many of his American jihadi counterparts, al-Jayab's Facebook posts advertised a young man with a curated appearance. His profile pictures, which show al-Jayab's well-coiffed hairstyle and designer sunglasses, led several news outlets to dub him the "hipster terrorist." (7)
Another aspect of al-Jayab's persona drew the attention of lawmakers --his refugee status in the United States placed the young man within the crosshairs of an intensifying national security debate. After al-Jayab's arrest in January 2016, opponents of the Obama administration's vetting and visa processing programs highlighted al-Jayab's refugee status, using his arrest to argue that the programs were insufficient to prevent terrorists from entering the United States. (8)
Augmenting their argument by pointing to Iraqi refugee Omar Faraj Saeed al-Hardan, charged with terrorism-related offenses in the Southern District of Texas on the same day as al-Jayab, some in Congress used these two arrests to argue for stricter vetting procedures for refugees and visa applicants. (9) Commenting on both cases, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) argued that "jihadists see [refugee and visa] programs as a back door into America and will continue to exploit them until we take action." (10) Others, in contrast to McCaul, used al-Jayab's arrest as evidence that the program could identify, detect, and arrest jihadis who were attempting to exploit U.S. immigration law. (11)
A review of Islamic State-related prosecutions in the United States, however, reveals that al-Jayab and al-Hardan's refugee statuses were anomalous. The vast majority of the individuals arrested for activities on behalf of the Islamic State since 2014 were U.S. citizens or permanent residents. (12) Narrowing the sample down to the 15 known American jihadis who returned to the United States after fighting in Syria and Iraq, al-Jayab was the only one known to have held refugee status at the time of return to the United States. (13)
The al-Jayab case is highly instructive for scholars and practitioners of counterterrorism who are interested in the dynamics behind foreign fighter logistics networks in the United States and how transnational connections allow for local and international mobilization. As detailed below, an extensive, transnational social network of jihadi contacts critically aided al-Jayab in building the group of contacts that assisted him in fundraising, logistics, and his eventual travel.
Al-Jayab's Travel to and from Syria
In October 2012, Aws Mohammed Younis al-Jayab arrived in the United States from a refugee camp in Syria in which he and his family were staying. (14) He received United Nations refugee status from an application his father filed on behalf of the family. (15) "From the moment he arrived in the United States," the U.S. government argued in an April 2018 motion, "the defendant began to plot his return to Syria to fight on behalf of terrorist groups there." (16) Indeed, weeks after moving to the United States, he was in contact with an associate in Iraq via Facebook Messenger, lamenting: "I want to go back, God is my witness... I'll go to Turkey and enter in smuggled to Syria... go with Ansar [al-Islam] or the Front [Jabhat al-Nusra] only." (17)
From October 2012 to November 2013, al-Jayab developed his plan to travel to Syria to join jihadi groups. Court documents present evidence from online conversations between al-Jayab and at least 16 members (labeled Individual A to Individual P) of an overseas logistics network responsible for arranging travel and supplies for interested jihadi foreign fighters. (18) During this period of the Syrian conflict, jihadi groups in Syria were in flux, with many cooperating in early operations against the Assad regime. (19) Some members of al-Jayab's logistics network identified as affiliates of Ansar al-Islam, a jihadi group founded by the Kurdish cleric Mullah Krekar (Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad). (20) Others were fighting with the upstart Jabhat al-Nusra, which at the time was a project of al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) to establish a foothold across the border in Syria. (21) Court documents claim that at the time of their conversations with al-Jayab, network members were located in several countries, including the United States, Syria, Turkey...