The FBI says it has thousands of active terrorism investigations, but few are resulting in criminal charges.
Only nine people have been publicly charged with crimes related to involvement with major terrorist groups this year, according to the Center on National Security at Fordham University, suggesting a major disconnect between the scope of the investigations and the criminal activity discovered.
Five cases associated with the Islamic State have been prosecuted this year, compared with 17 last year and 35 in 2016.
The Trump administration identifies terrorism, particularly attacks affiliated with al Qaeda or the Islamic State, as the top priority for the Justice Department.
Daniel Byman, a Middle East senior policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that focus is overheated. As evidence, he pointed to President Trump’s insinuation that terrorists could be concealed inside the migrant caravans making their way through Mexico.
“The president’s own rhetoric and the rhetoric of some of the people in this administration has often exaggerated the level of dangers to the United States,” Mr. Byman said. “In the last few years, terrorist activity in the U.S. homeland has been declining, but that hasn’t stopped people from making these claims.”
Jimmy Gurule agreed. The University of Notre Dame law professor, who helped implement the Treasury Department’s global strategy to fight terrorist financing, said the numbers just don’t back up the threat level that government officials claim.
“The fact remains that there have been very few ISIS-related prosecutions in the past year, which, to me, runs counterintuitive because the administration is maintaining Islamic State is a serious threat that is going to infiltrate the United States,” he told The Washington Times.
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said Monday that terrorism remains a top priority for the Justice Department.
“Terrorists are going to continue to target us, so we have to keep targeting them — during the holiday season and all year round.”
FBI officials say they are currently working on about 5,000 terrorism investigations, which the agency breaks into three categories: about 1,000 domestic terrorism cases, 1,000 involving self-radicalized extremists and 3,000 with people suspected to have affiliation with known terrorist group. About 1,000 of the 5,000 cases involve the Islamic State.
But the FBI says the number of terrorism prosecutions is not an effective way to measure the Islamic State’s presence in the U.S. Not every terrorism investigation will result in a prosecution, or a terrorism suspect could be more convicted easily of an unrelated crime — like Al Capone and tax evasion.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray vowed in August that the agency will employ federal terrorism charges plus other federal, state and local charges along “with other disruption and mitigation strategies” to bring down terrorists.
That was the case in August when two people who the Justice Department said had hid their ties to jihadi group al-Shabab were instead charged with immigration fraud.
“There are other disruption tools that may account for the dog-that-is-not-barking phenomena,” said William Braniff, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. “There is just no way to know until an investigation becomes public.”
Some indictments could be sealed, meaning the public won’t know about the case for some time after a suspect is charged. An al Qaeda suspect’s indictment was unsealed this year, even though the criminal charges were lodged in 2000.
Mr. Gurule said even assuming more still-sealed indictments, it won’t make a major dent in the numbers.
“We have to go with what we do know,” he said. “The government may have a number or indictments under seal or they may have none. Even factoring into account a number of sealed indictments there still remains very few Islamic State prosecutions in the United States.”
In one such prosecution Monday in New York, a Long Island woman pleaded guilty to laundering more than $150,000 in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to support the Islamic State, which she intended to join after she traveled to Syria.
Zoobia Shahnaz, 27, of Brentwood, New York, pleaded guilty to providing material support to the Islamic State. She fraudulently obtained $22,500 in bank loans and used more than a dozen credit cards to buy $62,000 in digital money, which was transferred to individuals and shell companies for the Islamic State in Pakistan, China and Turkey, prosecutors said. All told, she transferred more than $150,000 to individuals and entities associated with the Islamic State, according to court documents.
Shahnaz, who was arrested and indicted last year, faces up to 20 years in prison at her sentencing.
Her case is one of what some analysts dub terrorist “wannabes,” who in many cases are picked up before they build a bomb or can go to the Middle East and pick up a gun.
Naser Almadaoji, a 19-year-old born in Iraq but who was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, was arrested late last month by the FBI at an Ohio airport as he prepared to head for Afghanistan, where he told an informant that he hoped to join the Islamic State.
Waheba Issa Dais, a Wisconsin mother of two, was arrested in June after she spread pro-Islamic State propaganda urging others to join the terrorist group.
“The people who have been inspired by the Islamic State for the most part have been remarkably unimpressive,” Mr. Byman said. “A large degree of their converts were losers looking for some big cause.”
Analysts credit efforts overseas and at home for curtailing interest in aligning with Islamic State. The caliphate’s collapse last year after lengthy battles with Iraqi security forces and the Russia-backed Syrian military left those who wanted to join the fight with nowhere to go.
At home, analysts said, the FBI is more aggressive in making arrests once a person appears on its radar.
“The appeal to Americans who want to go abroad and fight is way down because the FBI has made it clear: Don’t even think about it,” said Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham’s Center on National Security. “There is a deterrence effect from the FBI’s actions.”