Monday, July 21, 2014

Western 'Jihadists' Trekking to Syria, Iraq Pose New Terror Threat, by Thomas K. Grose

When a 13-minute-long recruitment video for one of the largest Islamic terrorist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq popped up on the Internet two weeks ago, it underscored an alarming fact: nearly 500 Britons – mainly young men – have traveled to the two war-torn countries to fight as jihadists. The video featured two young men from Wales and one from Scotland urging other Western Muslims to join them in the “holy war.”

And the U.K. is hardly the only Western country that has seen some of its young Muslim men opting to fight in the Syrian civil war, and the renewed conflict in Iraq. Some 700 French nationals are fighting there as well, as are 800 Russians, 250 Belgians and 270 Germans. Overall, the Soufan Group, a New York intelligence firm, estimates around 2,500 Westerners have joined the battles, including more than 70 Americans. Indeed, says Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College London, these wars have attracted “a larger number of Western jihadis than any previous conflict.”

Accordingly, many Western governments are alarmed that when some of these young jihadis return home, they’ll come back as battle-hardened terrorists keen to plan and stage attacks on domestic soil. That fear was heightened when a young French male who had fought in Syria was arrested for allegedly killing four people in a May attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels. And on July 3, Nasser Muthana, 20, one of the young men from Cardiff in the recruitment video, sent a tweet indicating that Britain should fear the bomb-making skills he’s learned in Syria. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently issued a statement saying that some of the terror groups fighting in Syria and Iraq “are also planning to attack us here at home, in the United Kingdom.”

That’s probably an exaggeration of the threat, at least for now, security analysts say. But nevertheless, they warn, there are strong reasons to be concerned that some returning jihadists could pose a serious security problem for the West. Research shows that only around one in nine former jihadists get involved in domestic terrorism. But that could still mean that a couple hundred fighters would be well-positioned across the West to help fund, plot and carry out attacks.

“That’s a nightmarish scenario,” says Rashmi Singh, a lecturer in terrorism studies at the University of St. Andrews, that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

The terrorist group that’s recruited the lion’s share of Western Muslims is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a splinter group – and now rival – of al-Qaida. ISIL is one of many rebel groups, mainly Sunni Muslims, fighting to overthrow the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and in recent weeks it’s also successfully overrun huge swathes of Iraq. Although, like al-Qaida, ISIL views the West with antipathy, for now it’s focused on toppling Assad and carving out a foothold in Iraq.

“It would be pretty stupid of them to attack the West right now,” Neumann explains. “They’re pretty busy down there.”

Richard Barrett, senior vice president of the Soufan Group, agrees: “They are not, so far, recruiting people to become terrorists in their home countries.”

But, he adds, that could change if the West becomes more involved in the fighting in the Middle East, or if ISIL feels it has to compete with al-Qaida in attacking the West to prove its global ambitions. Moreover, ISIL-trained Westerners could also decide to act on their own, in lone-wolf operations not sanctioned by the group itself.

Certainly, ad hoc, homegrown terrorists – even if they haven’t trained overseas fighting in jihads – have long been a concern in many Western countries, and they have been involved in some high-profile incidents. Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber,” is an Englishman who was convicted of trying to detonate explosives hidden in his shoe while aboard an American Airlines flight in December 2001. And on July 7, 2005, four young Britons staged suicide bomb attacks on London’s transport system that killed 52 and injured around 700 others.

On Tuesday, two British men from Birmingham, both 22, who had been arrested in January at London’s Heathrow Airport after returning from eight months in Syria, where they fought with a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida, pleaded guilty in a London court to to one count each of engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorism acts. The pair, who returned home at the urging of their families, will be sentenced in a few weeks.

Why are the wars in Syria and Iraq luring so many Westerners? For many young Muslims between the ages of 15 and 25 who have become radicalized, “this is today’s fight,” Barrett says, while Afghanistan and Somalia are ancient history to them. Moreover, Neumann says, young Sunnis view the regimes in both Damascus and Baghdad as Shiite Muslim dictatorships, that are linked to Iran and committing genocide against Sunnis. “For them, this is an existential conflict.”