What now for the U.S.’ relationship with Al-Nusra after an American goes to Syria for jihadist training and returns to commit terrorism?
Clarion Project, by Ryan Mauro, April 19, 2015:
Al-Nusrah American citizen Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud was indicted after a cleric associated with Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria) ordered him to carry out an attack here, the Justice Department announced. His plot to attack a military base in Texas was thwarted. The involvement of Al-Nusra will make it difficult for the U.S. to keep looking the other way as it gains territory in Syria.
Originally from Somalia, Mohamud grew up in the U.S. He lives in Columbus, Ohio and Islamist radicalism seems to be a family affair in this case. His brother died fighting for Al-Qaeda in Syria and was apparently a major influence in Mohamud’s radicalization.
Their younger brother, Abdiqani Aden, was arrested earlier this month during a visit to Mohamud because he made a gun symbol with his hands and pointed towards the sheriff’s deputies. He was speaking in a foreign language at the time. This is especially threatening because Mohamud’s second-choice target was a prison.
The government’s monitoring of communication between the two older brothers shows their motivations were not frustration with U.S. foreign policy or personal trials. They were inspired by a glorification of those who die in violent jihad and a belief that such “martyrs” are guaranteed entry into heaven.
His brother left the U.S. in May 2013 and went to Syria to link up with Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing. Mohamud’s travel arrangements involved Al-Nusra members and that is presumably the group he joined, but his online postings showed his loyalty was with ISIS. Al-Nusra facilitators appear to have been surprisingly unconcerned by this.
This may indicate the rift between the leadership of ISIS and Al-Qaeda isn’t necessarily trickling down to most of the membership. The attacks in Paris are another example where Al-Qaeda and ISIS supporters worked together despite the quarrels of their leaders.
His brother was killed in June 2014 and he returned home afterwards. Mohamud told a close associate that he completed his training with an unidentified terrorist group in Syria and a cleric told him to return to the U.S. to carry out an attack. The indictment charges Mohamud with providing material support to Al-Nusra, so it appears that he never joined ISIS.
Mohamud began plotting but two unidentified individuals close to him reported their dialogues to the FBI and likely recorded them. One was a friend of his for three years and all indications point to one or both of these informants being Muslim. This is another example of why the demonization of informants by groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is so dangerous.
Mohamud decided his preference was to attack a military site with a prison as a backup option. He chose a base in Texas and hoped to execute three or four U.S. soldiers before achieving “martyrdom.” The FBI arrested him before he could start putting the details together.
The cleric’s involvement is an important detail because it threatens to unravel the Obama Administration’s façade that Al-Nusra isn’t a direct threat to America. It also indicates the group is putting an increased emphasis on hitting us at home.
The U.S. realized in September the air campaign against ISIS needed to include a unit within Al-Nusra named the Khorasan Group that was orchestrating terror plots against the West. The problem is that Al-Nusra is much more popular than ISIS and works closely with other Syrian rebels, including ones the U.S. supported and anticipated relying upon to fight ISIS on the ground.
The desire to avoid alienating Al-Qaeda-allied Syrian rebels and their supporters led the Obama Administration to begin promoting a myththat the Khorasan Group is an independent entity that is somehow illogically linked to Al-Qaeda but not Al-Nusra. The New York Timesrepeated it in its coverage of this case.
The myth is harmful to U.S. interests and anti-Islamist Syrians because it distances Al-Nusra from Al-Qaeda, thereby giving it a higher ceiling of public support. A Zogby poll in November found the population of Turkey favors Al-Nusra above all other participants in the Syrian civil war. A whopping 40% of Turks support Al-Nusra the most.
The indications are that Mohamud’s Syrian cleric is from Al-Nusra but it’s still significant he’s in ISIS because that would mean it is now dispatching operatives from the region to America. That would be a shift from relying on so-called “lone wolves” inside the U.S. who plan terrorism because they’ve determined that traveling to the Caliphateis unlikely to succeed.
It is true that Mohamud’s case is important because it’s the first publicly-acknowledged case of an American going to Syria for jihadist training and returning home to commit terrorism, but there’s a bigger point to be made. The U.S. is at war with Jabhat al-Nusra because it is at war with Al-Qaeda. If a Syrian rebel partner doesn’t approve of the U.S. recognizing that unavoidable fact, then that’s not a partner worth having.