Jihadists taunting Americans while experts say attack threat is real

| Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, 11:03 p.m.

One British fighter mockingly says he was so upset about American bombing raids on jihadists like himself in northern Iraq that he took a selfie while buying Nutella to “comfort my brittle heart.”

Another jihadist, dressed in black, posed for a photo with a young boy dressed likewise, adding a hashtag about swapping PlayStation video games for a real gun. Others posted images of American equipment left behind in Iraq, inviting troops to return.

Online taunts might seem glib, but fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — or now simply the Islamic State — have a growing desire to strike in the United States and Europe as a result of bombing to support Kurdish fighters, security experts told the Tribune-Review.

The question remains whether these terrorists actually can bring the fight to Western countries.

“The more that we get involved directly militarily, the more we become a crying call for the ISIS militants and insurgents,” said Michael Kenney, a terrorism expert at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. “They are currently trying to goad us into the fight ... because for them that's a great propaganda victory.”

Militants have recruited hundreds of Europeans and, perhaps, dozens of Americans to train and fight in Syria and Iraq, experts said.

Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, 22, the first American suicide bomber known to carry out an attack in Syria, grew up in Vero Beach, Fla., and returned to the United States after his training before ultimately carrying out his May truck bomb attack overseas.

He could have attempted an attack in the United States instead, said Colin Clarke, a warfare researcher with Rand Corporation in Pittsburgh. Insurgents likely will want to attempt a spectacular assault aimed at Western transportation or infrastructure, he said.

It is easier, Clarke said, for insurgents to work their way back into European capitals over land than to come into the United States by airplane.

However, the possibility of flying into Mexico and coming by land across the problematic Southwest border cannot be overlooked.

“The will is certainly there,” Clarke said. “We're just not sure what the capability looks like. Especially with this increased United States involvement ... there's got to be a move at some point to show they have the capability to use these Westerners they have recruited in droves.”

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and other intelligence agencies are working to identify Americans who have gone overseas to train before they can sneak back into the country, a senior administration official told the Trib on background.

“DHS continues to be very focused on foreign terrorist fighters heading to certain countries in the Middle East and attempting to return to Western Europe or the United States,” the official said.

FBI Director James Comey said in Dallas on Monday that Americans fighting in Syria pose an urgent threat to the United States. The agency does not have “high confidence” in knowing just how many there are “because it's so hard to track,” he said.

Many of the Western fighters of jihad, or holy war, have Twitter accounts. Their taunts and threats aimed at the United States have increased since the Iraqi bombing started on Friday.

Over the weekend, fighters started using the hashtags #watchyourbackUSA in English and #Obama_announces_bombing_Islamic_State in Arabic. One tweet appeared to show someone holding a cellphone with a pro-Islamic State message standing outside of the White House.

A lot of the messages are pure hype, but security officials have to pay attention to the fighters' intent — especially in Europe, said Steven Stalinsky, executive director of The Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington group that tracks terrorist propaganda.

“There's definitely a threat,” Stalinsky said. “I would say the European threat is much more serious, but you have to take the threat of Americans coming back seriously.”

A key question will be whether fighters abide by the “covenant of security” — an Islamic ruling that forbids attacking civilians where the fighters live — or not, Kenney said.

“That's kind of the $10,000 question,” Kenney said. “A lot of Americans and Europeans have gone over to these foreign theaters in the past ... and they came back, went back to their home countries and did absolutely nothing.”

Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or andrewconte@tribweb.com.

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