In what is starting to seem like a slow, steady drip of ‘foreign fighter’ cases, six U.S. residents of Bosnian origin were arrested in early February and charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.
To send al-Qaeda, its Syrian off-shoot the al-Nusra Front, and the ISIS a few thousand dollars and some hardware that any red-blooded American survivalist might have in his garage, the accused are looking at up to 15 years in jail for each count in the indictment, plus fines up to $250,000. Two of them were also charged with conspiracy to commit murder, for which the maximum sentence is life.
While some just give material support to terrorist groups, others go and fight. An attack on a government building in Somalia in 2008 was the first of at least three by U.S.-citizen suicide bombers of Somali origin since then, and in the last decade, over 40 Somali-Americans are estimated to have gone to fight with the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab in their ancestral homeland.
A few weeks ago, Liban Haji Mohammed, a Somali-born man from northern Virginia, was added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list and charged with being an al-Shabaab recruiter. On March 3, U.S. officials reported that he was in the custody of the Somali government and were attempting to bring him home to face charges.
On February 25th, two U.S. residents, one a citizen of Uzbekistan and the other of Kazakhstan, were arrested in New York on charges of conspiring to provide material support to ISIS; another citizen of Uzbekistan was arrested in Florida as part of the conspiracy.
Recruits increasingly seek out terrorists and not the other way round. Since 2001, the Internet has made it much easier for the curious to get in touch, and media-savvy extremists have been working on their recruitment technique. On October 4, 2014, Mohammed Hamzan Khan, a 19-year old Pakistani-American, was caught attempting to leave Chicago with his younger sister and brother to go and join ISIS in Syria.
On October 22, 2014, three U.S. teenagers (Somali-American sisters and their Sudanese-American friend) from the Denver area were arrested in Germany while on their way to Syria to join ISIS. One thing the Chicago and Denver cases had in common was that despite having tight-knit families and little unsupervised time, the teens had been able to communicate over social media unbeknownst to their parents, who may not even have heard of apps like AskFM, YiYak, Kik, or even Twitter through which ISIS was talking to their kids.
A report by National Public Radio claimed ISIS had assigned an English-speaking recruiter to work with the Denver teens in a sort of concierge service, helping them with travel arrangements and telling them what to say to officials. The FBI Director has said that ISIS uses 23 languages in its online outreach. Last year, an estimated 15 young Americans were detained while trying to go to Syria and join ISIS. Some intended to fight; others, like the Denver girls and the three British teens who apparently left for Syria on February 17th, perhaps merely to live in the ideal “Islamic State.”
So far, only an estimated 150 Americans have actually gone to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. According to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, 450 have gone from Belgium and over 1200 from France. Even if the numbers are relatively small, the worry is that some will come home and commit acts of jihadi-inspired violence. Hence, an important question is how best to reintegrate them so that they don’t.
One approach has been to arrest and prosecute ‘foreign fighters’ on their return, as France, Belgium, and the Netherlands have done, or even block citizens from returning at all, as a British law proposes. Under a law criminalizing the encouragement of others to aid terrorism, a mother in Britain was jailed for five years last December for urging others to go and fight jihad through postings on Facebook.
An alternative approach is a community-based effort to reintegrate returnees; the Danish city of Aarhus has developed a program to match locals returning from Syria with mentors and provides counseling in an effort to channel their energies in a law-abiding direction.
It’s essentially the same policy conundrum as society faces in rehabilitating criminals in general: too lenient, and there is no deterrent to others; too harsh, and you risk sending young people to prisons where their views will be hardened or they will be recruited into worse behavior.
Amedy Coulibaly, who took hostages in a Paris kosher market last January in collusion with the Charlie Hebdo attackers, was previously held in a prison notorious for harsh conditions and radicalization. According to French media reports, he communicated with the man in the cell above, Djamel Beghal, who was in prison for plotting an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris and was described by a French expert as one of al-Qaeda’s top European recruiters.
Scoring American recruits is a huge boost for ISIS or al-Shabaab. At the very least, it’s a public relations coup. At best, they gain members with fluent English for use in propaganda, access to the U.S. and countries with visa-free travel for Americans, and specific knowledge of parts of America.
While stories of Americans aiding or leaving to join al-Shabaab and ISIS make front-page news, more heartening stories like that of Abdullahi Ali Anshur don’t. Anshur left the chaos of Somalia in the early 1990s and made a success of himself in Minnesota, where many Somali immigrants live. An engineer, he recently decided to give up his job and move back to chaotic Mogadishu to help the struggling government with the mammoth task of repairing city infrastructure after more than two decades of war and neglect.
Having lost a generation of educated professionals, Somalia wants all it can get. Last November, Anshur was shot and killed by al-Shabaab militants, obscurantists for whom Anshur’s vital work repairing Mogadishu’s infrastructure mattered less than his affiliation with the government they mean to destroy.
We should be glad that in addition to successfully assimilating the vast majority of immigrants from all countries of origin, some with very traumatic backgrounds, America also produces men like Anshur. He had a skill to lend to a place that really needed it, and he did a brave thing. Those who volunteer for ISIS and al-Shabaab can’t say the same.