Tracking Jet-Set Jihadis

New study provides valuable guidance for national leaders.

The Travelers: American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq, new from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, charts 64 Americans who since 2011 traveled to Iraq and Syria to join terrorist groups. The 87-page study uses the term “American” for “U.S. citizens, U.S. permanent residents, temporary and unlawful residents of the U.S., and other individuals with substantial ties to the U.S.” 

Only 70 percent were actual U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents before their jihadist adventure. They came from 16 states, most from Minnesota, Virginia and Ohio, though two California jihadis are of particular interest. Alberto Renteria of Gilroy took the name Abu Hudhayfa al-Meksiki, “the Mexican.” 

The average age of the jet-set jidahis is 27 but Brian Arthur Dempsey of Sacramento is 46. From 2001 until 2012, Dempsey served as counselor with the California Youth Authority, part of the state’s juvenile justice system. In July 2013, Dempsey bolted for the Syrian city of A’zaz, near Aleppo, where he joined up with Ahrar al-Sham fighters. 

A full 89 percent of the American jihadis were men but according to The Travelers, “American women were committed to the jihadist cause and decided to travel on their own accord. They also appear to have played significant roles in their respective jihadist organizations.” The study lists Hoda Muthan, Zakia Nasrin and Nicole Mansfield who “may have been more directly involved in operations,” meaning combat. 

Mansfield grew up in Flint Michigan and after converting to Islam “started wearing conservative Muslim dress that covered her entire body except for her face.” She entered into a series of relationships with “Arab immigrant men,” and according to her father believed that Israel “oppressed people.”

As returning fighter “Mo” explained, Islamic State bosses required recruits to fill out a Microsoft Access form with personal details and how they might best serve the jihadist cause. They could become fighters or suicide bombers but The Travelers does not detail their combat record or possible participation in tortures, executions, or the genocidal campaign against Yazidis. 

The Islamic State fighters, as Charles Krauthammer said, “are the worst people on earth. They openly, proudly crucify enemies, enslave women and murder men en masse.” They “glory in bloodlust and slit the throats of innocents as a kind of sacrament.” This is the group the American Muslims all dreamed of joining. 

American Islamic State fighter Brian Dempsey claimed he only traveled to Syria to aid refugees from the conflict. On his trip home, the FBI detained him at the Fiumicino airport in Rome. The American Muslim convert now faces five charges of false statements involving international terrorism, which could land him in prison for eight years. What Dempsey might have done back in California is unclear, but The Travelers shows some possibilities. 

“Virginia resident” Mohamad Bailor Jalloh planned to join the Islamic State in Libya. “Instead he returned to Virginia and was arrested after planning an attack on members of the U.S. military.” Mohamed Rak Nai, a citizen of Yemen and legal U.S. resident, joined the Islamic State affiliate in Yemen. According to The Travelers, “he eventually returned to New York and was in the process of planning an attack when he was apprehended by law enforcement.” 

The mobilization of Americans to overseas jihadist groups, the study concludes, “can provide a roadmap to policymakers and the public. If history is a guide, there will be another large-scale jihadist mobilization in the future. The U.S. must develop a proactive and comprehensive strategy to address jihadist travel, continuously adapting preexisting measures while developing more innovative approaches based on the lessons of the past six years.” 

One more innovative approach would be to end the visa lottery system that allows foreign nationals to enter the United States on the basis of pure chance. Islamic State fighter Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek Muslim who murdered eight people in New York last year, gained entry to the United States through the lottery system. 

Ending chain migration, visa fraud, and marriage fraud would also reduce the risk. National leaders should recall Syed Farook and bride Tashfeen Malik, who killed 14 people in San Bernardino. 

Bans on travel from terrorist-dominated areas will also help keep jihadis out of the United States before they can join fellow jihadists abroad or commit acts of terrorism in the USA. If foreign nationals fear violence or persecution, it does not follow that they should come to the United States. Muslim refugees would be more at home in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or even Russia.  

Foreign nationals who gain U.S. residency then depart to join the jihad must lose their residency and be barred from any path to citizenship. The United States should also consider stripping the citizenship of naturalized citizens who leave the country to join terrorist groups. 

In ongoing military engagements, the United States and allies should eliminate as many Islamic State fighters as possible. That will prevent “the worst people on earth” from ever returning to the United States or anywhere else. Islamic State fighters taking deadly action within the United States should be considered enemy combatants and dealt with accordingly. 

Those innovative approaches, based on the lessons of the past six years, will only work if implemented. As The Travelers makes clear, current policies and practices are not getting the job done.