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How An American Rose To The Upper Ranks Of ISIS


We want to take a few minutes now to try to understand the strange story of an American who has risen to the upper ranks of ISIS. His name is Zulfi Hoxha. He's Albanian-American, the son of a pizza shop owner in New Jersey. And his case may tell us a good deal about how jihadist recruitment networks work here in the U.S. Seamus Hughes helps run the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, and he has co-authored a story on Hoxha for The Atlantic. Seamus Hughes, welcome.

SEAMUS HUGHES: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Sketch out for us his basic biome. What do we know about him?

HUGHES: Yesterday actually was his birthday. He turned 26. He traveled to Syria in April 2015. Once he got to Turkey, four days later, he joined an ISIS training camp. And he was able to do that by connecting with another Westerner, a guy named Junaid Hussain, who's a well-known ISIS propagandist, who was able to help him cross the border. Six months later, he's in an ISIS video.

KELLY: And that video shows what appears to be Hoxha beheading Kurdish soldiers. If that is in fact him, this would be the first American shown...


KELLY: ...Carrying out a beheading in an ISIS propaganda video. And you know, it's always impossible to pinpoint what's going on in somebody's head, what the exact trigger was for him of what attracted him to ISIS. But what do we know about how he was radicalized?

HUGHES: We know he was very active online. We have court records and transcripts of him trading ISIS videos back and forth with two or three other Americans. And so you clearly saw an individual who was part of an online network and used that online network to facilitate his offline travel.

KELLY: Talk to me about what his case may illustrate about how Americans living here in America are being radicalized today.

HUGHES: In the U.S. context, you're not talking about very large numbers. So we've had about 150 people arrested for terrorism-related activities in the last three years. But the guys that successfully got to Syria and Iraq - we're talking about dozens as opposed to kind of our European countries, which have hundreds of individuals that are traveling.

KELLY: A much bigger pipeline.

HUGHES: A much bigger pipeline, and that's a reflection of a very aggressive law enforcement approach and also the fact that, you know, in general we don't have large populations of individuals that are drawn to this ideology.

KELLY: When you say an aggressive law enforcement approach, you mean maybe more would be attracted to this, but there is something the U.S. government is doing to step in and shut it down.

HUGHES: Yeah. The federal government and the FBI in particular shuts down networks before they form. You know, if you're in the U.K., you see these clusters of folks. In the U.S., you're talking about ones and twos of individuals that are drawn to the ideology. There's a use of informants. There's a use of FISA. There's a whole...

KELLY: FISA - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

HUGHES: Exactly - so the ability of the tools that we have in the U.S. that European or other Western countries do not have.

KELLY: What might his story tell us about the way that the ISIS threat is evolving? The Islamic State doesn't have much of a state anymore left in Iraq and Syria. Do we still see people like Hoxha wanting to actually go there - not just being attracted to ISIS online but wanting to pick up and travel?

HUGHES: Well, we've seen essentially a twofold thing happening. One is ISIS telling these individuals, do not come to Syria and Iraq anymore. Move on to other conflicts, or do what you can where you are. And so the FBI director's described it as essentially going down to a trickle - one and two individuals arrested every month, not like the numbers we saw in 2015 when Hoxha traveled.

KELLY: So how big a threat is someone like Hoxha or other Americans who are rising through ISIS ranks? How big a threat they pose to U.S. national security?

HUGHES: What we've seen in past jihadist conflicts is that these individuals that spend time in Syria and Iraq essentially act as nodes for the next generation or the next conflict, right? They have the connections. They connect Americans or other Westerners with people that they know and get other people over to next conflicts.

KELLY: We saw this with Anwar al-Awlaki with al-Qaida with, you know, how powerful it was as a recruiting tool for them to have somebody fluent in English apparently.

HUGHES: Absolutely. I mean, you're trying to recruit other individuals. And in Anwar Awlaki's case, you know, he's still the most prominent religious figure on ISIS Telegram and Twitter channels even though he's dead for a number of years. If Zulfi Hoxha is dead or dies soon, his videos still live on, and his message still lives on. And he's still trying to recruit those Americans. He still has that message to America.

KELLY: Seamus Hughes - he's deputy director at George Washington University's Program on Extremism - speaking with us about their two-year investigation that revealed an American in the upper ranks of ISIS. Seamus Hughes, thank you.

HUGHES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLD WAR KIDS SONG, "FIRST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.