While profiling is an official “no-no”, anyone who doesn’t believe it goes on regularly in the war on terror needs a wakeup call. While we may officially claim no such thing happens, common sense tells us that if the proven threat is coming from a single source, it would be smart to profile that source. Sure TSA plays the politically correct side of it all and drags wheelchair bound granny behind a screen for a quick frisk. But you better believe that in intelligence circles profiling not only happens, but is encouraged. And to this point, the profile that has emerged is mostly of middle eastern radical muslims. When they show up in the West, they’re fairly easy to identify and watch.
However intelligence experts worry that the prolonged fight in Syria may make such common-sense profiling obsolete. Why?
A rising number of radicalized young Muslims with Western passports are traveling to Syria to fight with the rebels against the government of Bashar al-Assad, raising fears among American and European intelligence officials of a new terrorist threat when the fighters return home.
More Westerners are now fighting in Syria than fought in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen, according to the officials. They go to Syria motivated by the desire to help the people suffering there by overthrowing Mr. Assad. But there is growing concern that they will come back with a burst of jihadist zeal, some semblance of military discipline, enhanced weapons and explosives skills, and, in the worst case, orders from affiliates of Al Qaeda to carry out terrorist strikes.
“Syria has become really the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world,” Matthew G. Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a security conference in Aspen, Colo., this month. He added, “The concern going forward from a threat perspective is there are individuals traveling to Syria, becoming further radicalized, becoming trained and then returning as part of really a global jihadist movement to Western Europe and, potentially, to the United States.”
Most of these Western muslims are self-radicalized, much like Nidal Hassan, the Ft. Hood killer. Syria provides a place to go learn the “how to” side of radical Islam – that is, the violent side. The numbers are worrying:
Classified estimates from Western intelligence services and unclassified assessments from government and independent experts put the number of fighters from Europe, North America and Australia who have entered Syria since 2011 at more than 600. That represents about 10 percent of the roughly 6,000 foreign fighters who have poured into Syria by way of the Middle East and North Africa.
“The scale of this is completely different from what we’ve experienced in the past,” Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, said at the conference in Aspen.
That means, unless they’re identified as having been a part of the Syria fight, Western muslims can slip in, learn the craft and eventually find their way back home, even further radicalized and armed with both connections and knowledge to act on that radicalization.
How widespread is it? Well, for the moment that’s hard to tell. But here are a few numbers:
A precise breakdown of the Western fighters in Syria is difficult to offer, counterterrorism and intelligence officials said, but their estimates include about 140 French citizens, 100 Britons, 75 Spaniards, 60 Germans, and as many as a few dozen Canadians and Australians. There are also fighters from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, according to a study in April by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, a partnership of academic institutions based in London, which estimated that 140 to 600 Europeans had gone to Syria.
Only about a dozen Americans have so far gone to fight in Syria, according to American intelligence officials. Nicole Lynn Mansfield, 33, of Flint, Mich., a convert to Islam, was killed in May while in the company of Syrian rebels in Idlib Province.
Eric Harroun, 30, a former Army soldier from Phoenix, was indicted in Virginia by a federal grand jury last month on two charges related to allegations that he fought alongside the Nusra Front. In February, he bragged about his involvement, posting a photo on his Facebook page saying, “Downed a Syrian Helicopter then Looted all Intel and Weapons!”
Take this as a sort of warning about the next possible phase in the jihad of radical Islamists. The West is their sworn enemy. They’ve wanted to strike at the heart of Western countries for years, but, as mentioned, those they send are foreigners who are relatively easy to spot, follow and gather intel about. What if they could recruit Western muslims, radicalize them, slip them into Syria for training and then slip them back into their home country? Then, perhaps, those strikes they so want to inflict would have a much better chance of succeeding. It doesn’t take many – but what they have to be able to do is slip through the intel net to succeed. This development may give them that sort of a chance.