Image: Smoke comes out of a destroyed vehicle
Musadeq Sadeq  /  AP
Smoke comes out of a destroyed vehicle at the scene of a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul on Tuesday.
updated 12/15/2009 5:10:12 PM ET 2009-12-15T22:10:12

As five U.S. students are alleged to have discovered, joining Afghanistan's Taliban insurgents isn't easy for outsiders — one reason the flow of foreign fighters to Afghanistan so far is a small stream compared to the tide once seen in Iraq.

Unlike foreign recruits who found porous borders and easy entry into Iraq, potential jihad fighters heading to the Afghan-Pakistan border face forbidding terrain and closely watched travel routes as well as precision drone attacks. And they are often looked on suspiciously by insular Afghan militant groups who tend to depend on their own tribal members to enlarge their fighting ranks.

U.S. officials say the insurgents' foreign fighter force is growing, but by only small numbers. There's another worry, however: efforts to export the terror tactics to the West.

"The greater concern with Pakistan is that foreign fighters are going there to get their training and leaving. They're going to Germany, Spain or the United States, and that's what threatens the United States in the long term," said Rick Nelson, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While details about the movements of the five detained Americans are still sketchy, Pakistani officials say they tried to join militants in the northwest tribal areas, then travel to Afghanistan to join the fight against U.S. troops.

Pakistani police said the students, ages 18-24, used Facebook and YouTube Web sites to try and connect with extremist groups in Pakistan and are said to have established contact with a Taliban recruiter. Detained last week by Pakistani officials, they have not been charged with any crimes.

'Proving ground'
Their dashed journey underscores the insular nature of the Pakistan and Afghan militancy.

"The Pakistan Taliban is made up of local militant groups and tribes, and the Afghan Taliban is precisely that, Afghan," said Juan Zarate, who was a senior counterterrorism adviser in the Bush administration. "To the extent there is a foreign dimension to it, it's somewhat of a proving ground for potential onward activity in the West."

Zarate said the Taliban groups, especially those in the Kashmir region, don't need foreign fighters because they've got plenty of local Pashtun recruits who are committed to their cause.

Breaking into those networks often requires a long vetting process.

"It's like if you wanted to join the Mafia, you don't get a meeting with the boss. You have to have someone vouch for you, you have to work through the ranks," said Nelson. In Pakistan, he said, "they're a little more paranoid. Their trust factor is low."

The thousands of foreign fighters who streamed into Iraq from Iran and Syria were often drawn by the desire to fight the U.S. and its Western allies who were seen as invaders.

Iraq's long, largely flat desert border with Syria was largely unprotected, and the Syrians were willing supporters. On the eastern front, fighters from Iran crossed well-traveled routes over broad plains in the south and small mountains to the north.

U.S. and Iraqi forces struggled to cover the expansive stretches of land, but the terrain can't compare to the jagged cliffs rife with hidden caves and compounds that line Afghanistan's ungoverned, and at times nearly impassable, border with Pakistan.

No need for 'cannon fodder'
Foreign fighters must move carefully through those unforgiving mountains. According to one tribal leader, there is a mix of Arabs, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Pakistani Punjabs who move in groups of 10-15 fighters, driving in pickup trucks guided by a locals through the border crossings.

Their payments come in the form of trucks, guns and money, and once they are in Afghanistan, they are taken to safe houses where they stay only a few nights before moving on to others, said one tribal leader.

A U.S. defense official said there are sometimes American and British men in the mix, and often the fighters are radicalized second-generation dual nationals.

The defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said that international travel for foreign fighters into Afghanistan is watched very carefully, including routes through Germany, the United Kingdom and Turkey. And overland travel through Iran is risky.

"What you have are long-standing ties and connections in the Pakistan-Afghan border region," said Zarate. "It's much more dispersed and the pipelines are different."

The Taliban groups, he added, "use and recruit foreigners, but it's for more specialized work. They don't really need cannon fodder."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Is America growing its own terror threat?

  1. Closed captioning of: Is America growing its own terror threat?

    >>> the u.s. growing more susceptible to the radicalization of muslims living in this country? some are detained in pakistan right now to fight the united states forces over in afghanistan. this incident falls, of course, to the november killing of 13 people in ft. hood by the alleged shooter, nadal hassan who had publicly voiced opposition to fighting muslims in iraq and afghanistan. how can the united states government keep track of radical muslims in this country and prevent american muslims , and develop some are americans , from falling prey to islamic extremism . an nyu professor of leadership and author of the book "the trouble with islam today ." and foreign chief of operations over in europe . professor, i want to ask you about this. what is your initial impulsive reaction when you hear about five young people in their early 20s, or younger in fact, three of them with pakistani background in their family, two of them from the horn of africa , and from ethiopia, what does it say to you when these five guys are over there trying to join up our enemies?

    >> chris , i have to same i'm not surprised. but not because i feel my fellow muslims are susceptible to jihadism. i know from having done the research that this is happening not just in western europe , it's been going on there for years, but also in places like canada. kind, gentle canada, where only three years ago 18 young muslim men were busted for scheming to behead the prime minister and blow up the parliament buildings . it stands to reason that from time to time we are going to see examples like this happening in the united states . my concern, chris , is that the fbi, thank god, is foiling more and more of these plots in the u.s. how many more are out there, and of course, why aren't moderate muslims doing more to challenge the religious interpretations that lead to jihad violence.

    >> are these coming from the mosques?

    >> not necessarily. study upon study has shown that the vast majority of muslims in america don't even bother attending mosque. and if they do, it's purely on ceremonial grounds. no, i really think there's something deeper going on here. i think that the sort of challenges that need to be happening to the kinds of religious interpretations that are all over the internet, are not happening in the places that really matter. the homes, for example, of many moderate muslims .

    >> well, let me go to tom. the history in this country we have of other people going over to fight battles. here you have people going over to join organizations that are fighting us. killing americans . that scares you.

    >> it is scary. we've dodged this for a long time, because of the way the muslim community here has integrated in american society . but because these wars have gone on so long, the struggle's gone on so long, and so much press about it, and there's a lot of tension, i think you're starting to see the same situation developed that happened in europe , when you get disaffected young people , angry about going to iraq, pakistan , israel, whatever, they get together and start talking about it. all it takes is one of them that is a little more christian, i'm trying to figure out through common sense . if i'm 22 years old, some of these guys are in their early 20s, for the last eight years i've watched television, kept up with events, read the papers and talked to my friends. and all i hear is americans , rightly or wrongly, killing islamic people, every night on television. that's what we do. i know it started with 9/11, and you can argue they started it, you can argue also their argument from the bin laden crowd is we started it by putting 10,000 troops in the holy land of saudi arabia . i can hear all the arguments, race wars and religious wars don't need a ging and they rarely have an end. you can always claim the other side, we can do it, you can do it.

    >> you said something very important at the beginning of the statement is, all we ever hear is, and fill in the blank. that's the problem. what we rarely hear, chris , is that the vast majority of muslims are killed by other muslims . not by any foreign power. for example, just this last week, muslims came out with a report on behalf of west point military academy deriving their data from arabic language sources, chris , in order to preempt charges of bias. that showed in the last few years alone, 85% of al qaeda 's victims have been muslims . and in the last two years, 98%.

    >> how does that get you any further? irish used to kill irish people . it didn't stop the wars over there for the longest time.

    >> we know, news reports have pointed out routinely that one of the suspects of the pakistani -- excuse me, of the muslim americans detained in pakistan left behind a video showing muslim carnage and saying we need to defend our fellow muslims . where these young men heading over to pakistan to join an al qaeda -driven jihad, they are not going to be defending muslims at all. they're likely going to be killing them. that's the message that needs to get out. broader, further, faster.

    >> are they just accusing those people of being uncle toms, going along with the west more or less?

    >> let them.

    >> i think that's something that has to happen. there has to be a commitment from the leadership, the families of the leadership of the muslim community . on the other hand, there also has to be recognition, i think the fbi does do a good job on this. they have to be careful not to make the problem worse. we also shouldn't overreact to this and think that hundreds of these cells all over the united states . there probably aren't. and this was good because their families actually turned them in. but i think --

    >> we talked about it before, we all live in a world, because of tradesmen in this country, and success with which the emigre communities come over here. i rely on my pharmacist for advice. he's islamic. iranian. we go to a frame shop on a regular basis. you know, these people work with us on a regular basis. all islamic background. we live in a world very mixed that way now. the idea that they are our enemy is absurd. what do you do?

    >> this is the thing you have to be careful. this is what separates us --

    >> horrible thing to profile.

    >> if you go into a muslim neighborhood in brussels or frankfurt, i lived most of my life in europe , it's like going to cairo, or like going to --

    >> totally isolated.

    >> you stand out, you feel like you're in a foreign country . in this country, we don't have that. we have to be careful not to get to that point.

    >> at least sharing a common language . we can have our own second language or third language but have at least one language in common.

    >> by the way, gentlemen, a couple of years ago, the pew research center came out with the first national study, appropriately entitled muslim americans , showing that the vast majority of muslim americans love living in this country. have higher standards of living than even average americans . and believe that the american dream is alive and well . it's not, however, enough merely to rely on those people to, you know, come forward when they need to come forward. we need to have in this country, i believe, courtesy of the u.s. government , some very clear guidelines of what is expected of muslim parents, particularly imgrant parents. you mentioned, tyler , that the parents of one of the suspects turned their son in. that's good. it sets a precedent. but the expectation needs to be made even more clear that this is part of a social contract of living in an open and democratic society like this.

    >> is this a by-product of continuing and deepening the war in afghanistan that we're going to see more and more of this sort of forcing young people to choose sides in this country? your thoughts on that? final thought, is this continuation, just as tyler said, the mere longevity of these wars going on and on and on, perhaps generation alli now for 20 years, doesn't just the sheer time factor drive some young people in this country to choose the other side?

    >> possibly. let's remember, chris , that the ringleader of the july 7th bombings in london, england, when he left behind his martyr video , yes, he invoked uk foreign policy . but he stated islam is our religion and the prophet is our role model. clearly he was deriving some of his inspiration from religious symbolism . it's much more complex than foreign policy .

    >> thank you so much, professor. and tyler , have a nice holiday season .

    >>> remember when haley barber wouldn't


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