Will US passport-carrying mercenaries bring jihad home?
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The self-proclaimed caliph of the Muslim world, by all accounts, was an unremarkable insurgent and street tough in 2009 when he was released from an American military detention facility in Iraq.
"I’ll see you guys in New York," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly said to his American captors, Army Military Police reservists from Long Island, who at the time shrugged off the remark as little more than a lame joke, according to published reports.
Four years later, al-Baghdadi’s comment sounds much more sinister, a not-so-thinly-veiled threat, as he now heads what is arguably the world’s most powerful and ruthless terrorist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Key to his dream of bringing jihad to the West is the involvement of sympathizers from the United States and other Western countries, who hold Western passports and might be able to travel to those countries more easily. This week’s revelation that 33-year-old Douglas McAuthur McCain is the first American to die while fighting for the Islamic State in Syria has brought more attention to the reality of foreign fighters assisting ISIS.
A dozen years ago, Osama Bin Laden preached jihad from a remote cave in Afghanistan. But ISIS has conquered large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and has established a capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa. It has captured American-produced armored vehicles and ordnance and amassed wealth from robbing banks in its path of destruction.
It also continues to draw fresh recruits from across the globe, including from Europe and the United States. They make their way to Raqqa, a northeastern Syrian city of 500,000 along the Euphrates River, reportedly patrolled by armed fighters in long robes who make sure their strict interpretation of Islam is observed, according to the Associated Press.
The influx is raising fears across the West that ISIS-trained militants may soon be launching terrorist attacks at home.
"Don’t kid yourself for a second that they aren’t intent on hitting the West," U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-TX, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told ABC’s "This Week" earlier this month.
National security analysts believe that ISIS—also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—has aspirations to strike Western targets, though it remains unclear as to whether ISIS will develop the long-term capability to launch worldwide terrorist attacks in the same manner as al Qaeda, which built up its organizational structures and tactics over the better part of two decades.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Aug. 25 that the U.S. government had no evidence of any current ISIS plots to attack the United States.
"We are concerned about the threat that is posed by (ISIS), but it is the assessment, as stated by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by the intelligence community, that there currently is not an active plot under way to attack the U.S. homeland," Earnest said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters aboard a military flight to Afghanistan earlier this month that he would not recommend U.S. airstrikes in Syria unless he saw evidence that ISIS posed a direct and immediate threat to the United States.
"I can tell you with great clarity and certainty that if that threat existed inside of Syria that it would certainly be my strong recommendation that we would deal with it," Dempsey said, according to a Fox News report.
ISIS has made repeated threats to attack the U.S. and its allies. A spokesman for the Sunni Muslim terrorist group told VICE News that it would "raise the flag of Allah in the White House." Pro-ISIS messages on Twitter have threatened individuals in the West and hinted at plans to strike targets in Chicago and Washington, D.C. A recent article in the Arabic press reported that ISIS threatened to attack Americans everywhere when ISIS fighters are attacked.
An Aug. 25 article in the Italian newspaper “Il Tempo” even cited Israeli sources who claimed that ISIS has Pope Francis "in the crosshairs" for being the "greatest exponent of the Christian religions" and the "bearer of false truth." Jesuit Father Federico Lombardo, the spokesman for the Holy See, told Catholic News Agency that the report had "no foundation" and he added that the Vatican is not concerned about the threat.
However, the leadership of the so-called Caliphate—which al-Baghdadi declared after ISIS gained control of northern Iraq and Syria—"has been clear that it will focus on Western and American targets if given the chance to consolidate its holdings in the so-called Caliphate," according to retired Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, a distinguished fellow of foreign policy at the Brookings Institute.
"Make no mistake, the abomination of (Islamic State) is a clear and present danger to the U.S.," Allen wrote for “Defense One,” adding that the group is not "a flash in the pan" as it is reinforced by Sunni tribal elements from Syria and Iraq and a "witch’s brew" of foreign fighters from across Asia, Russia, Europe and America.
"The Caliphate’s Western recruits will be felt in the European and American homelands for years to come regardless of the fate of IS and its cause," Allen wrote.
Many observers became aware of ISIS’ Western fighters after a grisly video emerged this month showing a masked jihadist, speaking with a British accent and standing next to the American freelance journalist James Foley, who was subsequently beheaded. British officials have told local newspapers that the jihadist is likely from the United Kingdom, perhaps London.
According to a report from The Soufan Group, a New York-based intelligence organization, more than 12,000 fighters from at least 81 countries have joined the fighting in Syria. Of those, about 2,500 jihadists are from the West, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium and Australia.
In July, ISIS’ media wing released a recruitment video featuring an English-speaking Canadian, identified as Abu Muslim, who called for skilled professionals to join the jihad. "This is more than just fighting," he said. "We need the engineers, we need doctors, we need professionals… There is a role for everybody."
The Western fighters joining ISIS’ cause pose serious national security concerns for the U.S. and Europe, especially since those individuals have passports and visas.
"The short-term concern is the Americans that have gone to fight with ISIS and the west Europeans that have gone to fight with ISIS could be trained and directed by ISIS to come to the United States to conduct small scale attacks," CBS News national security analyst Mike Morell told "CBS This Morning" earlier this month. Morell added: "If an ISIS member showed up at a mall in the United States tomorrow with an AK-47 and killed a number of Americans, I would not be surprised."
ISIS extremists "are one plane ticket away from U.S. shores," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, told NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Aug. 24. The concerns of ISIS-trained Westerners visiting the United States have prompted some federal lawmakers to propose revising the visa-waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 countries—mostly European nations—to enter and stay in the U.S. for 90 days without a visa.
Several European governments have also adopted recent measures to try to prevent their citizens from joining the fight in Iraq and Syria, or intercepting them before they return to their home countries. The French and German government have also sent arms to Iraq to help Kurdish and national military forces battle ISIS, according to published reports.
ISIS, awash with money stolen from Iraqi banks and revenues from the oil fields it has captured, is morphing into a state-like entity, wrote Allen, who noted that the Taliban, when it controlled Afghanistan, provided a base for Bin Laden and Al Qaeda to plan their strikes on the West, most notably the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In comparison to ISIS, the Taliban were and remain as cavemen, Allen wrote.
"A comprehensive American and international response now—now—is vital to the destruction of this threat," Allen wrote, who added the Islamic State "is an entity beyond the pale of humanity and it must be eradicated."
Said Allen: "If we delay now, we will pay later."
Brian Fraga is a daily newspaper reporter who writes from Fall River, Massachusetts