Dec 4, 2013
Syria’s Jihadi Migration Emerges as Top Terror Threat in Europe, Beyond
Posted on Jul 29, 2013
By Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica
A former CIA counterterror chief leans in the latter direction. Author Charles (Sam) Faddis served in South Asia and the Middle East, where he led clandestine CIA operations in Iraq that preceded the U.S. invasion in 2003. He communicates periodically with leaders of the Free Syrian Army and thinks the Western support is “too little, too late.”
“I’m the first guy who parts company with the neo-cons (neo-conservative Republicans in Washington) who think we should get involved everywhere,” Faddis said. “I’m against putting American troops in there, and I’m against a no-fly zone. But our approach has been short-sighted.”
There is a real threat of a blowback against the West even from a relatively small number of trained, combat-hardened veterans of the conflict, Faddis said. But he criticizes the Obama administration for not having moved quickly to provide arms and intelligence to the Free Syrian Army.
“You were going to have extremists flocking in there anyway,” he said. “Now you’ve increased their influence. Their power has been enhanced by our not getting involved in a more significant way. We need to get on the ground, map the terrain, figure out who we can work with.”
“We remain deeply concerned by the violent extremism there,” said a State Department official who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. “We distinguish between those in the opposition seeking a moderate, democratic Syria and those who are trying to hijack it. We make clear with the armed opposition leaders who don’t espouse these [extremist] ideals the importance of isolating the extremists, so it doesn’t take root in the future Syria they are trying to fight for.”
The U.S. has committed $250 million in nonlethal assistance to the rebels and $815 million in humanitarian aid to those affected by the conflict, according to a State Department fact sheet. In areas of Syria under rebel control, the U.S. attempts to shore up the democratic opposition by helping local governments deliver security and other essential services, providing material such as trucks, communications equipment and computers. U.S. officials put the recipients through a vetting process intended to prevent aid from going to the extremists, the State Department official said.
“It’s important that the vetting is in place precisely because there are groups like al-Nusrah trying to intercept things,” the official said. “Sometimes there’s a delay as a result.”
In Europe, authorities have a hard time identifying and prosecuting suspected jihadis for terrorist activity when they return from Syria. Some known extremists insist they fought in the Free Syrian Army, which they indignantly point out has the backing of President Obama, French President François Hollande and others. Judges are more skeptical of the prosecutions than they were with defendants returning from Afghanistan or Iraq, counterterror officials say.
Courts in Europe often struggle to find enough evidence to lock up Islamic extremists if their alleged crimes center on ideological activity or combat in foreign countries.
Raphael Gendron is an example. In late 2008, Italian police arrested Gendron, a Frenchman residing in Belgium, and Bassam Ayachi, a Syrian-Belgian imam, in a camping vehicle coming off a ferry from Greece in Bari, a city at the heel of the Italian boot. Police discovered five illegal immigrants and a trove of jihadi propaganda in the vehicle.
In 2006, Gendron had been convicted of a charge of inciting hate and violence against Jews with Internet propaganda in Belgium. Ayachi had performed the marriage in Brussels of the Tunisian suicide bomber who later killed Massoud in Afghanistan, investigators say. Both had longtime ties to networks that had been implicated in terror plots and had sent jihadis to Bosnia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, according to investigators and Italian court documents.
An Italian court convicted the duo of acting as recruiters and operatives for al Qaida, but an appellate panel freed them last year. Soon Gendron went to Syria to join a rebel battalion commanded by Ayachi’s son, a veteran of the Belgian military, according to Belgian investigators. In April, the 37-year-old Gendron died in combat near Homs, Syria.
Most suspects in past al Qaida-related terrorist plots against the West traveled first to jihadi combat theaters, and many were European or spent time in Europe. The combat zones and training venues of Pakistan and Afghanistan generated a stream of militants intent on striking the West — from the Sept. 11 hijackers to the failed Times Square bomber in 2010.
Fears of massive blowback against Western nations from Iraq did not materialize, however. The Iraqi conflict certainly played a role in radicalization. But some European jihadis who returned from Iraq told investigators that, despite their eagerness to fight in a war zone, they would not commit violence against civilians at home.
The background of foreign volunteers determines the reception they get from Syrian extremist groups, investigators say.
“We see a little of everything in the profile of the recruits,” the top Spanish intelligence official said. “There are people who are clearly with al Qaida, or are associates of its subsidiaries. Then there are people who have no connection with anything. Solitary actors inspired to go to there and fight.”
Militants with useful skills, such as medical professionals or computer experts, are kept out of combat and given support roles. Men with military experience deploy in front-line units.
Those with little to offer quickly become human bombs.
Wahbi, the Spanish suicide attacker, died soon after his arrival in Syria. He had no criminal record. Also known as Rachid Mohamed, he had supported his wife and children driving a white Mercedes taxi in Ceuta, one of two Spanish cities on the Moroccan coast. His predominantly Muslim neighborhood, known as El Principe, resembles a Brazilian favela or a North African casbah: The slum sprawls over a canyon near the Moroccan border and serves as a fortress for organized crime and Islamic extremism.
1 2 3 4 NEXT PAGE >>>
Previous item: Politicized Nonprofits and the Real IRS Scandal
Next item: We Should Thank Edward Snowden
New and Improved Comments