Once again, terrorism has appeared on our doorstep. Over the last week, news broke that a graduate of Atlantic City High School – literally the boy next door – is now a senior ISIS commander. Zulfi Hoxha, the son of Margate pizza shop owners, has become a rising star for the international terrorist group. Hoxha, who now goes by the nom de guerre Abu Hamza al-Amriki (“the American”), was featured in a 2017 propaganda video in which he urged Muslims in the United States to attack non-Muslim infidels – and was, reportedly, the masked figure who beheaded a captive Kurdish soldier in another video, too.
As journalists and academics work to better understand this 25-year-old’s path to joining ISIS and how he rose through their ranks, we’re left wondering what threat Hoxha poses. Moreover, how can we prevent other young Americans from being recruited to fight for jihadist groups like the Islamic State?
Fortunately, over the last two years, international efforts to combat the Islamic State have achieved significant progress. In 2014, the group controlled approximately 34,000 square miles of territory. Thanks to recent military campaigns, the terrorist group lost control of Raqqa, Syria, the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate, as well as most of its territory in Iraq. In the process, ISIS lost a central source of power and prestige, weakening pipelines for both recruits and financial support.
This shifting landscape raises new questions about ongoing U.S. efforts to combat ISIS, which remains the leading international terrorist threat facing the West. In particular, as the Islamic State has responded to this new reality by changing its recruitment tactics, we must reassess strategies to forestall the radicalization of young men like Hoxha.
Until recently, ISIS focused on using social media to radicalize overseas followers. But now, the terrorist organization has begun to rely less on openly available applications like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, instead prioritizing more clandestine systems like Telegram, a messaging service that uses end-to-end encryption to protect users from observation, and so-called dark sites, which allow users to browse anonymously and communicate securely without being monitored.
While this approach reduces the Islamic State’s ability to build their public brand, it also hinders government efforts to monitor and react to recruitment and radicalization. This raises concerns for current strategies to counter the spread of ISIS by disrupting the dissemination of web-based propaganda, blocking terrorists’ accounts, and promoting online counter-narratives.
Given this new state of play, how should we counter ISIS radicalization efforts moving forward?
First, government programs to share information with social media companies should expand to include providers of these newer systems. While their focus on anonymity means the companies will likely be resistant to government-led partnerships, they nonetheless should be brought into ongoing discussions about how government and non-government entities can work together to combat international terrorism. Building on existing partnerships between private sector companies, like the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, will also help, since technology companies lead the group themselves – likely providing an easier pathway toward collaboration.
In parallel, we must expand efforts to look further upstream in the radicalization life cycle to identify those vulnerable to and targets for recruitment. While there is no singular path to becoming a terrorist, there is often a moment of personal or social connection between a recruit and an already radicalized jihadist supporter. This relationship will become even more critical as the Islamic State’s widely available online propaganda and social media outreach diminishes. Early identification of individuals who are being radicalized, so that they can be diverted before becoming committed to supporting terrorist activity, requires strong partnerships between local law enforcement and Muslim community organizations – and even greater trust between members of these groups. This component of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts will be increasingly critical, as programs that prioritize operations to counter online radicalization will not be sufficient.
Finally, we must continue to keep an eye on offshoots of ISIS, who will no doubt seek to gain power and prominence. For even as the Islamic State will still try to inspire “lone wolf” attacks by supporters in the West, lesser-known terrorist organizations will use the shifting power balance as an opportunity to recruit followers and funders who have been supporting ISIS. This is how the Islamic State got its start, emerging from an al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq.
Ultimately, as the story of Hoxha continues to unfold, it should be examined through the lens of this changing landscape for the Islamic State. We are entering a new chapter in our counter-terrorism efforts. Which means we need fresh ideas to ensure that no other locals follow in Hoxha’s footsteps.
Marisa Porges is head of school at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr and is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. She was formerly a counter-terrorism policy adviser in the U.S. government.