The US Fails to Recognize the Terrorist Threat in the Syrian Conflict


The current conventional wisdom in Washington is that al-Qaeda (AQ) is no longer a real threat and that it has been dismantled by the US drone attacks in conflict areas. That is nothing but wishful thinking and shortsightedness.

The ongoing war in Syria offers jihadists and AQ an opportunity to uninterruptedly recruit and train a new generation of fighters originating from Western countries, more effectively than even AQ's terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in the 1980's and 1990's. The White House, in this respect, thus continues to disregard the impact of the war in Syria on the terrorism map worldwide; if unrecognized and not adequately addressed by change of policy, the US and the West are likely to face a dire situation for years to come.

Several terrorist attacks and some additional failed attempts have taken place on US soil in recent years. The 2013 Boston Marathon attack took place directly under the noses of domestic security agencies. On May 1, 2010, Faisal Shahzad attempted to execute a car bombing in Times Square, New York—one of the world’s busiest pedestrian concourses—and failed not because of the efforts of security forces, but because of the terrorist's own poor execution. Otherwise, this too could have turned out to be a deadly attack. Disturbingly, the U.S. continues to downplay these as well as numerous other incidents, continuing to operate under the false pretense that drone attacks are winning the War on Terror for the US. In reality, radicalization of Westerners and Americans in the conflict in Syria leads to a growing threat of attacks on the West, as illustrated by two recent attacks carried out by Syrian jihadists born and raised in the West:

On May 25, 2014, an immense explosion shook the city of Idlib, Syria. The AQ front, Nusra Front, took responsibility for the attack. The suicide bomber who detonated a truck filled with 16 tons of explosives was a 22 year old American from Florida named Moner Mohammed Abu-Salha.

French forces arrested this past weekend a French citizen and former Syrian fighter, Mehdi Nemmouche, suspected of killing three in a May 24, 2014 shooting attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium. The massacre in the museum is hauntingly reminiscent of an attack two years ago in which the jihadist Mohamed Merah returned from Afghanistan and conducted an 11-day rampage against Jewish targets in Southern France, killing eight including school children. Merah is considered a hero and is adored bt Western jihadis.

Nemmouche and Abu Salha only two examples among many Western jihadists who have traveled to Syria, and have been fighting alongside AQ front groups such as Nusra.

As the war in Syria continues, jihadi operatives are taking advantage of Syria’s open borders to travel and obtain military and terrorist training. To facilitate this travel, fighters—including English-speakers—have filled social media with information about how to make one’s way from a major tourist destination, Istanbul, Turkey, to the battlefields. Numerous personal testimonies are available online, as well as occasional photo essays, documenting the process of evading—and sometimes even being assisted by—Turkish border patrols.

Al-Qaeda has long recognized the benefits of recruiting and training fighters with Western passports. In recent years, senior members of the group’s leadership have called for jihadis to capitalize on available weapons and directly attack their home countries. These calls contain tailored instructions to plan “lone wolf” attacks that exploit American vulnerabilities, such as easy access to firearms. The conflict in Syria provides a fertile ground to train jihadis and provide them the technical skills for more devastating mass-casualty weapons such as car bombs.

The U.S. has consistently failed to address the growing threat from the Syrian jihadi insurgency. The many Westerners currently in Syria will be able to return to their home countries and subsequently carry out attacks. In spite of the Administration's posture, domestic terrorism is a real threat. Syria is a real threat. By ignoring the threats, we risk paving the way for determined jihadis to carry out attacks against American targets in the coming months and years.

Contributions to this article were also made by Margaret Foster.

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