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A new study on ISIS fighters returning to the U.S. suggests the terror threat they pose has been overstated and fears of dislodged fighters carrying out attacks have so far not been borne out.
The study, by George Washington University's Program on Extremism, finds that to date, no returned American has committed a terrorist act, and the number and effect of returning "travelers" has been limited, particularly when compared to Western Europe.
Seamus Hughes, one of the co-authors of the study and deputy director of the GWU program, said his research shows the "feared wave is only a trickle."
The 102-page report, entitled "The Travelers: American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq," says that of the 64 Americans who traveled to Iraq and Syria in support of the Islamic State, only 12 have returned to the U.S. Nine of those returnees were arrested and charged with terror-related offenses.
Of the remaining three returnees, one went back to the battlefield. He died in a suicide bombing in Syria. The other two have, so far, not faced public criminal charges related to their participation in jihadi groups.
The reasons, he said are varied, starting with the small number of Americans who actually went to fight for the "caliphate." While thousands of Europeans joined ISIS, the report identifies just 64 Americans who traveled to Syria and/or Iraq since 2011 and affiliated with jihadi groups.
Beyond the 12 who returned, an estimated 24 Americans died on the battlefield. Some are still in Syria and Iraq and others may have been prevented from returning to the U.S. by Turkish authorities who have captured a large number of jihadis as they fled from the former caliphate. A former U.S. counterterrorism official told NBC News that Turkey has jailed fighters and seized their passports. It's unknown if any of the detainees are Americans.
As of Jan. 1, 2018, says Hughes, "no returned travelers from Syria and Iraq have successfully committed a terrorist attack in the U.S. following their re-entry. Only one of the 12 returnees identified in this study returned with the intent to carry out an attack on behalf of a jihadist group in Syria. This individual was apprehended in the early planning stages of their plot."
Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, a Somali-American, was arrested in Ohio last year and charged with plotting to blow up a military medical facility in Texas. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison last month.
Hughes added that the larger issue identified by the program's researchers is the potential terrorist who never left the U.S. — "the guy that never leaves his job, doesn't travel overseas but wants to carry out attacks in the homeland.
"Most Americans who joined ISIS were drawn to utopian society."
"'Homegrown' extremists currently appear to be more likely to commit domestic jihadist attacks than returning travelers."
"There's a constant call for attacks," he added, noting that ISIS leaders call on jihadis to use everything from knives to trucks to kill westerners.
But he added that the loss of the caliphate and its "physical space" has hurt recruiting, as have law enforcement efforts to stop prospective jihadis from getting on planes to the Middle East.
"Most Americans who joined ISIS were drawn to utopian society," Hughes added. Instead, ISIS recruiters have been reduced to calling for believers to "avenge" the destruction of the caliphate.
"It's the romanticization of the caliphate," said Hughes.
In public statements, U.S. officials have suggested that while the Iraqi-led coalition has taken back lands in Syria and Iraq, the threat remains real.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo said last week that the U.S. had "a pretty good understanding" of where the ISIS fighters have gone, noting that "these fighters that we did not kill will go somewhere. Some of them remain in Syria, some of them have moved into western Iraq, but others will effort to return through Turkey to Europe or to the United States."