Fidaa Itani

The specter of sleeper cells in the West

Fears that jihad-hardened combatants may one day return from Syria and Iraq to terrorize the West are creating a dangerous blindness

Fighters from the al-Qaida group in the Levant, Al-Nusra Front, stand among destroyed buildings near the front line with Syrian government solders in Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus on September 22, 2014 (AFP Photo/Rami al-Sayed)

A ghost is haunting most Western countries and it’s not the specter of Karl Mark’s and Friedrich Engels’ communism. This time, dozens of researchers and journalists have written about a new horror that is terrifying the West — the specter of Islamist extremism, represented by a few hundred European fighters returning from the war in Syria and Iraq.


Around 3,000 fighters have come from Western countries who, along with other foreigners form some 16,000 foreigner combatants, most of them fighting with the Islamic State (ISIS). A good part of these foreign volunteers also take part in fighting alongside Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate the Al-Nusra Front; 35% of its members are foreigners, and 40% of its commanders came to Syria from abroad.


Western media, politics and security services are all concerned about the consequences of some of these fighters returning to their countries of residence after having gained experience in modern combat tactics and guerilla warfare, as well as work in small, clandestine terror cells. Of course, there is some justification for this fear, but not to the extent we are seeing and hearing.



Our problems are killing us


ISIS grew out of the Nusra Front before breaking away on its own, and it benefitted from Arab and Western assistance, especially in relation to fighters travelling to Syria. A blind eye was also turned by Turkish border authorities, who have maintained constant contact and coordinated directly with the CIA. The matter reached a level where near-protection status was afforded to foreign fighters coming to Syria from more than 80 countries to wage war according to Salafist jihadist doctrine.


None of the parties involved in the conflict have paid any attention to the painful historical experiences associated with Salafist doctrine — it was the tactical view that held sway. Nusra militants were blessed with regime sponsorship first and foremost. Hundreds of jihadists were released from prison and it was they who went on to become the leaders of jihadist groups, from the Nusra Front to Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam.


But all that is in the past now; the real foundation on which jihad built itself was twofold — the failure of the modern state in the region and its inability to formulate a modern social contract with its citizens, coupled with the failure of local opposition to form alternate trajectories for the existing regimes.


These problems, notwithstanding the abstract form in which they are presented here, were enough to create revolutions across the entire region. As a result, jihadist forces were given the justification they needed to portray themselves as the people’s one and only savior — a savior who acted in the name of God and the noble Koran, observed the traditions of the good ancestors, and would restore the glories of past (as seen from a single and selective viewpoint).


Using this image, the jihadists began to attract tortured and adventurous souls from Western countries and around the world. This was the modern era of jihad; a new regional development that had allowed for the globalization of jihad, enabling it to reach all social sections and groups, and presenting them with an enticing image.



Your problems are killing us, too


To this day, Muslims who emigrated to European countries have not found a solution to their deepest problems. Groups that came from Algeria, Tunisia and other Arab countries before the middle of the last century are still suffering from the problem of non-integration. These earlier immigrants, not to mention more recent arrivals, still live in their own ghetto-like areas.


This existential problem has been compounded, especially since 2001, by the adoption of rough-handed counterterrorism policies, the results of which have been ignored by many Western governments and states. Instead, they have made do with direct results that require billions to be spent to protect the millions of original residents and depend on increased marginalization and denial of rights for anyone deemed suspicious, or even those whose intentions are suspected.


It may be within the rights of Western countries to take harsh action against suspects and close their doors to new arrivals or find ways to get rid of “surplus” immigrants, rewrite immigration laws and create new counterterrorism laws, but what the international coalition did when it launched its campaign of strikes against ISIS is simply a disgrace. Instead of weakening the group and stopping its expansion in Iraq, the strikes have elevated the group’s status. Now it can say: “the Islamic State has confronted the warplanes of the world… and seen victory!”


The financial crisis has also had a negative influence in the West through the effect is has had on the most impoverished sections of society, particularly immigrants from Arab countries.


Add to the above the prevalent marginalization of immigrants and minorities in the West: it has driven the youth to look for a role in life that some have found in ISIS or other similar groups, especially as religion is a rising factor in the region and around the world, and is becoming more and more right wing.



Priorities for returning combatants


This does not mean, however, that all of the hundreds of fighters returning from jihad in Syria and Iraq are ticking time bombs, guilty of committing atrocities or even members of sleeper cells. These returning individuals can be divided into a number of categories. Most important are those who return in a state of shock after the experiences they have been through — adventurers who have had enough of Greater Syria and are trying to return to a normal life after failing to find what they were looking for fighting with ISIS and the Nusra Front. Then there are the specialists who worked in the fields of propaganda, media, recruitment, internal organization, medical treatment and other areas. There are others who have returned to continue indirect recruitment and gain further skills. Finally, there are those who have returned as sleeper cells to lie dormant in various Western cities.


However, the current priority for both ISIS and the Nusra Front — or any of the other jihadist organizations in Syria and Iraq, and even countries like Yemen, Egypt and African states — is not to carry out terrorist attacks against the West. At the moment, ISIS is operating at peak capacity. The need to recruit fighters is being met using social networking and media outlets controlled by jihadist organizations. The image broadcast by these organizations express ability and power and the simple solutions the groups proffer to complicated problems.


ISIS’s real strategy today is to provoke Western powers and lure them into the battlefield so that slow and draining engagements can resume — the kind that jihadists once deployed in Iraq and still are in Afghanistan. ISIS meets this strategic need by executing Western hostages one after another on the Internet. Speaking to the West in its own language via foreign fighters who directly address their countrymen, the group spreads terror among Western citizens who will one day start suggesting: “Just attack them, or leave the backward people in those places to kill each other and close our borders.”


If Western intervention happens, or Western intervention supported by a number of Arab states, the result will be similar to the carnival of coalition strikes on ISIS. More support for ISIS and the Nusra Front will be generated. Failed states and murderous regimes like the Syrian regime will be portrayed as aggressors, prompting their citizens to join ISIS. On the other hand, if there is no intervention the jihadist organizations will have won another round and put an end to any chances of establishing a modern state in the region.


In both cases, the specter of ISIS will continue to hover above Western countries, but it will remain no more than a ghost. Nevertheless, it will inspire fear, and in the West it is through fear alone that ISIS will be able to grow.


Fida Itani tweets @itani_fida

The image broadcast by these organizations expresses ability and power and the simple solutions the groups proffer to complicated problems. (AFP Photo/Rami al-Sayed)

Add to the above the prevalent marginalization of immigrants and minorities in the West: it has driven the youth to look for a role in life that some have found in ISIS."