WASHINGTON, DC - The recent arrest of a young American who was on his way to Syria to allegedly join Jihadist fighters seeking to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad may add to worries among U.S. law enforcement circles. Basit Javed Sheikh, a 29-year-old Pakistani immigrant living in North Carolina, was arrested as he attempted to board the first in a series of planned flights to Syria. He had told an FBI informant on Facebook that he was going to join the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front in Syria.
In a recent background briefing for reporters, U.S. intelligence officials said dozens of Americans have joined the thousands of other foreigners who have flocked to Syria to fight against al-Assad’s forces. Intelligence officials say that more Americans will likely follow as the conflict continues and they worry that these ‘American jihadists' could pose a grave threat once they return to the U.S. Who are these American fighters? Should the U.S. be concerned—or are these fears overstated?
is the author of Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror and a leading intelligence historian. He says most young Americans who go to fight in Syria are young Muslims who have been radicalized—either by outside groups or on their own.
These include Nicole Lynn Mansfield, 33, a Muslim convert who was killed in May 2013 in a battle with regime forces in Idlib Province, and Eric Omar Harroun, a U.S. Army veteran who was charged with providing support to a terrorist group, after he was accused of fighting alongside the Al-Nusra Front. Harroun was recently released from jail after accepting a plea deal to a lesser charge.
Radicalization and recruitment
American journalist and self-styled “freedom fighter” Matthew VanDyke fought against the Gaddafi regime in Libya and later went to Syria, where he produced a documentary, “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution.” He says most American jihadists have romanticized notions of the conflict, based on what they find online.
Jihadist groups close to Al-Qaeda, for example, post videos of suicide attacks or photos of the dead posed as if smiling, in a bid to attract youth to Syria or solicit cash donations.
“This stuff has some appeal to people who want to believe in something,” VanDyke said. “A guy who perhaps is working at his father’s convenience store all day selling cigarettes looks at these glorifications of war and wants to run off and attain glory—or reach paradise.”
He says he regularly receives emails from people wanting advice on how to go fight in Syria. He says he tells them not to go. They have no idea what they are getting into, he says.
Matthew Aid recently interviewed a group of German Muslims who went to Syria and were lucky enough to make it back home—but not before serving time in Turkish jails. He says most of them are just “kids.”
“Many get killed through sheer ineptitude, and I say that with more than a little sorrow, because they had no training,” said Aid. “A good cry of ‘Allahu Akhbar!’ is all nice and fine, but it won’t save you on the battlefield.”
Aid says the local rebel groups often don’t trust foreign volunteers, suspecting they are spies. Fighters coming from Europe or North America have little or no military training. Nor do they speak Arabic. In the end, says Aid, these fighters are a liability.
“So basically the jihadists take all these western Europeans and put them in a separate unit, where they wouldn’t endanger the guys who actually have combat experience and know what they are doing,” Aid said. They may give foreign recruits inferior weapons and place them in the front lines—or send them out on suicide missions.
Returning jihadists: A threat?
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller warned the public last August that Syria could end up a breeding ground for “radical extremists who want to do harm” to the U.S.
But VanDyke says he believes those fears are overblown.
“The vast majority of these guys who go over are either going to never come back—cause they’ll be killed, most of them—and the ones who do come back do so right away, because they can’t handle what they see,” VanDyke said.
For his part, VanDyke says he came back to the U.S. with a greater appreciation for the freedoms and liberties he finds here. He believes the possibility that these fighters will do the same is much higher than the possibility that they will come back and want to “blow things up.”