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Experts: Attempts of terrorist sympathizers to join ISIS show threat persists

Members from the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service present Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with a flag from Bartilah, a town recaptured just outside of Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. (DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Released)

The FBI recently charged two local men for allegedly trying to support the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham — or ISIS — and, while experts say it shows the organization’s threat remains, Islamophobia can closely follow.

One West Haven man — Ahmad Khalil Elshazly, 22 — allegedly attempted to provide material support to ISIS but was arrested after a lengthy investigation, in Stonington, where he reportedly was boarding a fishing boat whose “captain” actually was an FBI agent.

Kevin Iman McCormick, 26, of Hamden, was charged by indictment with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and ISIS for allegedly making several statements to others expressing a desire to travel to Syria and to fight for ISIS.

Elshazly told investigators he was going to put his whole life on the line and sacrifice everything “for the sake of Allah,” the complaint states. Elshazly, a U.S. citizen, expressed numerous times his desire to travel to Syria and the surrounding area to fight on behalf of ISIS, according to the complaint.

He said he’d saved approximately $1,000 with the intention of using the money to travel to Jordan to transit to Syria to be with ISIS.

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Elshazly is being detained and his probable cause hearing was rescheduled to Feb. 28.

Similarly, McCormick last October attempted to board a flight from Connecticut to Jamaica, but U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents stopped him. “McCormick subsequently told an individual that he wanted to travel to Jamaica, and then onward to Syria to join ISIS. He also indicated that he wanted to acquire weapons,” according to previous reporting.

The agent’s report said McCormick likely has mental health issues, based on information from local police reports, which include family statements.

Terror and Islamophbia

Saifuddin Hassan, a former imam at Masjid Al-Islam mosque in New Haven, said he is familiar with the Muslim communities in the area — West Haven, Orange, New Haven, Hamden — but had not heard of McCormick or Elshazly before they were in the news.

He said these people don’t represent the Muslim community at large, and their acts in the name of Islam makes people think the religion is violent.

“We feel this Islamophobia in the community constantly and these instances don’t help at all,” he said. “It brings about intolerance and it’s treated completely different than other acts of terrorism including white supremacy.”

Hassan said Muslims are far more stigmatized than others when terrorists acting in the name of Islam make the news.

Attacks perpetrated by an identifying Muslim receive 357 percent more coverage on average than those committed by non-Muslims or unknown perpetrators, according to a 2019 study.

Additionally, “news articles are drastically more likely — 488 percent — to call an attack terrorism when the perpetrator is Muslim” rather than attribute it to mental illness, another report found. However, whether the perpetrator is white does not influence whether the news coverage will suggest mental illness.

Hassan said this news affects Muslims’ daily lives to the point in which children are bullied at school and regular Muslim citizens are called terrorists. When people do try to commit violence in the name of Islam, Hassan said he tries to educate people that those incidents aren’t who Muslims really are, but getting that message in the spotlight doesn’t happen.

“We as Muslims know their actions don’t represent us,” he said. “Anyone can go out and say they’re Muslim or Christian or whatever, but that doesn’t mean it’s reflective of our faith.”

Misinformed Attempts

If the men had gotten to Jordan or Turkey, they would’ve had a hard time joining ISIS, said Ken Gray, a retired FBI counterterrorism expert and lecturer in the University of New Haven’s Criminal Justice Department.

“The whole mechanism that was set up to bring fighters into the country is no longer in place,” he said. “About two years ago, you’d arrive in Turkey or Jordan and you’d be moved to Syria to join ISIS. Since they no longer control those towns, they (McCormick or Elshazly) would have arrived and there would be no network for them to join.”

During the height of fighting, about 300 Americans and thousands from around the world traveled to Syria to join ISIS, but the bulk of people traveling from America is over, Gray said. There still are people responding to the call but the amount has dropped off drastically and these two cases don’t appear to be related, he said.

Gray said these men were answering a muted call to join ISIS in Syria because the leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who was killed during a raid conducted by the US military in northwest Syria, told people to stay in their own countries to commit acts of terror. The group has not reissued a call to join ISIS in Syria, Gray said.

“There are still people who are volunteering to do acts of terror in furtherance of ISIS goals,” he said. “These individuals are responding to acts that are going on and a vision of being a holy warrior, but they’re not aware of what the current status is.”

Gray said had the individuals been smarter, they could have been a real threat and, since ISIS’ message is still reaching people in the U.S., the threat is still real.

Kevin Buterbaugh, chairman of the Political Science Department at Southern Connecticut State University, said he doesn’t see these incidents as indicative of a particular trend or pattern.

“Since ISIS rose up there have been occasional Americans that try to join them,” he said. “Certain people can be fully radicalized but I don’t see this as a new threat. It’s just a long-term persistent threat of these ideologies.”

Buterbaugh said ISIS has been good at recruiting people through social media and the internet and as long as the group exists, it’s a threat, “but I don’t think we have a growing threat.”

Drawn to Terror

Typically, those who are radicalized to commit terror acts are looking for meaning, and people can connect into them and the group and enable them to be something and to gain meaning in their lives, Buterbaugh said.

“The group offers that something they’re looking for,” he said. “The individuals aren’t particularly religious before joining and they may have criminal histories. As long as these people exist, there’s always a chance that a group can connect with them.”

Buterbaugh said it’s quite common that people who join ISIS have all sorts of problems, such as feeling severely misunderstood or searching for meaning.

“I don’t want to exaggerate the threat of terrorism,” he said “If we have a bad year with terrorism you might have 40-50 people die from terrorist attacks, but it’s still a risk because if you have groups who are accessing people in the U.S., they could be encouraged by ISIS to go place a bomb.”

Buterbaugh said radical groups will always exist to try to radicalize those who can be.

“There’s not been an uptrend in Islamic terror in the U.S.,” Buterbaugh said. “It’s going to happen from time to time. It’s normal noise that as long as a group like al-Qaida exists, you’ll see people lured into their clutches. These groups will make it appear they can fill that hole. Even if ISIS disappears, there will be other groups that try to connect with these individuals.”

In each of these local cases, Gray said a narcissistic personality could be involved, a feeling that they have to do something, that they have to take it on.

“They weren’t very smart, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t dangerous,” he said. “They took steps to do something and if they had known the current call they could have been attacking someone in Connecticut.”

Those most vulnerable to joining such terror groups are young people already upset with crimes against Muslims around the world, and who are looking for meaning, Hassan said. Their attraction to ISIS is similar to why young people join gangs or white supremacy groups, he said.

Informants posing as ISIS facilitators worked to collect information on McCormick’s and Elshazly’s plans to join ISIS, but FBI operatives have been known to encourage potential radicals and supply them with weapons as a preventative action to domestic terrorism.

“Undercover operations, once seen as a last resort, are now used in about two of every three prosecutions involving people suspected of supporting the Islamic State, a sharp rise in the span of just two years,” the New York Times reported in 2016.

These provocations in Muslim communities is “hurtful to us,” Hassan said. “As a Muslim community we try our best to eliminate these negative stereotypes. We’re working diligently to promote better images and these acts creates great damage to the relationships.”

Hassan, who was born in Philadelphia, said it’s sad people feel this way about Islam and that not everybody’s religion is being reflected the way Islam is in this country. He said it’s not a religion of extremes and usually people committing violence in the name of the religion know very little about it.

“They don’t know what Islam is and base it on actions of individuals claiming to do radical things,” he said.

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© 2020 the New Haven Register