Back in 2009, U.S. forces released Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from an Iraqi prison after four years in captivity. His reported parting words to American troops were: “I’ll see you guys in New York.” Baghdadi now leads ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in what has become characterized as a terrorist army of over 10,000 jihadists. Part of the ISIS strategy has been recruitment of foreign fighters.
Another new propaganda video to attract Westerners was released by ISIS. The 20-minute video features fighters who urge their fellow countrymen to join ISIS and reap the benefits of living in the caliphate. The jihadists claim to be from countries that include Finland, Belgium, Indonesia, South Africa and the U.S.
Not long after the group started its brutal rampage and rapid spread, it launched its first social media campaign to recruit foreign fighters to join what it referred to as a “purist” Islamic warrior state. Using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram that include images of atrocities, ISIS has stated its stunning goal of one billion Muslims to join its ranks and posted a video, entitled “There is no life without jihad” depicting five English-speaking men who claim to be British and Australian jihadists calling for Westerners to join.
Described as the wealthiest terrorist organization in the world, in a short time ISIS reportedly surpassed al Qaeda, al Shabab and the Taliban. When ISIS captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, it broke into the city’s central bank and secured more than $466 million and gold bullion. The organization continued to loot and pillage everything in its path, piling up military weapons and equipment left behind after America pulled out of Iraq in 2009, seizing Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons facility, and raising black banners over Iraq’s biggest oil refinery. The UN reports now that up to 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes after ISIS militants took over more towns in northern Iraq. A “humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar, Iraq, according to U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov.
In June an Economist report stated that ISIS had up to 6,000 fighters in Iraq and 3,000 to 5,000 in Syria, including about 3,000 foreign fighters. The threat has now increased, not only in numbers but also of “radicalized and battle-hardened Westerners” returning from Syria and Iraq to carry out attacks on their home soil. While the exact number of foreign fighters associated with ISIS is unknown, an NBC report cited estimates at above 10,000. That includes “dozens of Americans” according to Attorney General Eric Holder who referred to ISIS as “a global crisis in need of a global solution” and stressed that the world “cannot simply sit back and let it become a training ground from which our nationals can return and launch attacks.”
Some examples: two individual cases were highlighted in Canada: Businessman Salman Ashrafi quit his job at Calgary’s Talisman Energy since October 2012 and flew to the Persian Gulf. His family was shocked when the Canadian Security Intelligence Service revealed to them that ISIS had released photos of Ashrafi and a eulogy saying he had carried out a suicide bombing north of Baghdad responsible for the murder of 19 Iraqis. In the second case, Farah Mohamed Shirdon, another Calgarian in his early 20s, is fighting overseas with the ISIS.
In another single case on the French Riviera, in the well–do-city of Cannes, police raided an apartment and discovered crude bombs as well as devices that contained a highly explosive substance used to make detonators. Police only named the tenant as 23 year old Ibrahim B who talked of “punishing France” online. He ended up spending 18 months fighting in Syria with the al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al Nusra before getting arrested when he returned to France, adding the frightening twist that these trained fighters are returning to their “homes” on Western soil.
An article examining “The Nationalities of the Islamic Jihad’s Foreign Legion” cites that Syrian refugees have described ISIS as “foreign ‘occupiers'” whose only goal is creating a caliphate that straddles between Syria and Iraq. According to the article Spanish police arrested eight people on suspicion of recruiting militants to fight in Syria and Iraq for ISIS , the Dutch government revealed that many Islamist fighters from the Netherlands have joined ISIS, French authorities believe some 800 French nationals have travelled to Syria, or intend to.
According to Richard Barrett of the intelligence organization, the Soufan Group, lots of these foreign fighters are “young, often teenagers, and a fair percentage of those arriving from non-Muslim majority countries are converts to Islam.” He goes to explain that “these and others who share their faith commonly express their motivation as a religious obligation to protect fellow Muslims from attack.”
When a gunman opened fire at a Jewish museum in Brussels, killing four people, authorities began investigating whether it may have been the first terror attack on Western soil, linked to ISIS . French-Algerian extremist Mehdi Nemmouche, who went to Syria after being radicalized in a French jail was discovered by police at the time of his arrest with ISIS emblems in his possession and only a few hours later a French ISIS fighter in Syria tweeted that “ Nemmouche had fought with ISIS under the name Abu Omar al Firansi.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that ISIS was planning attacks on Britain, while ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has already indicated intent to attack the U.S.not only through his “I’ll see you guys in New York” statement, but in a congressional testimony, Brett McGurk reported chilling words by al-Baghdadi for America: “Soon we’ll be in direct confrontation…So watch out for us, for we are with you, watching.”
Christine Williams is Public Affairs and Media Consultant for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem Canada; a nine-time award-winning TV Host and Producer; and a Director on the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.