Western radicals who support terrorists present complex danger
By MIKE WERESCHAGIN | The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 5, 2015
PITTSBURGH (Tribune News Service) — A thin, bespectacled 20-year-old Californian stepped aboard Amtrak bus 8914 in Seattle, bound for Vancouver, as the temperature fell and the wind rose off the dark, cold Pacific Ocean.
The FBI watched.
Two hours and 20 minutes later, about 11:40 p.m. March 16, 2014, the bus reached the border and FBI agents arrested Nicholas Michael Teausant. He was taken into custody about 6,500 miles from his intended destination: the self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, according to a criminal complaint.
Ten months later, Turkish authorities denied entry to Air Force veteran Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, 47, of New Jersey, an avionics technician who served from 1986 to 1990. Suspecting he intended to cross the border into Syria, they put him on a flight back to Cairo, his home during the previous year. Egyptian authorities deported him to the United States.
He landed in New York on Jan. 15, where the FBI arrested him.
The U.S. Attorney's Office charged both men with attempting to provide material support — in these cases, themselves — to a foreign terrorist organization. Pugh pleaded not guilty March 18. Teausant is awaiting a court-ordered mental health evaluation.
On Friday, the FBI arrested Keonna Thomas, 30, of Philadelphia when she bought a plane ticket to Spain — the first leg in a journey the FBI said would have ended in the ISIS-held territory she had been tweeting in support of for more than a year.
As many as 150 Americans have joined or tried to join ISIS, the FBI estimates, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison, longer if anyone is killed. Other Americans — it's impossible to say how many — sympathize with the group, and some of them will try to join the self-declared caliphate, counterterrorism experts say.
The federal government has arrested and charged more than 20 people who returned to the United States after joining terrorist groups abroad, but others have returned unnoticed, such as the man behind the failed Times Square bombing in 2010.
“Do we keep the lid on the pressure cooker at home, or do we let them go and face possible blowback?” asked Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and former executive officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
ISIS distinguished itself from al-Qaida by focusing on maintaining and expanding its territorial gains. While the stateless al-Qaida plots against Western countries, ISIS in 2014 declared its territory a caliphate, a strict theocracy whose existence lies at the heart of the terror group's identity.
The group's recruiters and online supporters emphasize the scriptural duty of Muslims to live under the flag of a caliph — in this case, the black banner of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“If your country don't allow you to leave land of (nonbelievers) to perform jihad or to live under the #khilafah then start jihad in the land of the (nonbelievers),” reads a March 19 tweet by an account holder named Abu Abdullah Britani, a nom de guerre identifying the person as British.
Jake Bilardi, a teenager who ISIS said blew himself up in a suicide bombing in Ramadi, Iraq, had planned a string of bombings in his native Melbourne as his “Plan B” if he couldn't make it to Syria, according to a lengthy blog post purportedly written by him.
Teausant, the Californian arrested on his way to Canada, said in a videotaped interview with The Sacramento Bee that he “wasn't planning on coming back to the United States at all.”
He envisioned two outcomes: “I was going to stay fighting with the Syrians until they got their freedom, or I might die.”
Teausant planned his trip with a man who turned out to be an FBI informant. According to the criminal complaint, the informant floated the idea of helping other homegrown jihadists join ISIS.
“Teausant rejected the idea of returning to the United States, stating that, ‘My designs have me staying there (in Syria) and being on every news station in the world,' ” the complaint states.
Letting him go would have presented a grave risk.
In his jailhouse interview, Teausant displayed none of the frothing vitriol one might expect from a battle-ready jihadi. But enough time spent in the training camps and ideological echo chamber of ISIS — where planning bombings, crucifixions and murder are routine — might have changed that.
“A lot of these people who become self-radicalized don't have the sort of experience and full understanding of how to carry out these attacks,” said Orlandrew Danzell, a professor at the Tom Ridge School of Intelligence Studies and Information Sciences at Mercyhurst University.
“Allowing them to actually go to these training camps is probably the worst outcome because some of them will make it back,” Danzell said. “Not everyone is going to die.”
Case in point: Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen, received training in explosives in Pakistan before returning to the United States and trying to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in 2010. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Two years later, Moner Mohammad Abusalha of Florida fought with al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, returned to the United States, then left again for Syria, where in 2014 he became the first American suicide bomber to die in that country, according to “When Jihadis Come Marching Home,” a RAND Corp. study.
“These people tend to go through other countries,” such as when Somali-Americans left to fight with al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab, Danzell said.
“In Africa, for example, where the borders are extremely porous, you may fly into Ethiopia, you may fly into some other country, and you just basically backpack it or use some other route to get there. So your passport doesn't say, ‘Somalia,' but you were there.”
For most Western radicals, including Bilardi of Australia, the path to ISIS's front lines runs through Turkey. The country's porous border with Syria was an escape route from civil war for 1.7 million northbound refugees, but as many as 20,000 foreign fighters have crossed the border heading the other way, according to estimates from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence in London.
Monitoring everyone who travels to Turkey, a NATO member, is all but impossible. Tourism in the capital, Istanbul, swelled by nearly 2 million international visitors to 11.6 million in 2014, a faster year-over-year growth than in any of the world's other top 20 destination cities, according to a global tourism analysis by MasterCard.
Even if each of those 20,000 foreign fighters passed through Istanbul, they would make up just 0.2 percent of tourists — a daily average of 55 would-be jihadists hiding among nearly 32,000 arrivals from around the world.
In some ways, the radicals are easier to find while still in the United States.
“A lot of these guys will be pretty upfront,” with social media posts expressing support for ISIS or radical jihad, said William McCants, director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy in Washington.
“Because they haven't committed any crimes yet, law enforcement just sits and watches them,” McCants said.
Along with the tactical risks of letting would-be terrorists join ISIS, there's a moral question, McCants said.
“My general preference is that we don't allow our radicalized youth to become somebody else's problem,” he said. There's “this kind of general feeling that when young people get wound up in jihadism, that they're not worth saving.
“These young people are Americans.”
The United States doesn't run institutional jihadist rehabilitation programs like those in Britain, Denmark and other countries. As many as 5,000 ISIS recruits came from Western European countries, more than 30 times the number from the United States, according to the International Center in London.
“Either we're going to have to watch these people forever or we're going to let them go and roll the dice and hope they don't (come back and) conduct an attack at home,” Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said during an online forum about ISIS in March. “The other option is let them go and maybe they get killed on the battlefield.”
Or maybe they don't.
“You are betting on the survivability of these people,” Danzell said. “Some of them may survive and return to the homeland fully radicalized.”
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