Call to battle rallies misfits to ISIS cause
Some empty entire magazines into a police cruiser or a workplace gathering; others hole up in their rooms in what are rarely their houses.
Some emerge from the Middle East, others from a Philadelphia suburb or tidy Harrisburg neighborhood.
The regimented structure, lengthy planning and high-profile targeting of al-Qaida-style terrorism is giving way to the unorganized, often anonymous tribe of Islamic State sympathizers.
Edward Archer, the man accused in Thursday night's ambush shooting of Philadelphia police Officer Jesse Hartnett in the name of the Islamic State, might fit within the circle of this new threat, but he isn't its face. Perhaps the greatest challenge to modern domestic counterterrorism officials is that it has no face.
“The ideology is something that originally is foreign, but nonetheless, a lot of these guys that are inspired by ISIS today are as American as apple pie,” said Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Hours before police say Archer, 30, of Yeadon, Delaware County, opened fire on Hartnett's cruiser, federal agents in Texas arrested Omar Faraj Saeed al Hardan, a Palestinian national born in Iraq. Hardan was charged with attempting to provide material aid to the Islamic State, the same group to whom, police say, Archer pledged allegiance.
Hardan is charged with trying to travel to Syria to join Islamic State fighters, who have captured vast swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq. Though the goals and methods of Archer and al Hardan differed, they allegedly drew their inspiration from the same message.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the territory he held to be a caliphate — a holy Islamic kingdom — and called on Muslims around the world to join. If they couldn't get there, he said, they could join another way.
“ ‘Do something where you are. Carry out an attack where you are,' ” Michael Kenney, international affairs professor at University of Pittsburgh's Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Studies, said, paraphrasing the terror leader's message.
Al-Qaida asked its sympathizers in the West to attack wherever they could, but the Islamic State's call has apparently resonated with more people than its predecessor's. The FBI has said at least 250 Americans have joined or attempted to join the Islamic State, and Director James Comey told Congress last year that the bureau had 900 open investigations across all 50 states.
The Islamic State has a sense of urgency that al-Qaida didn't, Kenney said. Al-Qaida leaders believed the caliphate would come eventually, but the group's immediate goal was to get Western powers out of the Middle East and bring Israel back under Muslim control, Kenney said.
“ISIS is saying, ‘No, this is not a long-term objective. This is now. We have the capability,' ” Kenney said.
The Islamic State offers itself as a place for people who don't believe they fit elsewhere, Vidino said.
“You hate society; you hate the world around you; you don't fit in for one reason or another. And you find an ideology that tells you, ‘It's not your fault. It's because society's unfair; it's because society's bad,' ” he said.
Forty percent of those charged domestically with attempting to join the Islamic State are converts to Islam, a far larger percentage than the general Muslim population, according to a study Vidino co-authored.
As supporters parrot the group's message through social media, people can self-radicalize, finding a private, sometimes silent path to violence that's all but invisible to the colossal intelligence apparatus the United States built after 9/11.
Vidino likened it to the surprising signature weapon of the Iraq War.
“We figured out how to beat powerful armies; we didn't know what to do about IEDs, the little bomb on the roadside that cost $20 to put together,” Vidino said. “This is the equivalent of that, to some degree.”
Mike Wereschagin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.