Earlier this month, a 20-year-old man from Orange County was stopped by FBI agents at John Wayne Airport as he tried to board a flight to Turkey, en route to Syria, to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Under questioning, Adam Dandach, also known as Fadi Fadi Dandach, said he considered the killing of U.S. soldiers justified and would have done anything ISIS asked of him. Dandach had applied for an expedited passport replacement after his mother had hidden his original to prevent her son from heading overseas and joining ISIS back in December 2013.
He’s not the only American who has tried to join up – others have succeeded. In May, a Florida man drove a truck laden with explosives into a government position in northern Syria, the first American suicide bomber in the three-year-old civil war.
These two men are illustrative of perhaps the greatest terrorist threat since 9/11 – Americans and Europeans going to Syria and Iraq, becoming trained in warfare and bomb-making, and returning home to attack us. Western media have reported that there are about 23,000 fighters in Syria and that nearly a third of these are foreign fighters. A May report in the New York Times asserted that about 100 Americans have joined the fight in Syria while many more have come from Europe, with its large and often disaffected Muslim populations.
Ever since the earliest days of al-Qaida, extremists have sought to recruit European and American Muslims to their cause – and for obvious reasons: American citizens can come and go from this country as they please, and citizens of the United States and many European nations may travel back and forth without needing a visa. In addition, most of Western and Central Europe has no internal border controls, further facilitating movements, licit and otherwise.
The images from Syria and Iraq are horrific – Islamic fighters executing captured policemen, beheading local officials and even shooting imams – and they have served to announce the stunning arrival of the newest and possibly most lethal incarnation of al-Qaida that we have yet encountered. There are two factors that make ISIS more of a challenge than traditional al-Qaida (from which it has been excommunicated). The first is the group’s drive to capture, hold and govern territory in an arc that stretches from Syria through Iraq. While its more nihilistic forebear talked of re-establishing the caliphate, but did little to actually bring it about, ISIS has already established governance over significant portions of Syria and Iraq. The second is ISIS’s ambition to recruit western jihadis who can easily return home to attack western targets.
As with so much else in the post-9/11 era, the United States and its democratic allies must balance security and freedom as we seek to prevent our citizens from becoming radicalized and turning on us. Attorney General Eric Holder recently set out a four-step action plan that the U.S. and its allies could use to stem the influx of western jihadis to Syria – and their eventual return to Europe or North America.
First, other countries should join the U.S., France and Norway to criminalize “preparatory acts to terrorism,” such as joining or providing “material support” to terrorist groups, which the United States has used on several occasions to prosecute terrorists and their supporters in this country.
Second, the attorney general urged the greater use of undercover operations to identify people who may be planning to join the fight in Syria, pointing out that the FBI already has conducted several successful operations of this type.
Third, the U.S. and its allies must strengthen the sharing of traveler information as a potential way to prevent would-be foreign fighters from going to Syria in the first place and to better track those who come back. Holder also urged the allies to provide greater mutual legal assistance and to facilitate the extradition of foreign fighters to combat extremism.
Fourth, governments need to sponsor “counter-radicalization programs” to help “serve our broader aim of fostering tolerance, inclusion and understanding.”
These are common sense solutions that will improve our security and stem the flow of Westerners joining the fight. Attorney General Holder got it right when he suggested that if we wait for U.S. citizens to travel to the Middle East, become radicalized and then return home – it will be too late.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, represents California’s 28th Congressional District and is a senior Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.