Earlier this week, Leslie Gelb wrote: “senior administration officials tell me that Obama has been modifying his objective and is now prepared to work with Assad, to some degree, along with the moderate rebels, against what the White House finally has come to see as the real and major threat — the jihadists.”
The same day, the New York Times reported on the death of Abu Huraira al-Amriki who had carried out a suicide truck bombing in the northern province of Idlib — what is believed to be the first case of an American being involved in such an attack.
The media, echoing the Obama administration, is ratcheting up fears of Western jihadists returning from Syria to terrorize the U.S. or other countries where they once lived.
I could understand if the prospect of young people going off to die in a foreign land might raise fears that some of their peers might see them as martyrs and be inspired to seek the same fate. The one thing about which there can be no doubt, however, is that any Americans who die in Syria will thereafter pose no threat to anyone.
If there is a danger of some kind of violent blowback from Syria, it seems more likely that it might result from witnessing Western political leaders who not long ago pronounced in unison that Assad “must go” and yet who now, even after denouncing the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, appear increasingly willing to see Assad remain in power. That’s the kind of duplicity which will certainly fuel anti-Western sentiment among radicals who believe it is their duty to fight in defense of Islam.
And yet, having said that, the assumption that the experience of war will inevitably prime those young jihadists who survive to later bring the violence home, seems questionable.
The New York Times reports:
On Sept. 11, 2001, Abu Sumayyah [a British jihadi now fighting in Syria] and Abu Muhajir [who is believed to be either American or Canadian] were teenagers interested in video games, sports and the start of college. But both men said they were deeply affected by the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. They came to question the Western world they lived in, and their role in it.
“I saw our brothers in Afghanistan, and I realized that there is something very wrong that is happening in society,” Abu Sumayyah said. “I saw this taking place in front of my eyes, so I had to do something about it, otherwise I would feel sinful.”
Both men said they were in rebel-controlled northern Syria.
Abu Muhajir trained as a sniper and guards the city of Shaykh Najjar, north of Aleppo. He usually holds the front line for three days, followed by three days of rest. He was fearless in the beginning, he said, but soon got a taste of war. “To be honest I didn’t used to get scared, only after I got an injury,” he wrote. “Shrapnel in the arm.”
He is an avid user of social media, to pass the time. People ask him for advice on going to Syria: how to get there, the cost of a gun, where to buy camouflage gear. He said he responded cautiously.
He has also received marriage proposals, which he declines. One woman asked whether electricity was working in Syria so she could bring a hair curler. “Advice to people who want to come is, Don’t bring your hair curlers,” he said.
Abu Sumayyah is a gunman who works shifts every two weeks, based in Raqqa, a stronghold of ISIS. On his days off, he studies military tactics and trains with other weapons.
Syria changed him, he said. “In Britain and in Europe we are living in a bubble, living in dreamland, that everything is O.K.”
Whatever threat Syria-hardened jihadists might pose to the West in the future, we can be fairly sure that neither there nor here will they be flying around in helicopters dropping barrel bombs. That system for delivering death is monopolized by the Assad regime and since the victims are all Syrian, no one in Washington regards this as a real or major threat.