As U.S. fighter jets bomb Islamic State strongholds in Iraq, and Australian police officers arrest men intent on capturing and beheading innocents, intelligence agencies are focusing on a more opaque threat: The quiet, shadowy men and women who aren’t seen tweeting from Syria.
Intelligence officials involved in the U.S., U.K., French, Greek and Turkish efforts to thwart the threat of returning jihadis described a common concern. While the world is both revolted and riveted by the steady stream of video, tweets and propaganda featuring western-passport wielding militants in Syria, security agencies are striving to identify members too intelligent to pose for pictures and too skilled when they travel to set off the obvious alarms.
The nightmare scenario, as described by one American official who is regularly briefed on U.K. and U.S. anti-terrorism cooperation: A young British, European or American citizen who travels regularly to the Middle East on legitimate trips, such as visiting family or studying, slips into Syria and keeps a low profile. Upon his return, nothing about his travel history gives away his time in Syria, where he would have had access to training, indoctrination or even sophisticated planning for a possible attack.
The American official, like the half-dozen other officials who spoke to Bloomberg News for this story, asked not to be identified since they weren’t authorized to discuss intelligence efforts with the press.
“Since Islamic volunteers went to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s, the phenomenon of tourist jihadis has been there,” said Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency who is now director of the Intelligence Project for the Brookings Institution in Washington. “There’s still some of that, but there are more people who are serious fanatics. We don’t have a very good handle on how many of these people are being turned around into something else.”
Compared with the hundreds of jihadis already identified by independent researchers through social media, or the thousands intelligence officials track in their databases, these fighters are the true unknown enemy. Several from the identified group have already been arrested upon their return, given away by their bragging on social media or on pro-jihadi Internet sites, while others are regularly monitored upon their return.
A French official described the arrest of one returning jihadi, who was followed from a bus stop in northern Greece until his eventual arrest in Le Cannet in southeastern France. A Turkish official described how border guards at airports now try to assess what westerners did during their time in Turkey, and add the suspicious names to a database shared with intelligence agencies.
“There is no one profile; if there was a profile, it would be easy,” said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France’s top anti-terrorism magistrate until 2007. “Instead you get girls as young as 14. The modes of recruitment and radicalization are now totally different. It’s all digital now.”
In Australia, where police arrested 15 people yesterday on suspicion of an Islamic State plot to abduct and behead a member of the public, the government estimates at least 20 citizens have returned from fighting with jihadists and at least 60 are still in Iraq or Syria.
One of the 60 was identified by a photograph Australian jihadist Khaled Sharrouf posted on Twitter, which then ran on the front page of a newspaper. Sharrouf, who fled to Syria last year using his brother’s passport, posted the photo showing a young boy holding what’s purported to be the severed head of a dead Syrian soldier.
John Brennan, director of the CIA, warned yesterday that despite the current focus on Islamic State, it’s crucial for the intelligence community to continue watching less high-profile terrorists.
“What we can’t do is let down our guards for any one of these” groups, Brennan said at a conference on intelligence issues in Washington. “You have to be looking at some of these smaller groups.”
Those include the al-Nusra Front, which has ties to al-Qaeda and has made clear its intent to launch attacks outside of the Syrian battleground, Riedel said.
“There’s no question that al-Nusra Front is mainline, old fashioned al-Qaeda; and for them, attacking the crusader enemy in their homelands is as much a priority for them today as it was in September 2001,” he said. “There is evidence of training of foreigners to carry out attacks when they come home. And there’s pretty strong evidence that this is supported by al-Qaeda.”
That support includes al-Qaeda sending bomb-making experts from Yemen to Syria, he added.
Speaking at the same conference, James Clapper, director of U.S. National Intelligence, said the Khorasan Group, part of al-Nusra, represents a threat on par with Islamic State. The Khorasan Group is also part of the core al-Qaeda that operates along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
Compared with Islamic State, fighters for al-Nusra keep a lower profile on the Internet, with most videos aimed at local Muslims, according to the Mapping Militant Organizations project at Stanford University in California. The videos or postings generally don’t show identifiable western fighters, even though the group attracts the second-largest contingent of foreign militants in Syria.
That contrasts with the social-media postings by Islamic State, which have allowed a group of researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London to identify and track several hundred foreign fighters in Syria.
At a press conference in Paris yesterday, French President Francois Hollande described the threat from Islamic State, referencing Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year Frenchman who killed four people outside the Jewish Museum in Brussels after returning from a year inside Syria.
“About 1,000 French citizens or French residents have joined this group,” Hollande said. They are “enlisted, indoctrinated young people, often minors, risking their lives.” Some may “come back with the worst projects in their heads.”
The French parliament started discussing on September 16 the latest anti-terrorism law, the country’s 15th in 30 years. The bill would allow the government to block jihadi propaganda websites and make it much easier for law enforcement to arrest terrorism suspects. The government is targeting “lone wolves” -- those with no criminal records, acting alone.
The French are especially concerned about the possibility that these quiet jihadis could slip undetected back into France, turning into so-called sleeper cells, according to the French intelligence official. France is a particular target because radical Islamist propaganda describes it as treating Muslims there unfairly and cites its intervention in Mali, aimed at the Northern African branch of al-Qaeda.
While monitoring Internet sites popular with radicalized Muslim youth has yielded significant clues about jihadis who actually make it to Syria, the more traditional methods of tracking -- either by surveillance at suspicious mosques or watching young men with criminal records -- isn’t effective in revealing the more careful, better-trained fighters, said a second French official.
Even more complicated is the fact that as many as a fifth of these fighters are recent converts to Islam, and their Gallic names don’t trigger alerts as they travel, said the official.
Tracking their citizens overseas requires cooperation with local police and intelligence agencies, and is crucial to identify those disguising travel to Syria. The approximately 2,500 Moroccan nationals estimated to be fighting in Syria are a particular concern, since many Moroccans have dual French nationality and the French have recently had a troubled relationship with Moroccan intelligence, the official said.
All this means intelligence agencies across Europe have had to coordinate with countries that make natural crossing points for those evading border controls: the 900 kilometer (599 mile) border that Turkey shares with Syria or the Greek border, which is the entry point for thousands of Syrian refugees.
The Turks have tried recently to tighten security by adding patrols and checkpoints. Greece also has tightened security and is on high alert, a senior government official in the country said.
“There is not a single average town that can’t have a cell,” said Bruguiere, the retired French anti-terrorism magistrate. “It’s all so quick, from incitation to leaving for Syria can be a matters of weeks. Families aren’t always aware what’s going on.”