Friday, September 19, 2014

More on Foreign Fighters

This article first appeared on The Epoch Times

     The United States and the west in general face a myriad of threats on a daily basis.  What makes the Syrian civil war a diverse and unique threat against the United States and the west is the flow of foreign fighters traveling to the region to join the fighting.  The fear is that several of the foreign fighters possess western passports, which allows them easier entry into western countries as they do not have to obtain visas.  This fear, among several others, has contributed to increased fervor from the American public, western governments, and a ramped up military campaign by the United States to attack the Islamic State inside Syria.

     How credible is the threat to the United States homeland though?  Previously, I examined how the foreign fighter crisis may have been billed as too large a threat as many fighters have no intention of returning to their home countries for they have found what they were looking for in jihad.  President Obama and members of his administration have stated that the Islamic State does not pose a credible or imminent threat to the homeland presently, but they do pose a long term threat with aspirations of striking the homeland at some point.  "While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies," stated President Obama in his primetime speech to the nation outlining his strategy to combat the Islamic State using a different acronym.   Jennifer A. Lasley, Deputy Under Secretary for Analysis for the Department of Homeland Security, stated at a House Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing recently that Homeland Security has no credible information regarding attacks against the homeland.  In an address at the Brookings Institution this month, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen reiterated this sentiment stating that there is no credible information regarding an attack by the Islamic State against the homeland but the foreign fighters pose a threat and groups can plan attacks against the west and its interests from their safe havens.

     Thomas Joscelyn, Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, somewhat rebuked the administration's view at a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing stating that he would pause on the notion that the Islamic State does not pose an imminent threat or can wage a credible attack against the United States.  Joscelyn places his resolve in the unknowns in Syria.  For example, he stated that the United States did not know that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks, was an al-Qaeda operative until months later.  Joscelyn noted that most foreign fighters will not come back to the west but the skills they acquire can be reused in different capacities and with terrorist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's official branch in Syria.  These groups are sifting through their members to see who possesses the right set of skills to wage an attack against the west - similar to how al-Qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks.  Joscelyn also added that despite Jabhat al-Nusra not "using" the young Florida man who was fighting for them and who returned to his home in Florida before becoming the first American to be used as a suicide bomber in Syria to attack the United States from within, they likely learned and took note of how he entered and exited the country.

     Joscelyn's words raise two important concerns regarding the issue of foreign fighters and the broader context of the conflict in Syria.  First, is intelligence.  Joscelyn fears the unknowns in Syria and sighted the lack of intelligence pertaining to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.  The same issue of intelligence was raised during the House Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing by the full committee's chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX).  McCaul's concern was that there is not sufficient human intelligence (HUMINT) on the ground in Syria.  Administration witnesses agreed reiterating that they do not have a full picture to which McCaul urged the administration to regain the intelligence capacity it had in Iraq in 2008 (which would break with the president's stated policy of no US boots on the ground.)

     Second, Joscelyn's testimony brought to light that the foreign fighter crisis does not simply lie with the Islamic State group, but with others as well - especially Jabhat al-Nusra.  While many in Congress and the administration are fearful of the foreign fighter crisis, the fervor over the Islamic State's brutal tactics and beheadings of Americans have, in a sense, shifted the attention from other radical groups fighting on the ground in Syria.  Several congressional hearings have focused on the administration's strategy toward the Islamic State and witness testimony in other related hearings has focused on that group disproportionately to others.
     One of the big debates in Congress and among pundits regarding the president's strategy against the Islamic State is his legal basis for it.  Many believe the statutes he has cited as authority to unilaterally strike the organization are not applicable.  The president does have statutory authority to strike Jabhat al-Nusra given their relationship with al-Qaeda.  However, the complexity of the situation involving the Syrian civil war has hamstrung the president from doing so.  A key piece to the president's counterterror campaign against terrorist groups worldwide, is an agreement (for the most part) with host nations.  The president does not enjoy such an agreement with Syria (though Syria did welcome cooperation with the United States in combating the Islamic State within their borders, but the president refused as he does not consider Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the rightful leader of the country.)  The administration's strategy in Syria has only addressed attacking the Islamic State, not others, yet the foreign fighter crisis lies with several other groups and not just the Islamic State.

     The foreign fighter crisis is not to be underestimated.  Several European partners are taking drastic steps such as increased surveillance, shoring up law enforcement capabilities and personnel, and revoking passports of those who travel to the region.  The United States is also taking similar measures and working with its partners abroad to better share information.  Thus far, the administration has not been clear on their strategy inside Syria, but they will have to address the issue of foreign fighters among other radical groups as well as the Islamic State.      

UPDATE: September 19, 2014 - Reports indicate the US intelligence community has taken into account other radical groups within Syria and are organizing to address them.

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