What Happens When Islamic State's Foreign Fighters Return?

Photograph via AP Photo, Photo Illustration by Businessweek.com

In 1982 an Egyptian engineer and Islamist named Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj wrote a religious pamphlet for his brothers. It was widely distributed that year after Faraj was convicted and executed for leading the plotters who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Faraj titled his pamphlet The Neglected Duty. That duty was to wage jihad.

Faraj debated whether the violent struggle should primarily be local or international. He believed jihadis have a duty to overthrow secular regimes in Arab and Muslim lands before striking against “non-believers” in other countries. In his pamphlet, Faraj framed his answer to the local vs. global debate this way: “To fight an enemy who is near is more important than to fight an enemy who is far.” The phrases “near enemy” and “far enemy” are still used by jihadi groups today as they debate what paths to take.

That issue amounts to far more than an ideological debate in the corridors of U.S. intelligence agencies and their counterparts in Europe. Record numbers of jihadis have been crossing international borders to volunteer with Islamic State and other groups in the fight against “near enemies” in Syria and Iraq. Security chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in Europe, say they are consumed daily with trying to track and stop them. Already, some have allegedly been involved in plotting or carrying out attacks against the “far enemy” in the West after returning home.

Only about 100 of the foreign fighters are believed to be from the U.S., but American intelligence officials estimate that about 15,000 foreign fighters have gone to the war zone, with some 2,000 originating in Western countries. An estimated 1,600 come from just three of the U.S.’s closest allies in Europe—the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Passport holders from those nations do not need visas to enter the U.S.

Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 operation, the deadliest terrorist attack in history, was led by a small cadre of jihadi volunteers like many of those leaving Europe for the fight today. They traveled east from Germany to Afghanistan 15 years ago, also determined to fight a near enemy in a Muslim country.
 
 
No one worried much about the spread of international terrorism when Osama bin Laden first arrived in Afghanistan in 1980 at the age of 23. After the fighting, bin Laden established bases in Afghanistan as a sort of hub for what he envisioned as a continuing struggle. Three additional jihadi generations, or waves, have followed, says Mohammed Hafez, who has studied them for years. He is chairman of the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. The Afghan veterans returning to their home nations—or moving to Europe—inspired a second generation to attend camps that bin Laden established in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew. Many in the second generation aimed to fight near enemies ruling over Muslim populations in the Caucasus or the Balkans.

When a third, larger generation of global jihadis was drawn to Iraq to fight American forces after the U.S. invasion in 2003, Hafez worried about both the experience they gained and the extremism they exhibited. Some beheaded their enemies while others executed complex attacks against the world’s most professional military, conducted kidnappings and assassinations, and networked with experienced military operatives, smugglers, and other radicals. To Hafez, they seemed far more dangerous than their radical forefathers.

Still, Hafez retained a glimmer of hope when he studied the problem as the U.S. occupation of Iraq was winding down: It was unlikely that those volunteers would find a safe haven inside Iraq or neighboring states from which to plan and launch global operations—the way the first two jihadi generations had managed to do across a swath of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Now even that small hope has been extinguished. The fourth and current wave, drawn to the human catastrophe that unfolded during more than two years of civil war in Syria, has found its own safe haven as Islamic State carved out and declared a nation across two countries. “I could have never imagined then,” Hafez says, “that it would be this bad.” The group delivered a fresh reminder recently of its brutality when it announced the beheading of an American Muslim convert and aid worker named Abdul-Rahman Kassig, previously known as Peter.

Thomas Hegghammer last year published “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Probably the most extensive review undertaken of jihadis, his study looked at those who engaged in violence at home vs. those who traveled abroad—and what happened when jihadi travelers got home. Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo, found that radicals far preferred traveling to fight near enemies in Muslim lands. He also conservatively estimated “blowback,” or the rate at which returnees plotted or committed violence once home. His finding: Not more than one in 9 returning jihadis appears to engage in, or to plot, violence.

Based on his work, Hegghammer believes that the threat posed by foreign fighters today has been over-hyped, especially in the media. Still, he is very concerned. “The problem with Syria is the scale, the number of people going,” Hegghammer says. “Even if the blowback ratio is low from Syria, the absolute numbers are going to be relatively high. … We are going to have radical Islamic communities in Europe for another generation—substantial ones.”
 
 
Dozens of volunteers returning from Syria and Iraq already have been arrested across Europe, some allegedly after having plotted or been involved in violence. In London last month, Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley issued an unusually detailed statement warning that his agency was running at an exceptionally high pace to try to counter threats. He said there were 100 preventive law-enforcement actions each week related to Syria and Iraq, as well as 218 terrorism-related arrests as of mid-October.

The range of arrests in Europe is wide. At one end of the spectrum is a French-Moroccan veteran from the fighting who was charged in Belgium with murdering four people in May, when he fired an automatic weapon into the Jewish Museum in Brussels. At the other end are three German volunteers allegedly sent home by the Islamic State to buy supplies for the group, rather than to attack Germany. Perhaps more than any other nation in Europe, Germany remains haunted by the challenge of tracking jihadi volunteers. It is home to a man who has arguably lived more intimately than anyone else with the task.

Manfred Murck, who has thick waves of salt-and-pepper hair, turned 65 this year, the mandatory retirement age for his job as head of state intelligence and security in Hamburg. When he retired in July, he also was in charge of coordinating the intelligence and security services across all 16 German states. A sociologist by training, Murck has a warm smile and a gentle demeanor, more akin to a favorite liberal arts professor than a brooding intelligence chief from a John le Carré thriller.

He greeted me on a sunny Sunday afternoon in October at Hamburg’s main train station, Europe’s second-busiest, to talk about the challenges. We made the short walk from the station, up Steindamm, a big street, to a drab office building that formerly housed a radical mosque on its second floor, above a gym frequented by bodybuilders. Mohammed Atta, then a student at Hamburg’s technical university, first came together with a group of like-minded young men at the mosque more than a decade and a half ago, when Murck was the deputy state intelligence chief.

Atta and three friends left Germany in November 1999 for a training camp in Afghanistan without the knowledge of Murck or other German authorities. They were interested in joining the Chechen jihad. After they arrived at a camp in Kandahar, bin Laden and fellow al-Qaeda leaders found the men ideally suited for what they were calling “the planes operation.” It required only a few technically adept operatives who could speak English and were comfortable living in the west. Al-Qaeda prepared Atta and the others and quietly sent them back to Germany in early 2000 without drawing notice from Germany’s intelligence establishment.

Murck and his agency were already spying on the mosque above the gym on Steindamm, which was known as the al-Quds Mosque, after the Arabic name for Jerusalem. The agency was even eavesdropping on the phone of the mosque’s most notorious radical, a Syrian-born jihadi who had trained at a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and whose fiery speeches upon his return helped inspire Atta and the others to make the same journey.

Listening to one phone call to the radical’s home in February 1999, months before Atta left for Afghanistan, Murck’s men overheard mention of an address for a Hamburg apartment that the radical was visiting—No. 54 Marienstrasse. Murck’s office sent the address to counterparts in federal intelligence, then based in Cologne, but the clue was lost somewhere in between, or perhaps beyond. It wasn’t discovered anew until after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, when Murck and the world learned that No. 54 Marienstrasse was where Atta and several members of the Hamburg cell had lived and regularly met—before and after the trip to Afghanistan and while they were planning the move to the U.S. The cell included three of the four men who piloted the hijacked planes.

“I still think to myself, ’Yes, of course, you were responsible to a certain degree,’” Murck says. “It’s always with me. But I don’t go to bed with the feeling, ’You could have ended it—you had a realistic chance to end it.’ If anybody had the chance, he is somewhere between Cologne and Washington and maybe Damascus, but not in Hamburg. Maybe I am being too self-defensive, I don’t know.”

Until his retirement a few months ago, Murck channeled his feelings about that day into almost 13 years of trying to build a better intelligence network and stronger tools for detecting and tracking jihadi volunteers moving out of Europe and then returning. He was driven in part by a desire to make sure Hamburg could never be used as a base again. He convinced authorities to close the al-Quds Mosque in 2010 after he uncovered and broke up a second, larger group of jihadi volunteers who were radicalized at the mosque before training in Afghanistan and coming back with mayhem in mind. (It appears that they returned only with encouragement from al-Qaeda’s senior leaders to launch attacks, rather than with a concrete plan.) Once again, however, their travel plans for Afghanistan were not detected before they were en route, even with a swarm of intelligence officials monitoring what was probably Europe’s most infamous prayer room.

Murck considers the current crop of jihadi volunteers dangerous and difficult to track. So far, more than 400 jihadis from Germany have gone to Iraq and Syria, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials. At least 40 from Hamburg alone are known to have tried to make the journey, Murck says.

As with Hegghammer, a key concern for Murck is that the number of jihadi volunteers is so much bigger than before, globally and locally. Unlike members of the Hamburg cell of 9/11, many of today’s jihadis carry German or other Western passports, easing their later travels if they can manage to go to war and return undetected, as Atta did. The route they follow to join Islamic State and other jihadi groups tends to offer few traces, Murck says. People with German passports travel to Turkey with ease and then pass over the porous border to Syria or Iraq without detection or passport stamps. “They have a chance, being unknown to us, to prepare something in Germany or to fly to America,” he says.

Complicating things even more now, Murck says, is that the same online tools that help intelligence agencies better track fighters also enable extremist leaders to accelerate the radicalization and recruitment process. Spies have far less time to detect, identify, stop, or track potential jihadi travelers, he says. “When they were hidden, you are in a more or less classical field of intelligence. You have to find out who phones whom, where do they meet, who is in contact. So you can do some systematic work,” he says. “Now you have more chaotic and faster processes, and I don’t think this is easier to observe, even though they are more open.”

It’s also a question of capacity, Murck says, given the number of foreign jihadis and the far larger extremist pool they’re being drawn from today. In addition to the 40 would-be jihadis who have left Hamburg for the fight in the Middle East, Murck estimates there might be 30 to 40 of which German officials are unaware. Multiplied across Europe, that number grows in significance.

One key difference today in favor of detection, Murck says, is that everyone is constantly on guard. “We did not look 15—or even 13—years ago into the scene of radical Muslims with the question: ‘Are there any people who are planning terrorist attacks?’ We did not have any assumption that they would do so,” he says. “We now look on every piece of information we have with different viewpoints about a possible terrorist attack.”
 
 
Europeans are not alone in facing these challenges. A small group of senior U.S. intelligence officials spoke to me about the difficulties inherent in detecting men such as those from Hamburg and any potential plots, as well as how the process has evolved. Speaking on the condition they not be named, four officials were keen to discuss how much better they say the intelligence community has become at disrupting potential attacks and at imagining the unthinkable.

The 9/11 Commission concluded that one of the biggest failures before the attacks was a “failure of imagination.” The lapse has been remedied in a multitude of ways, the intelligence officials say, not the least of which is a massive increase in the number of analysts and the way they have been freed of the intellectual blinders they were forced to wear in the past. One senior U.S. intelligence official told me last month that officials also are significantly better at picking up small signs of plots.

While Islamic State may be encouraging its followers to strike U.S. targets, there isn’t yet independent evidence of any centrally planned conspiracy unfolding, the senior intelligence official says. “We don’t see any indication that they have any kind of structure here [in the U.S.], or any kind of infrastructure.” He says the near enemy in Syria and Iraq looks, for now, to be Islamic State’s primary focus. “What we see at this point is very much the local, regional focus—as far as central leadership, central direction of the organization.”

Islamic State leaders have made several statements—but few direct threats—encouraging attacks against Western targets. U.S. intelligence officials have pointed to only one seemingly clear statement from the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “Soon we will be in direct confrontation,” al-Baghdadi said during a radio address in January. “So watch out for us, for we are with you, watching.” In a propaganda video released on Nov. 16 and reporting the execution of Kassig, a balaclava-covered British member of the group known as “Jihadi John” said in his distinctive London accent that his group would soon “begin to slaughter your people on your streets.”

Murck says he worries most about the threat environment today because there’s no end in sight for the crises in Syria and Iraq. Just as we stand in view of the office building that contained the al-Quds Mosque, trucks with riot police are positioned along Steindamm and in the train station’s parking lot. He points out the broken glass exterior of a halal chicken restaurant located near a Steindamm intersection—between a predominately Arab mosque and a predominately Kurdish one.

A few days earlier, an estimated 400 Muslim extremists—some wielding knives, pipes, and other improvised weapons—attacked a group of Kurdish protesters on Steindamm, according to police. The protesters were calling for greater international action to protect Kurds under siege by Islamic State militants in the Syrian town of Kobani. Those who attacked them were supporting Islamic State’s violence in Syria with unprecedented violence on the streets of Hamburg, Murck says. It was a morphing of a near enemy fight onto the streets of a far enemy nation.

Ending the flow of fighters and the danger they pose, he says, ultimately means ending the conflict that feeds both. “The development of the militant Islamic scene in Hamburg depends on international conflicts because the most extreme guys who are here take the issue and work on it in the streets.”

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