WASHINGTON — The mastery of social media by the Syria-based Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terror organization to recruit members, supporters and lone wolves around the world has generated great concern among law enforcement authorities in D.C.
“When we look at the threat reporting emanating from ISIL and other [homegrown violent extremists] around the country, we know there is a constant and persistent threat to the District,” said Joshua Skule in an exclusive interview.
At the time of the interview early this month, Skule was special agent in charge of intelligence at the Washington Field Office of the FBI. He since has been elevated to FBI headquarters and is now the assistant director for intelligence.
Skule says he believes the threat reporting his organization and all of its partners around world see is more than wishful thinking, and that ISIL has successfully recruited people in the national capital region to work on its behalf.
On June 11, 2015, 17-year-old Ali Shukri Amin pleaded guilty to providing material support to a terror organization. Amin, now serving 11 years at a federal prison in North Carolina, admitted to using Twitter to provide advice and encouragement to ISIL and its supporters.
“Amin used the Twitter handle @Amreekiwitness, to provide instruction on how to use Bitcoin, a virtual currency, to mask the provision of funds to ISIL, as well as facilitation to ISIL supporters seeking to travel to Syria to fight with ISIL,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement.
Additionally, Amin admitted that he facilitated travel for Reza Niknejad, an 18-year-old Prince William County, Virginia, resident who traveled to Syria to join ISIL in January.
“They are prolific on the web. Their propaganda message on social media has been consistent and it has resonated, as our director [James Comey] has said, with lost souls looking for a place to go,” Skule said.
“Their foreign fighter flow into that region is something we, the world, has never seen to the volume that the world has seen today.”
It’s not just ISIL’s aggressive recruiting that worries authorities. ISIL’s systematic deterioration has blunted the flow of fighters into Syria. It has given others reason to try to escape the organization.
U.S. intelligence sources tell WTOP that could open D.C. and other major U.S. cities up to fleeing foreign fighters seeking revenge.
Withering airstrikes and suffocating ground assaults in Syria have forced ISIL fighters to hide in tunnels. But U.S. intelligence sources say many have given up the fight and are trying to return to their home countries or sneak into others.
The FBI believes the D.C. area is high on their list of desired destinations.
“There’s always concern about foreign fighters coming back to the U.S. — specifically to D.C. — to do harm,” said Skule.
“What we’ve seen is this enemy has begun to resort to conscription — forcing people to fight for them,” said Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve — the official U.S. military name for operations against ISIL.
Daily reports from inside Syria and neighboring countries of ISIL tell of fighters being executed after trying to escape.
“Also, we’re beginning to see them use more and more child soldiers — teenagers or even younger people. Perhaps they’re having trouble refilling their ranks with experienced foreign fighters,” Warren said.
The exodus of ISIL fighters also is driven by another factor: U.S.-led airstrikes have sabotaged ISIL’s ability to pay its fighters.
According to Warren, tens of millions of dollars ISIL was counting on to pay its fighters has been destroyed in coalition airstrikes on the group’s cash depots. Unconfirmed reports have emerged from the region that ISIL has forced its fighters to accept a 50 percent pay cut, which has led to an exodus.
Still, European intelligence sources tell WTOP, more fighters and recruits are headed to the region from all over the world. However, the flow is not as brisk as in 2014, when ISIL began operations.
Still, says Skule, “ISIL is the most prolific threat we have faced. …
“Their call to jihad and their message to kill at every turn is something we have never undertaken or faced, even with core al-Qaida. It would give a terrorist organization no greater benefit than to attack the seat of power in the U.S.”
Aggressively trying to keep up appearances, even though it’s losing momentum on the ground in Syria, ISIL continues to churn out English-language propaganda, urging its followers to attack any place they can — frequently mentioning D.C.