In February 2003, the Central Intelligence Agency published a “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.”[1] Drawing on lessons learned from the failures that led to the devastating terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 9/11, the CIA warned that “terrorism cannot have a place of refuge” and, as such, the United States must “ensure effective governance over ungoverned territory, which could provide sanctuary to terrorists.”[2] This decision was directly based on the example of Afghanistan, where the United States had detachedly observed—to its later regret—as up to 20,000 foreign fighters traveled to the region in search of paramilitary training and expertise to launch a Sunni Muslim revolution.[3] The events of 9/11 made it painfully clear that there could be severe consequences for permitting ungoverned spaces to lapse into the control of stateless extremists. Had more of this first generation of “muhajirin” possessed European or North American travel documents and citizenship—as in the case with the Syria and Iraq conflicts today—the United States might have faced an unprecedented security threat in the pursuant years.

It is these stark lessons from the era of 9/11 that make the contemporary problem of North American, European, and Australian foreign fighters now gathering in Syria and Iraq under the banner of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Jabhat al-Nusra, and potentially the Khorasan group so troubling. Even rough estimates of their numbers far exceed those seen in prior jihadist conflicts. These numbers include dozens of U.S. nationals, approximately 500 British citizens, and more than 900 residents of France.[4] ISIL propagandists have openly singled out for recruitment “he” who “lives in the West amongst the kuffar [disbelievers] for years, spends hours on the internet, reads news and posts on forums.”[5] More recently, ISIL leaders have called on their sympathizers to undertake attacks in the West.[6] Indeed, perhaps never in the history of the global jihadist movement has one single conflict attracted so many Westerners seeking to join the cause in such a short period of time—and the stories of these men and women give real reason for pause and reflection.

This article profiles a number of Americans and other Western foreign fighters who traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq, and assesses the potential threat these fighters pose to the West. It finds that these recruits often come from humble and unexpected origins. At times, they are evading the best efforts by law enforcement and intelligence agencies to detect and monitor them. The available evidence suggests they are also readily embracing the notion of combating their enemies far beyond the borders of the Levant.

America’s First Suicide Bomber in Syria
On May 25, 2014, Moner Mohammed Abusalha, a 22-year-old American from the sleepy town of Ft. Pierce on Florida’s Atlantic coast, drove a truck packed with 17 tons of explosives into a fortified, mountaintop base manned by the Syrian army in Idlib Province, making him the first known suicide bomber in Syria to come from the United States. He conducted his attack on behalf of al-Qa`ida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. In the weeks following his death, several videos were published on the internet featuring final recorded messages from Abusalha, including showing him ripping up his U.S. passport, chewing on parts of it, and setting it on fire. He offered an explicit message in English for the Western public: “You think you are safe where you are, in America and Britain. You think you are safe, you are not safe.”[7] Turning his attention directly to President Barack Obama, he vowed, “We are coming for you, mark my words.”[8]

In another video, Abusalha calmly recounted how he began “striving” to “get to jihad” while living in Texas. He credited lectures by Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-`Awlaqi on hijra for helping inspire him to take action: “he [al-`Awlaqi] says, you make hijra, it’s like a cliff. You jump off the cliff, but you don’t know if the water is deep or shallow. You don’t know if there’s going to be rocks…you just have to jump and put your [trust] in Allah.”[9] Abusalha described the moment he “realized I was being watched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I had to flee back to [Florida] to throw them off and think that I was somewhere else in the United States.” Shortly thereafter, he set off and “walked literally five miles to the airport. I went straight. I didn’t look back…I walked with a heavy bag on my shoulders, and…I was singing anashid. I was very happy.”[10] This enthusiasm was soon tempered with the harsh realities he found at his intended destination: Turkey. He confessed:

“When I was making hijra, I didn’t know what to do, all I knew was you know I just get on the airplane and get to Istanbul because from research, tons of research, I know that all the mujahidin that come from around the world they come to Istanbul and you know Turkey and the Syrian border’s close and they switch like this…I still don’t know what to do. I still need to look for mujahidin, I need to look for people to help me to get to jihad in Syria…In my heart, I don’t know where to start. I don’t know where to begin, who to ask, you know, I was scared. I don’t have money, I don’t have hotel, I don’t have none of this stuff. I’m scared…I don’t know what to do. Subhanallah, I see two men, three men speaking Arabic, and I said, ‘Subhanallah, I know what these people are here for.’ People speaking Arabic, they’re either Syrian or you know, from tons of research, muhajirin from Tunis or I don’t know where…So I didn’t say nothing to them I just simply sat down and waited until they got off the train. When they got off I was going to speak to them. It was very dangerous what I was doing—I could’ve went to jail, you know, could’ve been a spy…So when I got off the train, I follow them I went to ask them, ‘I want to make hijra, I want to go to jihad.’”[11]

After several failed efforts to randomly approach Arabic-speaking men with Salafist-style beards and ask their help in getting to Syria, Abusalha eventually came across a one-armed Turkish man who agreed to help and cheerfully acknowledged in what little Arabic he spoke, “I am from al-Qa`ida.”[12]

A Wave of American Recruits
Recruits headed to jihadist factions in Syria have likewise come from the West Coast of the United States. In late 2012, a local Muslim convert from Garden Grove, California, Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen (also known as Hasan Abu Omar Ghannoum), traveled to Syria where he joined Islamist forces and spent four months in combat near the town of Qusayr. In late January 2013, he posted an update on his status to friends on Facebook: “I’m doing well in Syria…having a blast here, and I mean literally.”[13] Nguyen later acknowledged to the FBI that while in Syria he had “offered to train some of the al-Qa`ida fighters” from Jabhat al-Nusra who he had “fought alongside” and “greatly admired.”[14] After returning to the United States for six months, U.S. law enforcement arrested Nguyen as he attempted to travel to Peshawar, Pakistan, via Mexico in October 2013. He later pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to travel to an al-Qa`ida training camp in Pakistan to assist in providing paramilitary training and instruction. Nguyen admitted that, after fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, he was infatuated with the desire to “return to jihad,” believing “that this was what he was born to do.”[15]

Ironically, neither Nguyen and Abusalha were recruited or fighting on behalf of ISIL—but rather were drawn to al-Qa`ida’s official franchise in the region, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is engaged in a bitter and violent dispute with ISIL and, until recently, has not been considered as potent an international threat as ISIL. Yet, since the latest wave of conquest by ISIL over vast regions of Syria and Iraq, the weight of Western recruitment seems to have swayed firmly in its direction. On July 2, 2014, FBI agents stopped 20-year-old Los Angeles native Adam Dandach from boarding a flight at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, headed to Istanbul. He allegedly told the agents that he intended to travel to Syria to “assist ISIS [ISIL] with anything ISIS asked him to do, and that he believed the killings of U.S. soldiers are justified killings.”[16] According to a criminal complaint filed in his case, Dandach later told his brother that “he was more disappointed that he did not get to go to Syria than getting in trouble with law enforcement.”[17]

Interestingly, not all of the would-be American recruits in Syria and Iraq are male. On September 10, 2014, 19-year-old Colorado resident Shannon Maureen Conley pleaded guilty to providing material support to ISIL after being recruited online by an individual who described himself as “an active member” of ISIL.[18] Even prior to her eventual arrest, Conley had freely told FBI agents during interviews that she “planned to go to Iraq” to “find a jihadist training camp.” After the agents encouraged her to instead participate in peaceful support for Muslims in Syria and Iraq, Conley replied that she had “no interest in doing humanitarian work” and “felt that jihad is the only answer to correct the wrongs against the Muslim world.”[19] She admitted that she was in intimate contact with a 32-year-old Tunisian national working for ISIL, as well as another woman who had married an ISIL militant. When asked if she intended to actually engage in jihad, she responded, “If it was absolutely necessary, then yes…I would do it.” She admitted that her knowledge of Islam and ISIL were drawn solely from “research that she conducted on the internet.”[20] On April 8, 2014, after multiple attempts by the FBI to intervene and dissuade her from pursuing her mission, agents finally arrested Conley at Denver International Airport as she attempted to board a flight to Turkey via Frankfurt. In her possession were materials for providing first aid as well as “a number of CD/DVDs labeled ‘Anwar al-`Awlaqi.’”[21] According to Conley’s own public defender, her arrest by the FBI “may very well have saved her life.”[22]

ISIL is even now drawing American recruits away from other competing jihadist factions globally, including various official branches of al-Qa`ida. This has become clear in Minnesota, where reports indicate that ethnic Somali men who might once have been lured by the cultural appeal of al-Qa`ida’s al-Shabab affiliate in East Africa are now instead heading to the unlikely destination of Syria. A federal grand jury in the Minneapolis area is reportedly looking into allegations that as many as 30 young Somali-Americans were encouraged to travel by unknown parties to Syria to join ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra over the past two years, including a 19-year-old woman from St. Paul.[23] The numbers and facts are startling—and yet U.S. nationals are only the tip of a much larger iceberg. In the last year alone, fighters from the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, and many other countries have joined the ranks of extremist groups in Syria, creating a frenzy among law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Recruitment Beyond U.S. Borders
As was vividly evidenced by ISIL’s execution videos of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the United Kingdom faces an increasingly complex problem stemming from its nationals who have traveled to Syria. For some of these individuals, Syria is merely the latest chapter in their process of radicalization. In February 2014, British national Abdul Waheed Majid (also known as Abu Sulaiman al-Muhajir)—who reportedly once served as a personal aide and driver for extremist cleric Shaykh Omar Bakri Mohammed—blew himself up in a suicide bombing targeting the infamous Aleppo Central Prison in order to spearhead a pitched ground assault by Jabhat al-Nusra.[24] The operation, which was the first known case of a British suicide bomber in Syria, reportedly led to the escape of hundreds of prisoners. In a subsequent interview with British media, Omar Bakri praised Majid as “a very dear brother”: “He was someone who was always at hand to help people…He was also very interested in the issue of how we could establish an Islamic state.”[25]

On June 19, 2014, the same English-language ISIL media unit responsible for releasing the James Foley beheading video, the al-Hayat Media Center, published a video titled There is No Life Without Jihad, featuring recorded English-language interviews with several British jihadists, including two young men of Yemeni and Indian descent. Briton Abu Muthanna al-Yemeni boasted, “we understand no borders…we have participated in battles in al-Sham and we’ll go to Iraq in a few days and we’ll fight there…We’ll even go to Jordan and Lebanon, with no problems—wherever our shaykh wants to send us.” Openly addressing ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Muthanna urged him, “be firm and don’t change at all. Allah willing, we are with you…throw us wherever you want.”[26] For his part, “Abu Bara al-Hindi” directed a message to “my brothers who are living in the West”: “I know how you feel in the heart; you feel depressed. The prophet said the cure for the depression is jihad for the cause of Allah. You feel like you have no honor…my brothers, come to jihad and feel the honor we’re feeling. Feel the happiness we’re feeling.”[27] When the lonely girlfriend of another reported British jihadist fighting in Syria, Aine Davis, begged him during internet chats to return home to the United Kingdom, Davis wrote back and scoffed, “You think I spent two months on the road to get where I am to come back? (rofl).”[28]

The ISIL video There is No Life Without Jihad featured other Westerners fighting in Syria, including Australians “Abu Yahya al-Shami” and “Abu Nour al-Iraqi.” Abu Nour admonished his “brothers in the West” that “the reasons to come to jihad are plenty. Shaykh Anwar al-`Awlaqi once said that when it comes to jihad, there are two types of people: those who find every single excuse to come to jihad and those who find every single excuse not to come to jihad. For those who want to come to jihad, who want the reward, there are many excuses, many reasons to come to jihad, in the lands of al-Sham especially.”[29] In fact, one of Jabhat al-Nusra’s most senior Shari`a officials, Mustafa Mahamed (also known as Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir), is likewise an Australian national.[30]

The English-language al-Hayat Media Center has also released video footage of a Canadian convert to Islam, Andre Poulin, who was recently killed while fighting alongside ISIL in Syria. In his recorded testimonial, Poulin recalled, “I was like any other regular Canadian; I watched hockey, I went to cottage in the summertime, I loved to fish, I wanted to go hunting, I liked outdoors, I liked sports…life in Canada was good. I had money, I had good family, but at the end of the day…how can you answer to Allah the Almighty when you live on the same street, when using their lights and paying taxes to them, and they use these taxes for war on Islam?”[31] Like his British comrades, Poulin offered a message to Muslims living in the West and appealed to them to make hijra to Syria to join ISIL. According to Poulin: “You know, there’s a role for everybody. Every person can contribute something to the Islamic State. It’s obligatory on us. If you cannot fight, then you give money, if you cannot give money then you can assist in technology, and if you can’t assist in technology you can use some other skills…We can use you. You’ll be very well taken care of here. Your families will live here in safety just like how it is back home. You know, we have wide expansive territory here in Syria and we can easily find accommodations for you and your families. My brothers, there is a role for everybody here in Syria…come join before the doors close.”[32]

Even a famous German rapper, Denis Mamadou Gerhard Cuspert (also known as “Deso Dogg”), traveled to fight in Syria and has since joined ISIL’s banner under the name Abu Talha al-Almani. In 2009, the onetime street criminal Cuspert suddenly “changed my life” and abandoned his music career to dedicate himself to becoming a hardline Islamist.By August 2013, he had made his way to Syria.[33] With his celebrity status, Deso Dogg has been featured in ISIL propaganda and has drawn a following of thousands via his online social media posts from the jihadist frontline in Syria. Using Twitter, he posts frequent battlefield updates in both English and German, including images and videos. Cuspert is one of more than 240 German nationals who were known to be fighting in Syria by the end of last year alone.[34]

Assessing the Potential Threat
Some analysts and observers have correctly argued that not all Western foreign fighters in Syria are there on behalf of Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIL, or analogous hardline jihadist groups. They have also suggested that these Western recruits will likely meet their demise during combat in Iraq and Syria and pose only a small residual terrorist threat to countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and other Western states. With measures in place to cancel passports and travel documents for those suspected to be fighting in Syria, perhaps these individuals will not even be able to return home. While these points are all worth noting, it is simply not clear what activities these individuals might engage in once they return home.

One of the Western hostages once held in Syria alongside James Foley—French journalist Nicolas Henin—has since been freed and has publicly identified at least one of their former rebel captors: a 29-year-old foreign jihadist from Roubaix, France, named Mehdi Nemmouche. According to Henin, Nemmouche earned a reputation as a “violent and provocative” thug who took pleasure in torturing hostages. He recounted how Nemmouche once punched him in the face and flashed a new pair of gloves: “You saw these motorcycle gloves? I bought them just for you, to punch you in the face. Did you like them?” As for his victims, Henin insisted, “It seemed to us that he did not leave for Syria because of some grand ideals but, above all, to make his mark, to carry out a murderous path that he had traced.”[35] As an example, Henin quoted Nemmouche as boasting, “It’s such a pleasure to cut off a baby’s head.”[36]

After spending nearly a year marauding across Syria, Nemmouche finally returned home to Europe via Germany in March 2014.[37] Despite being under surveillance by French authorities, two months later, in late May, he was arrested for allegedly carrying out a mass shooting targeting a Jewish museum in Brussels, Belgium, that killed four people. At the time of his capture in Marseilles, Nemmouche was reportedly in possession of an AK-47 rifle and handgun that were used in the museum attack, “a white sheet emblazoned with the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” and a 40-second video featuring the two guns and the ISIL banner, as well as a claim of responsibility for the attack.[38] Thus far, authorities in both Belgium and France have not answered the bigger question of whether the plot targeting the Jewish museum was carried out on the direct orders of ISIL leaders, or if the accused culprit was merely inspired by the example set by ISIL.

Only weeks before Nemmouche’s fateful return to Europe, French security forces arrested another veteran of the jihadist frontline in Syria, French national Ibrahim Boudina, shortly after his own return home. The latter had initially fled to Syria in September 2012 after a close associate tossed a grenade into a Jewish grocery in the Sarcelles neighborhood of Paris. Upon arriving, Boudina allegedly first joined the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra and eventually drifted to ISIL.[39] A friend reportedly warned French authorities: “Ibrahim said if he could not do jihad on Islamic soil he would do it in France. Ibrahim compared France to the head of the serpent, which you had to cut off…Ibrahim spoke to me often about this Zionist area in Cannes and that if he could not go do jihad overseas it would for him be a target.”[40] After fighting for 15 months, Boudina attempted to reenter Europe through Greece in January 2014—where border police found a USB stick in his possession with bomb-making instructions. A later search of a storage closet in the apartment complex near Cannes where Boudina was hiding turned up a handgun, more bomb-making instructions, and several aluminum cans filled with 950 grams of TATP high explosive—at least one of which was covered in screws and nails, apparently to serve as shrapnel.[41]

These incidents reveal the nature of the dilemma posed by ISIL to the United States and its Western allies. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are confronted with the challenge of closely monitoring a relatively large and decentralized network of radicalized extremists with paramilitary training. This does not even include the inevitable number of additional Westerners who will slip through unnoticed as they join the conflict and are recruited by ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusra, or al-Qa`ida’s Khorasan group. These young men (and women) see nothing wrong with the brutal murder of civilians, and they have taken every opportunity to proclaim their commitment not only to the frontline in Syria and Iraq, but to the more expansive global jihad against the West. Thus, even a small number of hardened fanatics returning home from Syria could pose a significant threat.

In this regard, it is worth noting that the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIL’s predecessor) released an audio recording of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July 2012, in which he solemnly vowed that Americans would soon witness terrorist attacks “in the heart of your homeland, as our war with you has just begun, and so await them.”[42] Even more explicitly, on September 21, ISIL’s top spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani addressed the American and European publics, threatening that ISIL would “come to your homeland” and “strike you.”[43] The recording came only three days after Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott warned of intelligence indicating that local militants had planned random “demonstration killings” on the streets of Australia in the name of ISIL. In light of these stark facts, it is clear why Western governments have grown so concerned about the focused recruitment of their own nationals by ISIL and other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.

Evan Kohlmann is founder and CIO of Flashpoint Global Partners.

Laith Alkhouri is Director of Middle East Research at Flashpoint Global Partners.

[1] “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,” Central Intelligence Agency, February 2003.

[2] Ibid.

[3]The 9/11 Commission Report (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004), p. 67.

[4] Elaine Ganley, “2 French Girls Investigated as Would-Be Jihadis,” Associated Press, August 22, 2014.

[5]Dabiq Magazine 3, al-Hayat Media Center, August 2014, p. 27.

[6] “Islamic State’s Taunting Speech Calls for Killing Civilians,” Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2014.

[7] “The Story of an American Muhajir in Al-Sham: A Special Meeting with the Mujahid Shahid Abu Hurayra Al-Amriki,” The Global Islamic Media Front, July 28, 2014.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Interview with Abu Huraira Ameriki. Part 1: The Hijrah,” Bilad al-Sham Media, August 29, 2014.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] This post was available on Facebook.

[14]U.S.A. v. Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen, Central District of California, 2013.

[15] Ibid.

[16]U.S.A. v. Adam Dandach, Central District of California, 2014.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Arvada Woman Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Provide Material Support to a Designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” U.S. Department of Justice, September 10, 2014.

[19]U.S.A. v. Shannon Maureen Conley, District of Colorado, 2014.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Colorado Woman, 19, Pleads Guilty to Trying to Help Islamic State,” NBC News, September 10, 2014.

[23] Paul McEnroe and Allie Shah, “Federal Grand Jury Targets Local Terrorist Pipeline,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 6, 2014.

[24] “The Martyrdom-Seeker Abu Sulayman Al-Muhajir,” Jabhat al-Nusra, February 6, 2014.

[25] Haroon Siddique, “Suspected British Suicide Bomber Was My Student, Says Radical Cleric,” Guardian, February 13, 2014.

[26]There is No Life Without Jihad, al-Hayat Media Center, June 19, 2014.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Woman Free after Syria Cash Trial,” Daily Mail, August 14, 2014.

[29]There is No Life Without Jihad.

[30] See the account at

[31]Al-Ghuraba: The Chosen Few of Different Lands, al-Hayat Media Center, July 11, 2014.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Paltalk interview with Abu Talha al-Almani.

[34] Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, “‘Jihad Tourism’: From Germany to the Syrian Battlefield,” National Public Radio, December 22, 2013.

[35] Sylvie Corbet and Lori Hinnant, “French Ex-Hostage Says Tortured in Syria By Brussels Shooting Suspect Mehdi Nemmouche,” Associated Press, September 6, 2014.

[36] David Chazan, “Brussels Museum Shooting Suspect ‘Beheaded Baby,’” Telegraph, September 7, 2014.

[37] “Brussels Jewish Museum Murders: Nemmouche to be Extradited,” BBC, June 26, 2014.

[38] “France Arrests Syria Jihad Suspects as Nemmouche Held,” BBC, June 2, 2014.

[39] Anne Vidalie, “Djihadisme: Ibrahim Boudina, itinéraire d’un fou d’Allah,” L’Express, June 23, 2014.

[40] Paul Cruickshank, “Raid on ISIS Suspect in the French Riviera,” CNN, August 28, 2014.

[41] Vidalie.

[42] “A Speech by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: ‘And Allah Refuses But to Complete His Light,’” al-Furqan Media Center, July 21, 2012.

[43] “‘You will not feel secure even in your bedrooms,’” Toronto Star, September 22, 2014.

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