The military success of al Qaeda-inspired terrorists in Iraq is a propaganda coup for the recruitment of Western jihadists who could pose a domestic terror threat to countries including the United States, intelligence experts say.
The rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is creating an online buzz that is “very attractive” to potential foreign fighters – and a national security headache for counter-terrorism officials around the world.
An estimated 12,000 foreign fighters are already believed to be helping ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Around 3,000 of those are believed to be from Western nations - including about 100 from America. The recent release of an ISIS propaganda video featuring English-speaking jihadists from Britain and Australia is aimed at boosting those numbers.
The already-slick ISIS online propaganda campaign targeting would-be Western fighters has exploded, experts say.
"Since the incursion of ISIS in Iraq, I don’t think I’ve ever seen jubilation this high," said Joseph Carter, research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at London’s Kings College. "The ISIS hashtag, which averaged about 1,000 hits before the Iraqi invasion, is now averaging 30,000 to 40,000 hits on some days. We are seeing Facebook pages of Western foreign fighters standing on top of Humvees on what used to be U.S. military equipment.”
Shiraz Maher, senior research fellow at ICSR, added: “These are very young men and it seems pretty cool when you see your buddies standing on tanks with Kalashnikovs - you want to be part of that. For that kid who thinks, 'This is cool, I want to be part of the winning team,' who’s attracted to that sort of thing and who is likely to go for the adventure, it’s a very attractive proposition right now.”
Richard Barrett, former head of counter-terrorism at Britain’s MI6 spy agency, said: “It’s potentially quite alluring because it’s an opportunity which won’t appear again and, if you are that age when you are attracted to go and do that adventurous unknown, and engage in a foreign war … it doesn’t get any better than this. I think more people will go and fight for whatever reason.”
He mentioned the case of a young Florida man, named by the State Department as Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who was suspected of involvement in a suicide bombing in Syria last month.
Barrett, who is now senior vice president of the New York-based Soufan Group, added: “The fact is that Americans have gone [to Syria] and also quite recently we saw a young man from Florida. He seemed a perfectly normal guy, seemed well-socialized … seems very cheerful, enjoying himself … and blows himself up. So it’s really hard for the rest of us to understand what is driving that person to take that kind of action.
“So we can assume that, although it may be distant … there are going to be enough people who are seriously motivated by the thought of participation to see the number of Americans increase.”
Radicalized Westerners returning to their old lives are considered the biggest terror risk in many European countries. British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this month described it as “the most serious threat to Britain's security that there is today."
A French national who fought in Syria is the suspect the killing of four tourists at the Jewish museum in Brussels on May 24 - the first deadly terror attack in Europe directly linked to the Syrian battlefield. In Spain, suspected militants were arrested on June 16 on suspicion of recruiting fighters for ISIS.
The increased online buzz is placing a huge strain on intelligence services in the West as they try to monitor and contain the threat from radicalized Muslims.
Britain’s former top counter-terrorism detective told NBC News that police in the U.K. are now being contacted “every day” by people concerned that family members or neighbors could be preparing to fight for ISIS.
“I think that number is going up and up and up as people are watching what's happening and the horrors of Syria and Iraq,” said Cressida Dick, who until last week was head of specialist operations for London’s Metropolitan Police. “Some people returning from Syria and Iraq will undoubtedly simply just return and carry on normal lives. A proportion, if they are not killed or arrested on the way back, may pose a threat here.”
About 300 fighters have already returned to Britain from Syria. “While not every one of them poses a threat, clearly there is potential for a large number of them to be of concern,” a senior British intelligence source said. “It’s simply not possible to monitor so many people for 24 hours a day for an unlimited amount of time. There just aren't the resources."
In the past 18 months, British authorities have arrested 65 people returning from Syria and government ministers say they are approving spy warrants every week to allow security services to monitor potential British-based terrorists. U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May warned on Monday that terrorists in Iraq were “just a few hours flying time” from Britain “and want to attack us.”
However, Dick said heightened concern about the risk of radicalized Muslims had also led to more proactive calls to police. “More and more people are saying: ‘I absolutely don’t want my brother, son, father, mother - whoever it is - to go out there and I will do everything to stop them, and that includes telling the police’.”
Michael Leiter, NBC News' counter-terrorism and national security analyst, said he was "flabbergasted" by the extent of the problem posed by jihadists travelling abroad to fight and then returning to the West.
"For the United States and Western Europe, this is a very significant threat –- probably as significant and complex a threat as we have faced since 9/11," Leiter said. "The numbers involved are vastly higher than in previous conflicts such as Afghanistan and Somalia or Yemen. ISIS advances in Iraq brings the problem of more Western recruits and access to resources in captured areas such as money and military-grade equipment."
He added: "They are very hard to track because the route in and out of Iraq and Syria is through mainstream Europe. All they have to do is travel through, for example, Turkey and we don’t know if they’ve joined in a war or gone on a summer break."