US security officials warn of the threat coming from American citizens fighting alongside anti-Assad jihadist rebels in Syria – and might return to the US radicalized, experienced and ready to attack.
The latest estimates by the British defense consultant, IHS Jane's, and cited by AP put the number of US fighters who have traveled to Syria to support the rebels at a couple of dozen. US security officials are far from underestimating the potential risks they represent.
“We know that American citizens as well as Canadian and European nationals have taken up arms in Syria, Yemen and in Somalia. The threat that these individuals could return home to carry out attacks is real and troubling,” said Senator Thomas Carper at a Senate homeland security committee hearing in November.
The concern was shared by Matthew G. Olsen, who heads the National Counterterrorism Center.
“Many homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) lack advanced operational training, which forces them to seek assistance online from like-minded extremists or pursue travel to overseas jihadist battlegrounds to receive hands-on experience”, said Olsen. “Recent political unrest in many parts of North Africa and the Levant, including in Syria, affords HVEs opportunities to join militant groups overseas. Foreign terrorist groups could leverage HVEs to recruit others or conduct operations inside the US or overseas.”
The issue was first brought up in August by the then FBI Director Robert Mueller and appears to be still high on the agenda.
The current FBI Director, James Comey, said in November that he was worried about Syria becoming a repeat of Afghanistan in the 1980s, after the Soviet invasion, with foreign fighters attracted there to train.
Figures by IHS Jane’s suggest the situation now in Syria is actually much worse than it was 30 years ago in Afghanistan.
“Only the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet Union in 1979-89 compares with Syria in terms of the number of foreign fighters. An in-depth study by Norwegian scholar, Thomas Hegghammer, in the journal International Security in late 2011 estimated that 5,000 to 20,000 foreign fighters had travelled to Afghanistan between 1980 and 1992. As such, the arrival of 5,000 to 10,000 foreign fighters in Syria in only 18 months appears highly significant,” according to IHS Jane’s September report.
This year, at least three Americans have been charged with planning to fight beside Al-Qaeda linked extremist groups.
A Pakistani-born North Carolina resident, Basit Sheikh, 29, was arrested at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in early November on charges he was on his way to Lebanon with the purpose of joining Jabhat al-Nusrah, a terrorist group associated with Al-Qaeda, operating in Syria.
In a similar way and for the same reasons, Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, 18, was detained in April at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport before allegedly boarding a plane bound for Turkey.
In March, a US Army veteran, Eric Harroun, of Phoenix, 31, was charged with conspiring with an Al-Qaeda group to wage war against the Syrian government. However, in September he was released after a secret plea deal.
Sheikh and Tounisi were captured as part of sting operations in which the FBI used websites to dupe potential jihadists into writing messages to agents posing as terrorist recruiters.
The practice has however raised questions over its moral correctness.
“These sites can end up creating crimes,” said Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney, following Tounisi’s arrest in April. “Real terrorists don’t need to go to a website for contacts. They have real contacts. From your office computer, you can get millions of cases like this – sucking people in. But it diverts our attention from the real terrorists.”
In the most recent case, Sheikh commented to an undercover FBI employee's posts on a Facebook page promoting Islamic extremism. The online relationship struck up as a result led to the man’s eventual arrest. He could face up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if found guilty.