As the conflict with the Islamic State (ISIS) intensifies, a small group of young Americans have been seeking to join extremist groups in the Middle East, intent on fighting against U.S. interests.
At least seven "wannabes" have been arrested in the last 15 months after trying to travel to join the militant groups, while an eighth — a former police officer from North Carolina — was arrested on an unrelated charge after unsuccessfully attempting to join ISIS in Syria, according to NBC News.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that more than 100 Americans are fighting with Islamic State militants, the first time the Pentagon chief has put a number on U.S. citizens aiding the terrorists.
Hagel cited the Americans aiding the jihadists to illustrate the threat that the Islamic State poses to the United States.
"We are aware of over 100 U.S. citizens who have U.S. passports who are fighting in the Middle East with ISIL forces," Hagel told CNN, using the U.S. government's preferred acronym for the Islamic State. "There may be more. We don't know."
Other U.S. intelligence officials have said that as many as 300 Americans may have joined forces with the Islamic State group. They are among thousands of Westerners believed to be fighting alongside the militants.
Don Morgan, a former police officer from North Carolina, converted to radical Islam after dropping out of the National Guard boot camp, which would have prepared him to fight in Kuwait during Desert Storm. He said he was first exposed to Islam during a religion class at college.
"My reason for the support of ISIS is because they've proven time and time again to put Islamic law as the priority and the establishment of an Islamic state as the goal," said Morgan, 44, who once intended to join the Army's Special Forces unit.
Morgan had planned to get to Syria from Turkey, but was stopped at the airport in Istanbul.
"It was planned," he told NBC. "I purchased the ticket with the intent of entering to Syria, either joining up with medical and food aid convoys or directly with Islamic State."
Morgan returned to the United States but was arrested on Aug. 2 at JFK International Airport in New York and put in prison for trying to sell a rifle online. At a court appearance, prosecutors highlighted comments he made on Twitter and Facebook about his devotion to the extremist group.
Before his conversion to Islam, Morgan served as deputy sheriff at a local police department in North Carolina but was fired from his job after 18 months. He subsequently served two years in prison for firing a gun into a crowded restaurant.
"I would not classify myself as a radical, but by Western definition I would be classified as a radical," he told NBC. "I just consider myself to be a practicing Muslim."
Authorities are focused on stopping the recruits, most of whom share a number of things in common, such as a conversion to Islam, being young, male, and "without hope," authorities said, or having a troubled past.
Six of those arrested were detained at airports, five of which were trying to leave the country. Of the other two, one was caught at a bus stop and the other at a Canadian border crossing. Charges have ranged from supporting terrorism to other offenses such as parole violations or making a false statement on a passport application, according to NBC News.
Authorities in the United States are being joined by European police in trying to quickly identify and stop their citizens from joining the Islamic State group.
On Saturday, a French teenage girl was arrested in the Nice airport in the south of France as she tried to board a plane to Turkey with the alleged intention of joining ISIS in Syria.
Several hours later, authorities caught a 20-year-old man who had allegedly recruited her and paid for her plane ticket. The girl's parents reportedly had no idea about their daughter's plans and the statement said that airport police were responsible for her arrest.
In April, authorities in Denver discovered a 19-year-old woman who was planning on traveling to Turkey to join a jihadist group after connecting with a 32-year-old Tunisian man.
The woman, Shannon Maureen Conley, was interviewed eight times by police and FBI agents over the course of the six months leading up to her arrest at Denver's international airport on April 8 — and the charging document reveals that she repeatedly spoke about her support of jihad and how she wanted to associate with terrorists in the hope of helping them. The Justice Department confirmed on Aug. 11 that a plea deal had been reached in the case but they did not release any information about what the deal entailed.
In August, another American, Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, originally of San Diego, was killed in Syria after traveling there to become part of the Islamic State group.
The body and passport of McCain, 33, originally of San Diego, California, was discovered by members of the Free Syrian Army after he was killed in a firefight with the group.
McCain had been on a U.S. watch list of potential terrorism suspects, American officials said. If he had tried to re-enter the country, he likely would have faced an extra level of scrutiny before boarding any commercial airliner bound for the United States, officials told The New York Times.
Separately, law enforcement officials have said that at least two federal grand juries have been investigating Americans who are believed to have already joined the Islamic State group in Syria, and at least two Americans fighting for the extremist group have been killed in battle.
Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told NBC News that it is difficult for authorities to track down potential radicals and that officials should be concerned about the long-term threat the budding jihadists pose to the United States.
"From a U.S. counterterrorism perspective, nothing is more important — and often more difficult — than identifying U.S. citizens who fight and train in Syria," Leiter said.
"In many cases, U.S. citizens fighting overseas have become operatives or key operational planners and leaders in terror groups. Because of this, the U.S. intelligence community is laser-focused on knowing the who, when, where, and why of U.S. citizens — and Westerners more broadly — who are in Syria today," he added.
To date, it is unknown how many Americans have joined the militant's effort, but officials put the estimate at between 70 and 100 people, with roughly a dozen engaged in fighting at any one time. Most are believed to have joined the Islamic State and other al-Qaida-backed groups, while others are thought to be involved with more moderate Islamic factions, NBC News reported.
"It stands to reason that one or some of those Americans who have gone to Syria may have linked up with ISIS," a senior U.S. intelligence official told NBC News last month. "In general, we have found that Western fighters, not just those from the U.S., are joining the biggest game in town — and the biggest game in town is ISIS."
FBI informants are increasingly playing a role in helping to capture potential suspects.
"This is the preventive strategy," Karen Greenberg, director of the Fordham University Center on Security, told NBC News. "Over time, the suspect's acts turn out to be more and more remote from acts of violence themselves, and more like potential beginning steps in a direction that might or might not someday take the suspect in the direction of jihadi violence."
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