A small but determined number of Americans and Western Europeans are joining forces with jihadist groups in the Middle East, raising concerns that they will bring their extremist mentalities back to their home countries in dangerous ways, according to pundits.
The ongoing struggle in Iraq and Syria has attracted “a larger number of Western jihadis than any previous conflict,” according to Peter Neumann, quoted by US News. Neumann, the director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College in London, believes this is because young Muslims see this as the conflict of their time. It’s an unprecedented chance for them to show the lengths of their devotion
Social media play a role as well, he said. Global recruitment is easier now than it has ever been before.
“This is a grass-roots phenomenon that’s not centrally directed,” Neumann said to US News of the rebel groups. “The bulk of the media is very organic, it’s bottom-up. That also makes it more difficult to shut down.”
It was social media that enabled one Western jihadist from Wales to tweet that “Britain should fear the bomb-making skills he’s learned in Syria,” according to US News, and it was online technology that allowed Florida native Moner Mohammad Abusalha to release a video from a rebel base in Syria featuring himself tearing up and burning his American passport, according to Buzzfeed.
Abusalha later died in a suicide mission, driving a garbage truck carrying 16 tons of explosives into a restaurant where members of the Syrian government were known to meet, according to the New York Times. The blast killed 37 people. Abu Omar, a rebel who knew Abusalha, told Buzzfeed that Abusalha had no intentions of hurting the U.S., only protecting the Syrian people.
“I advise all American people to come and make jihad in Syria,” Omar said. “Everyone should support the Syrian people.”
Neumann agrees that these Western terrorists are unlikely to present much of a threat to their home countries upon returning, at least while circumstances are so perilous in the Middle East.
“It would be pretty stupid of them to attack the West right now,” Neumann told US News. “They’re pretty busy down there.”
According to US News, “only around one in nine former jihadists get involved in domestic terrorism,” and Slate writer Brian Michael Jenkins stated that only around 70 to 100 Americans joined the jihadist movement — a much smaller number than many European countries are facing, due in part to their proximity to the Middle East.
But others believe it is wishful thinking to assume that there will be no consequences when the Western jihadists return home.
“Those who succeeded in joining the jihadist fronts presumably are more determined than their stay-at-home brothers,” wrote Jenkins. “Survivors will return with their scars, war stories and prestige. Presumably they will be more competent than the terrorist plotters seen thus far since 9/11.”
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron believes that the extremist threat is very real.
"The people in that regime, as well as trying to take territory, are also planning to attack us here at home in the United Kingdom,” he was quoted as saying in The Guardian.
This issue has also raised familiar questions about the ethics of surveillance. “U.S. authorities recognize the threat and are pushing to identify all of those who have gone to Syria or Iraq,” wrote Jenkins. “European governments are even more concerned than we are, but are not yet consolidating data as efficiently as they might, and they are less willing or, under the political pressure caused by the Edward Snowden revelations, less able to share information with the United States.”
Whether these Westerners who have fought in the Middle East are a major or minor threat to their home countries, Jenkins concluded, U.S. and European governments must now be aware of possible threats from their own citizens.
“The terrorist threat is evolving,” Jenkins wrote, “and we have little choice but to evolve with it.”
Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2