Editor’s Note: ISIS “virtual caliphate”: Danger in Our Communities is a three-part series that discusses the transition of ISIS after the end of the so-called physical “caliphate” into a shadowy “virtual caliphate” that now focuses its efforts on directing, enabling and inspiring violence in our jurisdictions. During the series, examples of this activity and solutions for law enforcement officers will be showcased and highlighted. To read part 2, click here.
ISIS-Related Violence in the US Continues
From Mid-February to Mid-March (2018) a string of incidents occurred in a cross-section of communities showcasing the enduring danger from ISIS “virtual caliphate” messaging to “kill where you live”.
- February 15th at a high school in Hurricane, Utah, the US flag was removed from the pole outside and destroyed. Raised in its place was the ISIS flag. On March 6th in St. George, Utah which is thirty minutes away from the flag incident, a student at Pine View High School left a backpack with an explosive device in the cafeteria. Luckily the bomb smoked and didn’t explode before being rendered safe by authorities. This device would have caused significant casualties if detonated properly. The juvenile suspect responsible for both incidents is a student attending classes at both high schools through a gifted program. He was found to be an ISIS supporter and other bomb components were found at his residence.
- In central Florida during early March, it was revealed that a 20-year-old man had been planning and working toward implementing a sniper attack from a high rise building in downtown Ocala. He was a follower of ISIS ideology and discussed step by step the plot with his girlfriend via social media platforms. In addition to scouting locations to carry out his planned terrorist actions, he practiced firing at a local range after he and his girlfriend stole firearms from her father’s vehicle. The suspect researched travel to Sudan while the FBI investigated and followed him for two years.
- On March 12th, a 17-year-old who previously embraced Nazi and White Supremacist ideas, before becoming a follower of ISIS, committed a horrific knife attack on a friend’s family in BallenIsles Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. During a sleepover to celebrate a friend of the little brother’s birthday, the suspect stated he woke up at 4 am and decided to kill his friend’s mother, little brother and the brother’s friend while they slept. The suspect and the friend watched violent jihadist videos that night. The little brother’s friend was killed and the friend’s mother and brother were wounded.
- On March 19th, A 26-year-old Antioch Tennessee man was indicted by Federal authorities for “making false statements” about his previous mental institution commitment when attempting to purchase a rifle. The man was watching ISIS propaganda videos and researching mass shootings. In 2013 he was arrested at a crowded Nashville nightclub after flashing a hand grenade.
In these ISIS cases as in most, the “virtual caliphate” propaganda played a role in the radicalization process. Until these criminal cases are disposed of in court, there will be very little information available about any of these individuals talking remotely to ISIS Emni overseas operatives or if they are part of a local network. As discussed in my class Law Enforcement Securing Communities: “How to Keep You and Your Loved Ones Safe in a Crisis”, there are a host of tactics from small-scale targeted attacks to complex mass violence plots that are being promoted by “virtual caliphate” messaging. These type dangers are an everyday concern in communities and will become even more a threat as ISIS reinvigorates its external operations in the post so-called “caliphate” era.
What can be done to protect communities?
The above highlighted ISIS cases occurred in different geographical locations. None of this activity happened in New York or Washington DC, which reiterates that the threat (as often stated by the FBI) is occurring in all 50 US states. It is important that communities develop a better understanding of the narrative and process of the ISIS “virtual caliphate” and its impact locally on Anytown USA. When the public sees headlines and images of ISIS defeated in Raqqa and Mosul, this is often misinterpreted as there is also no longer a threat from this ideology in our communities. As pointed out in this series, nothing could be further from the truth.
While the so-called physical “caliphate” is gone,
ISIS leadership was proactive in putting together all the strategic pieces to proliferate long-term local,
regional and global insurgent and terrorist activity.
Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Professionals have to lead the way by developing community awareness on the enduring threat from ISIS “virtual caliphate” as it reaches into all jurisdictions and resonates with local lone individuals and small group’s radicalizing to the message. From workplaces to schools, citizens have to be educated on what is going on with ISIS as it relates to dangers close to home. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and state fusion centers, along with some national police professional organizations, have information and programs available on ISIS, terrorism and radicalization that will benefit jurisdictions on learning more about the danger.
Street Level Engagement and Investigations
During everyday activity, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Professionals navigate a variety of situations. When conducting street-level engagements and long-term investigations of criminal activity, there may be an ISIS nexus involved which points toward radicalization and plot activity by local individuals. When local law enforcement is aware and educated on the enduring threats, methods and tactics disseminated by the “virtual caliphate”; this assists with uncovering and stopping ISIS connected individuals planning violence in your jurisdiction.
- When Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Professionals are better educated on the immediate and long-term threat from the ISIS “virtual caliphate”, they are in a positon to lead the way in educating the wider community on the danger.
- When all stake-holders and community members understand the threats and methods from ISIS and its activity, this allows jurisdictions to protect themselves from radicalization and resulting acts of violence.
This series was developed to provide Justice Clearinghouse readers information, thoughts and insights about the continued impact of ISIS as a global mass movement. While the so-called physical “caliphate” is gone, ISIS leadership was proactive in putting together all the strategic pieces to proliferate long-term local, regional and global insurgent and terrorist activity. The “virtual caliphate” is the tactical piece creating ongoing dangers in all our communities. The fight against ISIS and its ideology is long term and all jurisdictions must protect themselves from venomous ideas and the associated violence.
In this three-part blog series, we explored and discussed several aspects of ISIS “virtual caliphate” activity, including the growing and enduring threat in US jurisdictions. Our investigation looked at the current movement of ISIS locally and globally. We further discussed elements of “virtual caliphate” activity that facilitates ISIS group cohesion beyond controlling a physical pseudo-state. Most importantly, we examined the impact of the “virtual caliphate” message on violence in U.S. hometowns and ways jurisdictions can confront the danger.