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American accent on ISIS recording presents alarming prospect

| Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, 11:49 p.m.

CAIRO — One of three ISIS audio messages claiming credit for the Paris terrorist attacks appears to have been read by an English-speaking American.

The potential of an American acting as a spokesman for the terrorist group raises anew concerns about ISIS's support in and internal threat to the United States.

“While I am not prepared to say whether or not it was an American, should we be surprised? No. Greatly disappointed? Absolutely,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who became the first Homeland Security director following al-Qaida's 2001 terror attacks.

ISIS claimed responsibility Saturday, describing the six attacks as “just the beginning.” Its claim was recorded in English, French and Arabic on Telegram Channel, a secure Internet messaging app.

A man speaking with an apparent American accent recites the five-minute, 56-second English recording. The unidentified speaker refers to an attack on a French stadium during a “soccer” match — not football, as the sport is known everywhere in the world except the United States.

The use of that idiom could indicate that a U.S. citizen is involved in ISIS's leadership or sophisticated communications team.

“We do know there are Americans who have sympathies for ISIS, who have traveled or expressed a desire to travel to fight in Syria,” said Robert Liscouski, a former Homeland Security assistant secretary who is a vice president of Implant Sciences and an international security and counterterrorism expert.

“The government has done a pretty good job in identifying those people and even getting them before they travel,” he said.

But if “an American was in the communications loop somehow … does that mean he might be signaling to other Americans here?” Liscouski asked. “Yes, that could be a signal.

“Does that mean he is trying to show there are other Americans who are joining the ISIS fight and we need to be worried about that? Yes, but we know that anyway.”

ISIS “would definitely want to put an American or a culturalized, socialized American immigrant in a leadership position for many reasons,” including the ability “to attract, recruit and retain other Americans” as followers, said retired Army Gen. Anthony Cucolo, who commanded combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“They need someone who understands our culture to assist them in messaging effectively to U.S. audiences,” he said, “and having an American in a leadership position is a thumb in the eye or insult to our leadership.”

He said U.S. officials should be concerned about the potential of such an American role — but not overtly worried, since that would suggest an attack on the United States is imminent.

“I hope and believe we are in a constant state of concern. … Prudent measures, like cross-checking intelligence agencies' information and shaking off the complacency that comes with not being attacked, is a good start,” he said.

American officials insist they have no information suggesting an attack in the United States is imminent. Cities across the country — including Pittsburgh — have increased security as a precaution, however.

Olivier Guitta, managing director of GlobalStrat, a British security and political-risk firm, said an American acting as an ISIS spokesman is not “meaningful” by itself.

But he said it could become a serious concern — and a significant propaganda tool for ISIS — if an American replaced “Jihadi John,” the British citizen reportedly killed in a U.S. drone strike Friday in Syria. He gained infamy on ISIS videos, beheading seven Western hostages.

If an American becomes involved in ISIS's senior command or communications network, U.S. officials must uncover his identity, said Cucolo, who commanded the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle before retiring in 2014. “We need to understand how and why he or she went to them and — in my opinion, once we know all that — capture or kill that person. Preferably capture, for intelligence value.”

Ridge, chairman of Ridge Global, a security risk-analysis firm, said “we will never be able to understand” why an American would be attracted to the “barbaric ideology” of ISIS.

But he said “the barbarians are not at the gate — they are inside the gate,” and Americans must understand that “ultimately they have to be eliminated.”

A strong multinational coalition, including Arab nations, must act “not to degrade and defeat but to eliminate this poison,” he said.

Betsy Hiel is Trib Total Media's foreign correspondent, and Salena Zito is the Trib's national political reporter. Email them at bhiel@tribweb.com and szito@tribweb.com.

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