Active online supporters of the Syria-based Islamic State movement now include about 300 people identifiable as Americans, according to a study by academic experts published on Tuesday.
The study, published by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, said that the number of other Americans who passively “consume” Islamic State propaganda runs up to “several thousand,” though they are not necessarily active supporters of the group.
American IS activists and sympathizers use social media to keep in touch, the study said. Through their active, noisy online activities, American IS supporters have established themselves as “nodes,” or leading voices promoting Islamic State agendas, whereas others serve merely as “amplifiers,” by reposting materials from more prominent activists.
The study said U.S. Islamic State activists have crafted a “unique innovation” in messaging. This involves creating “shout-out” accounts, which enable activists to “introduce new pro-ISIS accounts to the community and promote newly created accounts of previously suspended users, allowing them to quickly regain their pre-suspension status.”
The study noted that, although American social media accounts linked to IS are regularly suspended, among the activists such suspensions have become a “badge of honor and a means by which an aspirant can bolster his or her legitimacy.” The suspensions are also not an effective deterrent. Users of suspended accounts can usually set up new accounts, “within hours” the study reports, and the users do not even need to disguise themselves well – as evidenced by the fact that many create new accounts using only a variation of their previous user name.
Even though Islamic State’s forerunners first emerged after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Islamic State’s “message did not exist” before the organization established itself in Syria and became involved in a civil war against the government of President Bashar al Assad, says Lorenzo Vidino, one of the study’s principal authors.
Vidino also cited FBI statistics indicating that U.S. authorities are currently pursuing 900 terrorism-related investigations in all 50 U.S. states. His study noted that 71 individuals have been charged by U.S. authorities with IS-related offenses since March 2014, with 51 of those arrests occurring in 2015.