ISIL: A Threat We Cannot Ignore
Earlier this month, a 20-year-old man from Orange County was stopped by FBI agents at John Wayne Airport as he tried to board a flight to Turkey, en route to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Under questioning, he said he considered the killing of U.S. soldiers justified and would have done anything ISIL asked of him.
In May, a Florida man drove a truck laden with explosives into a government position in northern Syria, the first American suicide bomber in the three-year old civil war.
These two men are illustrative of
perhaps the greatest terrorist threat since 9/11 – Americans and Europeans going to Syria and Iraq, becoming trained in warfare and bomb-making, and returning home to attack us. Western media has reported that there are about 23,000 fighters in Syria and that nearly a third, about 7,000, of these are foreign fighters.
A May report in the New York Times asserted that about 100 Americans have joined the fight in Syria while many more have come from Europe, with its large and often disaffected Muslim populations.
Ever since the earliest days of al Qaeda, extremists have sought to recruit European and American Muslims to their cause and for obvious reasons: American citizens can come and go from this country as they please and citizens of the United States and many European nations may travel back and forth without needing a visa. In addition, most of Western and Central Europe have no internal border controls, further facilitating movements, elicit and otherwise.
The images from Syria and Iraq are horrific – Islamic fighters executing captured policemen, beheading local officials, and even shooting imams – and they have served to announce the stunning arrival of the newest and possibly most lethal incarnation of al Qaeda that we have yet encountered.
There are two factors that make ISIL more of a challenge than traditional al Qaeda (to which it has been excommunicated). The first is the group’s drive to capture, hold and govern territory in an arc that stretches from Syria through Iraq. While its more nihilistic forebear talked of re-establishing the caliphate, but did little to actually bring it about, ISIL has already established governance over significant portions of Syria and Iraq. And the second is ISIL’s ambition to recruit western jihadis who can easily return home to attack western targets.
As with so much else in the post 9/11 era, the United States and its democratic allies must balance security and freedom as we seek to prevent our citizens from becoming radicalized and then turning on us.
Attorney General Eric Holder recently set out a four-step action plan that the U.S. and its allies could use to stem the influx of western jihadis to Syria – and their eventual return to Europe or North America.
First, other countries should join the U.S., France, and Norway to criminalize “preparatory acts to terrorism” such as joining or providing “material support” to terrorist groups, which the United States has used on several occasions to prosecute terrorists and their supporters in this country.
Second, the Attorney General urged the greater use of undercover operations to identify people who may be planning to join the fight in Syria, pointing out that the FBI already has conducted several successful operations of this type.
Third, the U.S. and its allies must strengthen the sharing of traveler information as a potential way to prevent would-be foreign fighters from going to Syria in the first place — and to better track those who come back. Holder also urged the allies to provide greater mutual legal assistance and to facilitate the extradition of foreign fighters to combat extremism.
Fourth, governments need to sponsor “counter-radicalization programs” to help “serve our broader aim of fostering tolerance, inclusion and understanding.”
These are commonsense solutions that will improve our security and stem the flow of Westerners joining the fight. In the words of the Attorney-General, “If we wait for our nations’ citizens to travel to Syria or Iraq to become radicalized, and to return home, it may be too late to adequately protect our national security.”