x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Americans ‘are joining Syria’s civil war’

US officials say Americans are joining the bloody civil war in Syria, raising the chances they could become radicalised by Al Qaeda-linked militant groups and return to the US as battle-hardened security risks.

A Free Syrian Army tank fires a shell towards forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad in Aleppo. An arm of the British defence consultant IHS Jane’s and experts at a nonprofit think tank in London estimate a couple of dozen Americans are fighting with rebels in Syria. Molhem Baraket / Reuters
A Free Syrian Army tank fires a shell towards forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad in Aleppo. An arm of the British defence consultant IHS Jane’s and experts at a nonprofit think tank in London estimate a couple of dozen Americans are fighting with rebels in Syria. Molhem Baraket / Reuters

RALEIGH, North Carolina // US officials say Americans are joining the bloody civil war in Syria, raising the chances they could become radicalised by Al Qaeda-linked militant groups and return to the US as battle-hardened security risks.

The US State Department says it has no estimates of how many Americans have taken up weapons to fight military units loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people over two-and-a-half years. Other estimates – from an arm of the British defence consultant IHS Jane’s and from experts at a nonprofit think tank in London – put the number of Americans at a couple of dozen. The IHS group says Al Qaeda-linked fighters number about 15,000, with total anti-Assad forces at 100,000 or more.

This year, at least three Americans have been charged with planning to fight beside Jabhat Al Nusrah – an Islamic organisation that the US considers a foreign terrorist group – against Mr Al Assad. The most recent case involves a Pakistani-born North Carolina man arrested on his way to Lebanon.

At a recent congressional hearing, Senator Thomas Carper said: “We know that American citizens as well as Canadian and European nationals have taken up arms in Syria, in Yemen and in Somalia. The threat that these individuals could return home to carry out attacks is real and troubling.”

The hearing came about two weeks after agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other officers arrested Basit Sheikh, 29, at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport on charges he was on his way to join Jabhat Al Nusrah.

Mr Sheikh, a legal resident of the US, had lived quietly, without a criminal record, in a Raleigh suburb for five years before his November 2 arrest. A similar arrest came in April in Chicago. And in September, authorities in Virginia released an Army veteran accused of fighting alongside the group after a secret plea deal.

In August, outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller told ABC News that he was concerned about Americans fighting in Syria, specifically “the associations they will make and, secondly, the expertise they will develop, and whether or not they will utilise those associations, utilise that expertise, to undertake an attack on the homeland”.

Current FBI Director James Comey said this month that he worried about Syria becoming a repeat of Afghanistan in the 1980s, after the Soviet invasion, with foreign fighters attracted there to train. The FBI refused to say whether it has directed agents to increase efforts to stop Americans bound for Syria.

In the case of Mr Sheikh, his North Carolina home isn’t considered a breeding ground for terrorist activity. But Aaron Zelin, who works for both the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, notes that Mr Sheikh lived about three hours from the hometown of Samir Khan, the editor of an English-language Al Qaeda magazine who was killed in a drone attack in Yemen.

Mr Sheikh is charged with planning to assist a group the State Department has declared a terrorist organisation. It’s not illegal for Americans who also hold citizenship in another country to fight in that country’s military. But American citizenship can be lost for voluntarily serving in foreign armed forces hostile to the US.

For five months this year, Mr Sheikh didn’t know he was being monitored as he posted messages and videos on Facebook expressing support for jihadi militants fighting Mr Al Assad’s forces, according to a sworn affidavit by FBI Special Agent Jason Maslow.

In August, Mr Sheikh commented to an undercover FBI employee’s posts on a Facebook page promoting Islamic extremism. The two struck up an online relationship, the affidavit said.

Mr Sheikh told the informant he planned to trek to Syria to join “a brigade in logistics, managing medical supplies”. Days later, Mr Sheikh said he’d bought a one-way ticket to travel to Turkey in hopes of making contact with people who would get him to Syria.

Mr Sheikh said he backed out because “he could not muster the strength to leave his parents,” the affidavit said. Mr Sheikh said he had travelled to Turkey last year hoping to join the fight in Syria, but became dispirited by his experience with people who claimed to be part of the US-backed Free Syrian Army. After Mr Sheikh expressed online support for Jabhat Al Nusrah and interest in traveling to the war zone, the FBI employee suggested Mr Sheikh contact a person with the group – another FBI informant.

Mr Sheikh made contract, describing Jabhat Al Nusrah as the most disciplined group of anti-Assad fighters, the affidavit said. “I’m not scared,” Mr Sheikh wrote, according to the affidavit. “I’m ready.”

Mr Sheikh’s father, Javed Sheikh, said his son was falsely accused but that he trusts US courts to find the truth.

Basit Sheikh’s arraignment is scheduled for January. He could face up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.

* Associated Press