On Tuesday, November 10th, Bennett Clifford will address students in Dr. Nelly van Doorn-Harder’s Religious Studies classes. His first book, Homegrown: ISIS in America is due for release on November 12, 2020. Clifford and co-authors Seamus Hughes and Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens spent four and half years performing an in-depth examination of Americans who support the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Mr. Clifford is currently a senior research fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism and a candidate for his Masters in Law and Diplomacy from the prestigious Fletcher School at Tufts University.
At GWU, Clifford, Hughes, and Meleagrou-Hutchens researched from several areas. They were able to access more than 20,000 pages of legal documents through PACER (the Public Access to Court Electronic Records, an official website of the US government) and read the court documents of trials of US Islamic State supporters. Through the Freedom of Information Act, they also were able to read FBI investigations of supporters. They interviewed dozens of FBI agents, Department of Justice employees, prosecutors, defense attorneys, American ISIS members, and their families.
Also interviewed was a former Islamic-State supporter who traveled to ISIS-held territory in Syria and Iraq where he became disenchanted with the movement. This former ISIS member is now involved in a program run by the Department of Justice and shares his story with young teens at risk of joining ISIS. Similar to anti-gang and “scared straight” programs, these youths can get the real story of what it is like on the inside of those territories and his subsequent disillusionment with this terrorist organization.
Most pertinent, Bennett feels, is the chapter on ideologues—people who are framed as quasi-religious authorities and who provide so-called justification for the Islamic state. Much of this is used as propaganda and as recruitment through social media. And the work is important. Studying these ideologues, researching the wave of ISIS supporters after 2014, and looking at the dynamics of American ISIS supporters, we can hope to understand the ways their support was gained, what changed, and how the U.S. can strategize law enforcement and public policy to combat this.
Bennett, a Wake Forest Presidential Scholar for Distinguished Achievement in Debate, became interested in radical Islamic movements from classes in both the WF Department for the Study of Religions and the Politics and International Affairs Department and double majored. During his junior year, he obtained a Richter Scholarship to travel to the Republic of Georgia to conduct independent research and he made a connection at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies and became a research intern.
In 2016, he graduated summa cum laude and was inducted to Pi Sigma Alpha, Theta Alpha Kappa, and Phi Beta Kappa. He received the Joseph C. Currin and the John Allen Easley Medals in Religious Studies.
During his senior year, he was accepted to the Law and Diplomacy program at the Fletcher School. The program encourages taking a gap period to work in international affairs so upon graduation, he spent the summer as a research assistant for the Program on Extremism at George Washington and then traveled back to Tbilisi, Georgia where he performed research for a think tank and was a consultant for an international affairs organization.