A growing trend of young muslims traveling from the U.S. and Europe to Syria, as well as Africa, to train and fight alongside al-Qaeda is pushing Western intelligence agencies to heighten surveillance at airports, harbors and border crossings amid fears that these trained fighters will return home to launch terror attacks.
Those fears were highlighted Wednesday when two Islamic jihadists slaughtered a British soldier in the streets of London and the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon by Chechen born Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan. These terrorist attacks have left investigators - on both sides of the Atlantic - with more questions than answers. Were these groups acting alone or were they following orders from al-Qaeda central, or one of its fringe groups?
Rebel fighters in Syria. Credit: AP
One thing is certain: this will not be the end of these seemingly random and difficult to predict terror attacks, say U.S. officials. And with the war escalating in Syria and Islamic extremists groups gaining momentum in Africa, Western law enforcement will have to contend with more trained fighters returning from these war zones to the U.S. and other European nations.
"We know young men are leaving London, U.S. and other parts of Europe with medical bags, tactical gear and other supplies to Syria, and some are heading to Africa to fight in places like Somalia, Algeria and Mali," said a Western official, with direct knowledge of the terror investigations. "Unfortunately, the rebel groups they are fighting with have strong ties to al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. This is where they will be indoctrinated - what happens when they come home trained, ready to fight and hating the west?"
The problem is that many of these fighters are skilled enough not to be detected by law enforcement "and therefore slip through the cracks - Syria isn't the only country we're concerned with," the official added.
War on Terror
In President Obama's speech on Thursday, he narrowed the definition of the "war on terror" saying "beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' - but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America."
Steven Bucci, a former a deputy assistant defense secretary under Donald Rumsfeld, said a major problem is that the Obama Administration downplays the seriousness of the threat.
The administration explains many of these incidents as "lone-wolf" actions and Obama's speech Thursday, reiterated the administration's inability to understand the capabilities of the enemy.
"He is totally delusional about "winding down the war," Bucci said. "I don't know if he noticed that the bad guys don't want to stop - think about London (Wednesday.)"
In London, one of the men, identified in British news reports as Adebolajo, told a bystander who witnessed the attacks that "he swears by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you," as he held a meat cleaver in his blood soaked hands.
The men hacked into the British soldier like a "piece of meat," stunned bystanders told the media. One bystander said one of the men told them, "the only reasons we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth. ...You people will never be safe."
Muslim Jihadists Traveling to Syria
A U.S. military official, with direct knowledge of terror networks in Afghanistan and Africa, said military officials are aware of the growing trend of young Western Muslim jihadists traveling to the front lines in Syria and Africa.
"It is extremely concerning when these extremists eventually return home with skills that bring the battle zone to our front door and endanger our way of life," the military official said. "It's overseas where they gain the knowledge to build bombs, use weapons, connect with leaders in the jihadist movement. It's not a matter of if we'll see terror attacks at home but when."
Since 2008, FBI officials have been monitoring the travel of Somali men who have left the U.S. to fight alongside rebel forces in their former homeland. Some of these young fighters were used as suicide bombers, while others were taken under the wing of Somalia's al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Shabaab Mujahideen.
FBI Spokeswoman Kathleen Wright acknowledged that law enforcement is aware of the threat, referring to testimony given to Congress by FBI Director Robert Mueller in March, where he explained why radicalization in the U.S. is more prevalent now than in the past.
"First, American extremists appear to be attracted to wars in foreign countries," Mueller told a House Appropriations subcommittee. "We have already seen a number of Americans travel overseas to train and fight with extremist groups. The increase and availability of extremist propaganda in English perpetuates the problem."
In 2010, the FBI and DHS were closely monitoring the U.S. Mexico border when information that 23 Somalis, some with ties to Al-Shabaab, were plotting to illegally enter the United States after being mistakenly released from custody by Mexican officials, a confidential federal law enforcement report said.
U.S. officials don't have a number on how many young men may have left the U.S. to fight alongside Syrian rebel groups but in Europe hundreds of young men have gone to their homeland to fight, according to European intelligence officials and news reports from the region.
Al-Qaeda groups work together in war zones overseas - sharing information and recruiting new members, according to U.S. Intelligence officials who spoke to The Blaze and Bucci.
Claims by Obama that al-Qaeda is "disseminated," gives power to the terrorists here at home and lowers the guard of Americans and Europeans who are the group's primary targets, Bucci said.
"To say al-Qaeda is diminished, and try to be so specific you have sound bites for it, is disingenuous," said Bucci, who is now director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation. "These AQ fringes work together in Mali, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Iraq and make connections with followers all over the world. They are transnational terrorist groups who swap expertise and narratives."
"Every time they succeed in an attack, regardless of the regional venue, it makes their job more successful to radicalize people here."