Will US passport-carrying mercenaries bring jihad home?
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.