By Seamus Hughes, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens and Bennet Clifford
The clues are out there, if you know where to look. Scattered across far-flung corners of the internet, there is evidence that Zulfi Hoxha, the son of an Albanian-American pizza-shop owner from New Jersey, had sinister plans.
First there’s the defunct Twitter profile, which at one point engaged in a conversation with a State Department counter-propaganda account about the Islamic State. Then there’s the fact that he used the social-networking site Paltalk, a communications platform reportedly popular among Western jihadis. But none of it compares to the isis propaganda video that, according to multiple law-enforcement officials, shows Hoxha beheading captured Kurdish soldiers. If they are right about his identity, Hoxha is the first American Islamic State member known to be beheading individuals in such a video.
Hoxha is now known to have become a senior commander of Islamic State and one of the faces of the group’s recruitment efforts, according to federal court records. Hoxha left the United States on April 6, 2015. Four days later, he was in an Islamic State training camp. Within just six months, according to multiple law-enforcement officials, he was featured in that gruesome video.
As cases of Islamic State supporters continue to trickle through the American justice system, details are slowly emerging of both the extent of American involvement in the upper echelons of the group and the role of recruitment and mobilization networks in the country. Investigations have already uncovered the stories of Americans like John Georgelas and Abdullah Ramo Pazara, both of whom were part of wider jihadi networks in America and eventually reached relatively high-ranking and influential positions within the Islamic State hierarchy.
While the isis presence in America is often characterized by so-called “lone wolves,” attackers who claim allegiance to the Islamic State but show little formal connections either to its operatives overseas or other likeminded Americans, stories like that of Zulfi Hoxha are a reminder of the existence and importance of jihadist recruitment networks in the United States. The extent of these networks does not compare to those in Europe, but they nonetheless play a crucial role in recruiting and mobilizing American foreign fighters for isis, who number in the dozens. Indeed, the majority of American foreign fighters we have identified had close connections to other American supporters of isis prior to their departure. Some, like Hoxha, made these connections through the internet and, via their new contacts, were able to liaise with isis facilitators who helped them travel to Syria.
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