“Leave our children alone!” That’s the message a Bolingbrook, Illinois, mother wants Islamic State (ISIS) leaders and recruiters to hear. In January, Zarine Khan’s oldest son, 19-year-old Mohammed Khan, tried to travel with his 17-year-old sister and 16-year-old brother to Istanbul to join ISIS. The three were stopped at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, and Mohammed Khan, an American citizen, is now being charged with attempting to provide material support to ISIS militants.
Zarine Khan told news outlets she believes her children were recruited over social media and secretly saved money to purchase passports and airline tickets. “We condemn this violence in the strongest possible terms,” she said after her son’s courthouse appearance. “We condemn the brutal tactics of ISIS and groups like it. And we condemn the brainwashing and the recruiting of children through the use of social media and Internet.”
If Mohammed Khan is found guilty of providing material support to a terrorist organization—a provision of the U.S. Patriot Act—he will face up to 15 years in prison.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. A new report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) found that some 20,000 foreign fighters from 50 countries have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join terrorist organizations since 2012, and more than 4,000 of those are from Western nations.
Disturbing reports seem to surface every month of Westerners—many of whom are teenagers or young adults—attempting to travel to join ISIS as fighters or brides, often after being recruited over the Internet.
Another increasingly prevalent issue is the return of radicalized Westerners to their home countries. Governments are struggling to address the issue in the absence of proof that the returning citizen actually committed a crime.
“The propaganda of the Islamic State, the ability to communicate in message, is better than any I have seen to date since we had the development of Al Qaeda in the early ’90s,” says Charlie Allen, who has served with the CIA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “It is a very interesting thing—we’re going to have people self-radicalized, and it’s hard to stop traffic and travel to and from Europe.”
The exodus of American and European citizens to the Middle East—mainly Syria or Iraq—began in 2012 during the height of the Syrian civil war after ISIS urged Muslims to fulfill their religious duty to wage a holy war against the enemies of Islam. Although some foreigners took up arms with other terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, most are flocking to aid ISIS, which is considered to be the dominant force of Syrian opposition and currently controls about a third of Syria.
More than 100 Americans have traveled to the region to fight, but experts are more concerned about jihadists from European countries, where thousands of citizens—mainly from Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—have crossed through Turkey’s porous border into Syria and Iraq.
Veryan Khan, editorial director for the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC), a political violence database, says that in terms of modern global jihad movements, the current exodus is the third and the most popular call to jihad. ICSR, which has kept track of the global jihad to Iraq and Syria since 2012, notes that the current numbers surpass those of the Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s and the 2006 flight from Somalia, making the conflict in Syria and Iraq the largest mobilization of foreign fighters in Muslim-majority countries since 1945.
Veryan Khan says a large percentage of foreign fighters are young men and women—some not even out of their teens. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s 2014: Jihadist Terrorism and Other Unconventional Threats points out that many young adults who attempt to join ISIS “are far from threatening.” At least eight 18- to 20-year-old Americans have been apprehended attempting to join ISIS over the past two years, one of them admitting in court that “concerning my fighting skills, to be honest, I do not have any.”
Other cases are more serious. One high-profile Western jihadist is 22-year-old Maxime Hauchard, a Frenchman identified as one of the executioners in an ISIS video depicting the decapitated body of American aid worker Peter Kassig. Hauchard converted to Islam when he was 17 and was recruited online to ISIS, according to media outlets.
Veryan Khan explains that young jihadists may be looking to belong because they do not feel at home in Western culture. “There are many other reasons for radicalization: the need for redemption, the perceived obligation to one’s motherland, the guilt of living a good life in the West while others suffer, a personal retribution for the death of a family member or friend, the list goes on and on,” he explains.
Europe has taken a step to curb the relentless—and effective—online propaganda by ISIS. Last summer, nine European nations endorsed an initiative to work with Internet providers to take down the hundreds of ISIS recruitment websites and messages. But the biggest online draw may come from radicalized Westerners themselves.
Foreign fighters who have made the journey to Iraq or Syria have told their stories via Twitter, Facebook, and other blogging websites, encouraging their peers to join them. The posters speak of the friendships they have made with their brothers and sisters of the Islamic State, or the pride they feel in answering the call to jihad.
“Allahu Akbar, there’s no way to describe the feeling of sitting with the Akhawat [sisters] waiting on news of whose Husband has attained Shahadah [martyrdom],” tweeted one British woman who traveled to Syria and married a fighter.
The call to join ISIS in the Middle East is not the only trend that concerns experts. Many foreign fighters are returning to their home countries after fighting alongside ISIS in the Middle East, and Allen points out that having trained, radicalized fighters traveling back to their homes in the West is a potentially dangerous situation.
“We have the worst possible storms that are now erupting in the Middle East, and the foreign fighters, those from North America and Europe, are likely to return,” Allen explains. “Some have been martyred, including Americans, but some will continue their extremist ways and proselytize to get other Americans to join them.”
Individual governments are left trying to figure out what to do with returning fighters. Turkey, considered the main passageway from Europe to Syria and Iraq, announced at the end of January that it is beefing up security along its borders to stem the flow of potential jihadists to the battlefield. The country is also constantly updating a database of more than 10,000 individuals suspected of traveling through to aid ISIS.
The problem that Turkey and many other countries face is that they cannot indict individuals for aiding a terrorist organization without proof. Traveling to and from the region alone does not hold enough weight for law enforcement to intercept an individual.
Some countries have passed laws that make it easier to detain potential jihadists. In Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, and Germany, authorities hastily passed legislation allowing governments to detain individuals suspected of involvement in a terrorist organization abroad.
Other countries, such as Denmark, are taking a soft-handed approach in handling returning fighters by offering free counseling services, as well as assistance in finding jobs or enrolling in school.
U.S. lawmakers are worried that foreign fighters coming to America may be able to slip through the cracks—under the Visa Waiver Program, residents of 38 European countries can travel to the United States without a visa. Former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein has announced plans for legislation that would tighten the program.
Allen says that most foreign fighters aren’t secretive about their involvement in Syria and can be easily tracked, so the threat of a jihadist slipping into the United States unseen is small.
“I believe we have good legislation, good tools, and a good understanding of who may be in Syria, and we’re very careful to ensure when they return that we know who they are and what they’re doing,” Allen explains. “The Customs and Border Patrol does an excellent job of sorting through these people as they return. It’s hard to charge them if you don’t know whether they’ve committed crimes, but I think the collaboration between DHS and the FBI is improving.”
TRAC’s Khan speculates on the bigger picture—why are these young fighters, coming back home? He says the list of grievances from foreign fighters is critical to combatting radicalization efforts.
“They get to their perceived holy war only to find out that they are just killing other Muslims, which is haram (forbidden),” Veryan Khan explains. “There’s this perceived hypocrisy within the movement, as well as the realization that they are not merely fighting against the Assad regime to create a heavenly Caliphate but more than likely fighting other opposition groups.”
There are a number of firsthand accounts explaining the grievances, Veryan Khan explains, but they’re not as prevalent as the propaganda-filled tweets and blogs convincing young people to join ISIS in the first place.
“Using those firsthand accounts to our advantage is the best tool to curb the momentum,” Veryan Khan says.
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