American intelligence and law enforcement agencies have identified nearly a dozen Americans who have traveled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the militant group that the Obama administration says poses the greatest threat to the United States since Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/29/world/middleeast/us-identifies-citizens-joining-rebels-in-syria.html?ref=world&_r=0
As ISIS has seized large expanses of territory in recent months, it has drawn more foreign men to Syria, requiring more American and European law enforcement resources in the attempt to stop the flow of fighters, senior American officials said. And as a result of the increasing numbers of men, ISIS is now recruiting foreign women as jihadist wives.
ISIS has become more attractive to would-be militants because, unlike Al Qaeda, it has seized territory that it rules by strict Islamic law. “ISIS is able to hold itself up as the true jihad,” said a senior American official. “They’re saying: ‘Look at what we are doing, what we’re accomplishing. We’re the new face. We’re not just talking about it. We’re doing it.’ ”
ISIS’ attraction to some is based on its reputation for brutality. On Thursday, that reputation grew worse when it was revealed that it had waterboarded four hostages early in their captivity — including the American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded this month.
Over all, American intelligence officials said the number of Americans who have joined rebel groups in Syria — not just ISIS — had nearly doubled since January. The officials now believe that more than 100 Americans have fought alongside groups there since the civil war began three years ago.
The agencies have been able to specifically identify Americans fighting for ISIS based on intelligence gathered from travel records, family members, intercepted electronic communications, social media postings and surveillance of Americans overseas who had expressed interest in going to Syria, the officials said.
Many more Europeans have joined the fight against President Bashar al-Assad — more than 1,000, according to many estimates. The British government has identified about 500 of its citizens who have gone to Syria, according to a senior British official. About half have returned to Britain, and a small number have died on the battlefield, the official said.
Senior American officials acknowledge that as the conflict in Syria and Iraq drags on, it is becoming harder to track Americans who have traveled there. In many instances, the American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are learning that Americans are there only long after they have arrived.
In the latest example of how difficult it is for the United States to track its citizens, the F.B.I. on Thursday was trying to verify reports that two more Americans had been killed fighting for ISIS in Syria.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, at least four Americans have died fighting for rebel groups, including Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, a Minnesota man who was fighting for ISIS when he was killed last weekend by a rival group backed by the United States.
Another challenge that the intelligence and law enforcement authorities say they face is a difference from previous conflicts: The Americans who have traveled to Syria to fight have little in common. The conflict has attracted both men and women, including some who were raised as Muslims and others who converted from Christianity, and they have come from different parts of the United States.
One trend the authorities have detected in recent months is that the American recruits are younger. They are now mostly in their late teens or early 20s, the officials said.
The territorial gains by ISIS, and its attempt to govern towns and cities in eastern Syria and western Iraq, have forced it to recruit foreigners not just for the battlefield. The group has tried to lure doctors, oil field workers and engineers to live in, and help run, the caliphate it claims to have established, according to the officials.
The F.B.I.’s psychological analysts at Quantico, Va., armed with court-approved powers, are increasingly monitoring the activities of Americans who have expressed extremist views in jihadist chat rooms and on websites. It is an effort to chart their radicalization, law enforcement officials said.
But ISIS and other violent Islamist groups operating in Syria have not been deterred by the American efforts. In Minneapolis, for example, Abdirizak Bihi, director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center, said that young Somali women were being recruited by violent Islamist groups to support Syrian militants.
Mr. Bihi said that despite efforts to combat the recruiting, multiple Somali families in the city had “lost their girls to Syria.”
“We are frustrated because nobody’s helping us,” he said. “We’re losing everything we have.”
In Europe, where larger numbers are leaving for Syria, officials share the same concern and are working closely with the American authorities to coordinate measures to stem the flow and track those who return.
But the ISIS-led fighters who swept into Mosul, Iraq, in June and advanced south to within 60 miles of Baghdad, the capital, have built considerable momentum in recruitment.
“There’s certainly been a P.R. boon for them,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
New attention was focused on ISIS on Thursday when The Washington Post reported that the group had waterboarded at least four of its Western hostages. The hostages were tortured in other ways as well, American officials said, but the waterboarding disclosure was considered significant because the practice was used during the George W. Bush administration on detainees held in the fight against terrorism.
Some senior American officials warned that Americans might face the same treatment if they were captured abroad.
The case of Mehdi Nemmouche haunts U.S. intelligence officials. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/heart-syria-fears-extremists-returning-home
Nemmouche is a Frenchman who authorities say spent 11 months fighting with the Islamic State group in Syria before returning to Europe to act out his rage. On May 24, prosecutors say, he methodically shot four people at the Jewish Museum in central Brussels. Three died instantly, one afterward. Nemmouche was arrested later, apparently by chance.
For U.S. and European counterterrorism officials, that 90-second spasm of violence is the kind of attack they fear from thousands of Europeans and up to 100 Americans who have gone to fight for extremist armies in Syria and now Iraq.
The Obama administration has offered a wide range of assessments of the threat to U.S. national security posed by the extremists who say they’ve established a caliphate, or Islamic state, in an area straddling eastern Syrian and northern and western Iraq, and whose actions include last week’s beheading of American journalist James Foley. Some officials say the group is more dangerous than al-Qaida. Yet intelligence assessments say it currently couldn’t pull off a complex, 9-11-style attack on the U.S. or Europe.
However, there is broad agreement across intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the immediate threat from radicalized Europeans and Americans who could come home to conduct lone-wolf operations. Such plots are difficult to detect because they don’t require large conspiracies of people whose emails or phone calls can be intercepted.
The 2013 Boston Marathon bombings were like that, carried out by radicalized American brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev acting on their own. So was the 2010 attempt to bomb New York’s Times Square by Faisal Shahzad, who received training and direction in Pakistan but operated alone in the United States.
On Friday, Britain raised its terror threat from “substantial” to “severe,” its second highest level, citing a foreign fighter danger that made a terrorist attack “highly likely.” The U.S. didn’t elevate its national terrorist threat level, though White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration was closely monitoring the situation. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Friday that U.S. authorities aren’t aware of any “specific, credible” threats to the U.S. homeland from the group.
So far, Nemmouche is the only foreign fighter affiliated with the Islamic State group who authorities say returned from the battlefield to carry out violence, and some scholars argue the danger is overstated. But nearly every senior national security official in the U.S. government — including the attorney general, FBI director, homeland security secretary and leaders of key intelligence and military agencies — has called foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq their top terrorism worry.
“While we have worked hard over the last year and a half to detect Westerners who have gone to Syria, no one knows for sure whether there are those who have gone there undetected,” said John Cohen, who stepped down in July as the Homeland Security Department’s counterterrorism coordinator.
“And that’s why those of us who look at this every day are so concerned that somebody is going to slip through the cracks,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the House Intelligence Committee chairman, said Thursday on CNN. “They’re either going to get into Europe or they’re going to get into the United States.”
Unlike al-Qaida militants in Pakistan and Yemen, American and European passport holders who have secretly gone to fight in Syria can travel freely if they have not been identified as terrorists. U.S. authorities are sifting through travel records and trying to identify the foreign fighters, but they won’t see all of them.
An American from San Diego, Douglas McAuthur McCain, was killed this week in Syria, where, officials say, he was fighting with the Islamic State. The U.S. is investigating whether a second American also was killed.
McCain is one of several Western Muslims over the last two years who proved themselves willing to kill or die for extremist groups or help them win new recruits. The names of many more remain secret in the files of U.S. intelligence agencies, but here are others that are public:
—Moner Mohammad Abusalha, an American who grew up a basketball fan in Vero Beach, Florida, killed 16 people and himself in a suicide bombing attack against Syrian government forces in May. U.S. officials say he was on their radar screen but acknowledge he traveled from Syria to the United States before the attack without detection. Had he attacked in the U.S. instead of Syria, it’s unclear whether he would have been stopped.
—Two brothers from East London, Hamza Nawaz, 23, and Mohommod Nawaz, 30, pleaded guilty in May to attending a terrorist training camp in Syria. They were caught on the return trip home with ammunition. In an unrelated case, Mashudur Choudhury, 31, was also convicted in London of traveling to a terrorist camp in Syria.
—Three Norwegian residents were arrested in May and accused of having fought with the Islamic State group.
—Eight men, including a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, were arrested in June by Spanish authorities and charged with recruiting for the Islamic State group.
Of the thousands of foreign fighters who’ve flocked to Syria, many have fought with the al Nusra front, an al-Qaida affiliate and rival to the Islamic State. The group poses its own threat, American officials say, but poses less of a threat than does the Islamic State, whose battlefield successes have made it a stronger draw for foreign fighters than any Jihadist group in recent history. It has seized advanced military equipment and has millions of dollars in cash.
Intelligence officials estimate that about a dozen Americans are fighting with the Islamic State group.
Nemmouche, who has a long criminal record, allegedly killed two Israeli tourists outside the Brussels museum entrance with a .357 Magnum revolver. Then he walked inside, removed an assault rifle from a gym bag and shot two museum employees in the face and throat, prosecutors say.
He was caught six days later during a random customs inspection of a bus from Amsterdam. With him were the murder weapons, authorities say, and a sheet scrawled with the name of the Islamic State. He had intended to film the attack with a wearable video camera, authorities say, though it wasn’t working that day.
Abusalha, the 22-year-old Vero Beach suicide bomber, was recorded in a series of videos before his attack. In one of them, he addresses the U.S. public in American-accented English.
“You think you are safe? You are not safe,” he said. “We are coming for you, mark my words.”