American jihadists now imprisoned for terrorist-related offenses short of murder—meaning they could be released in the near future—represent a “ticking time bomb,” according to a Washington Post expert on ISIS.
Joby Warrick, the author of Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2106, said they should be a source of deepening concern because no specialized programs appear in place to reform or re-educate them.
That’s in contrast to the approach of prisons in Western European countries like Belgium and even Saudi Arabia, where officials have prioritized changing the mindset of jailed jihadists, using family members and imams to point them in a better direction, Warrick told an audience Friday as part of the Center of Terrorism speaker program at John Jay College.
“It could be a ticking time bomb,” Warrick said, noting the lack of programs designed to work with currently imprisoned U.S. jihadists.
According to a recent report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, an estimated 300 Americans attempted to join the Islamic State and other radical Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria. A small number rose to senior positions. Twelve have returned home, but none has yet carried out an attack in the U.S.
The report said about 50 Americans were arrested as they tried to leave the country to join the terrorist group, and never made it out of the U.S.
Despite widespread hopes that military defeats in Iraq and Syria had extinguished the terror group, “ISIS is holding on and rebounding in some ways,” said Warrick, who likened the group to the Ebola virus in its ability to seemingly disappear only to lash out again with virulent fury.
The Pentagon and the United Nations estimate there are still 15,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq, even though thousands of them were killed in battles and targeted bombings in the last few years.
Disturbingly, ISIS draws on a “seemingly limitless pool of volunteers willing to commit atrocities,” Warrick said.
While the U.S. has shown itself effective in keeping hardcore ISIS fighters out of the country, homegrown murderers who claim ISIS influence are partaking in a “crowd-sourcing Jihad” in which “anybody can join,” he said.
According to Warrick, would-be terrorists don’t need to receive direct instructions from ISIS or any hands-on training whatsoever. In fact, instructions such as how to steal a truck and use it to kill maximum numbers of innocent people are available on the Internet, he pointed out.
For all of the efforts to stamp out ISIS-sympathizing sites on the Internet, the terrorists are resourceful and relentless in getting their message out.
“A new magazine just came out last week,” Warrick said. “It’s like whack-a-mole.”
Historically, ISIS in the Middle East has drawn much of its strength from people being imprisoned together and radicalizing one another, to emerge into society intent on causing maximum violence.
The founder of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, set himself on his ultra-violent path while in prison in Jordan.
Warrick said the death of King Hussein in 1999 ironically freed the man who became Jordan’s most dangerous citizen as part of a general amnesty. He began gathering followers as he traveled between Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
However, al-Zarqawi did not become a notorious terrorist until Colin Powell showed al-Zarqawi’s photo and a “tree of terror” in a 2003 United Nations hearing to establish support for an Iraq invasion, saying al-Zarqawi proved a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq.
“He created a Jihadist celebrity,” Warrick said, ensuring that money, volunteers, and weapons flowed al-Zarqawi’s way.
“He would not have existed without us, without America,” Warrick said.
Colin Powell has since conceded that his UN speech was an “intelligence failure.” In a 2016 interview he said he remembers making “passing references” to al-Zarqawi. In fact, Powell mentioned him 21 times at the UN.
Al-Zarqawi successfully established his group, initially called Al Qaeda in Iraq, with its trademark of hands-on barbaric brutality such as beheading victims on camera, as Osama Bin Laden watched uneasily. The direct link between the two groups was never there, he said.
“In reality, even Al Qaeda was afraid of him,” Warrick said.
Following al-Zarqawi’s death in a U.S. drone strike in 2006, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has emerged as the most recent leader of ISIS. Since 2016, the U.S. State Department has offered a reward of up to $25 million for information or intelligence leading to his capture or death.
“He’s a bit of a hermit,” Warrick said.“The Russians thought they killed him a year ago, but he showed up a few weeks ago in a video.
In it, al-Baghdadi promised the world that the caliphate is in excellent shape and “America is becoming an exhausted country, bled dry by terrorism.”
The fact that Al-Baghdadi lives in hiding shows that he has learned from ISIS’s recent history in Iraq, said Warrick. By taking territory, the group had established a “fixed address” for strategic drone bombing and military assaults, which led to its ultimate defeats in Iraq.
Moreover, with its lack of organizational skills and tendency to turn potential allies into enemies, ISIS has serious systemic weaknesses, Warrick said. The worst thing that could happen is if ISIS and the more coolly strategic Al Qaeda join forces, which some reports say is happening in the West African country of Mali.
“That’s a worrisome scenario,” he said.
The best way for the United States to oppose ISIS is to not abandon allies, Warrick emphasized.
For example, the Kurdish forces that fought ISIS are now getting minimal support from the U.S. “We owe everything to the Kurds.”
“We must invest in the future,” Warrick said. “If we fail, we guarantee we will be hearing from [ISIS] in the future.”
Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.