A 19th century wag in Harper’s Magazine once wrote, “A Special Providence watches over children, drunkards, and the United States.” When it comes to the general quality of most terrorists trying to strike America, he might be right.
It’s certainly a good thing many terrorists planning attacks against the US make mistakes, because American and international authorities still have much work to do. We need to become more nimble to confront the threat from “bleedout”—that is, terrorists returning home from a far-off jihadist battlefield to conduct attacks.
Case in point: a federal indictment this month of Ohio resident and US citizen Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud for supporting terrorist groups in Syria should serve as a warning. This is not because Abdirahman planned to kill American citizens, or evidently trained “in shooting weapons, breaking into houses, explosives, and hand-to-hand combat,” but because his case, ironically, reflects the near impossibility of catching every returning terrorist-wannabe.
At first glance, Abdirahman’s indictment ought to be viewed as a counterterrorism success. After all, authorities prevented his attack and apparently closely monitored him via a human source, as well through technical means. Different parts of government cooperated and the threat was neutralized. That’s a textbook case of an effective CT operation, right?
Well, hold on—Abdirahman’s ineptitude also figured heavily into his arrest. While, oddly, his Syria-based brother warned him not to open a bank account to send money because it would “make [his] hands dirty,” he regularly posted to his Facebook page pro-ISIS propaganda, including as his cover photo.
He also regularly chatted online with his brother and other supposed extremists, even though Edward Snowden helpfully pointed out NSA has the capacity to monitor those communications. His discretion and judgment were wanting, to say the least.
Similarly, the media made much of Abdirahman’s training, presumably assuming his attack would have been much more deadly due to his “expertise.” But Abdirahman sojourned in Syria for only two months, and you can’t become an expert in anything in two months, especially martial arts and clandestine entry into buildings. Besides, from what we’ve seen of ISIS’s comically amateur training program, Abdirahman probably learned just enough to get his ass kicked in a bar brawl.
Nonetheless, Abdirahman’s story underlines a bigger problem—low-level extremists who return undetected from Syria and elsewhere with an interest in attacking their country of origin. It’s not exactly difficult to purchase powerful weapons in the United States, so Abdirahman was a threat with or without his training. Without Abdirahman’s mistakes, he would have been nearly impossible to track. His successors may exercise more caution and fly under the radar (perhaps literally) before successfully conducting a future terror strike.
Once a connection is made to a smuggler (which for many is probably a fairly significant barrier), an enterprising individual faces few risks from law enforcement while traveling to meet terrorist groups in Syria. For example, the intelligence community and the FBI had no idea an American citizen traveled to Syria in 2013 and returned to Florida to recruit his friends to join him. He subsequently returned to Syria and killed himself by driving a explosive-laden truck into a Syrian government building.
In Abdirahman’s case, he purchased a ticket to Athens via Istanbul, and skipped his connecting flight. From Istanbul he traveled via land with the help of a couple of smugglers, who didn’t appear to care whether he ended up with Nusrah Front or ISIS, two groups that dislike each other immensely. The indictment does not make clear how Abdirahman returned to the States, but as an American citizen he presumably would have faced little scrutiny unless his paperwork was not in order.
The only red flag in all his travel was his failure to complete his initial journey to Athens, which ought to have raised questions with Turkish authorities. They could have questioned him upon departure (although it’s unclear that he departed from Istanbul) and shared the information with the US.
This is a much more difficult process than it sounds. The airline would have to (A) inform the Turkish airline regulator that its manifest did not match the reservations; (B) the airline regulator would then have to share that information with Turkish intelligence; then (C) Turkish intelligence would have to share the information with US authorities. Even then, the information would need to reach US Homeland Security officers manning Abdirahman’s airport of reentry, and his story would need to crumble under pressure. Plus—people miss their connecting flights all the time for totally innocuous reasons.
Enhancing these security measures only works if the individual in question is foreign national. From a domestic perspective, asking DHS to track down every person who skipped a connecting flight would be a hopeless task, especially since websites exist that encourage travelers to skip flights to save money. That said, most countries generally want to know what foreign citizens are doing in their country, perhaps providing an impetus for improvement.
Improving this coordination—between industry and government, between agencies, and between nations—is fundamental to the challenge facing authorities, especially as they are battling an increasingly dispersed threat from lone terrorists. The airlines are likely to bristle at additional reporting regulations, but as the industry and federal government look to modernize airports, they ought to consider how they can better account for traveling irregularities involving foreign passengers. In addition, given that most foreign would-be terrorists travel through Turkey on their way to Syria, closer cooperation on air travel between Washington and Ankara will help catch more people like Abdirahman.
But as for right now, we’ll have to keep hoping aspiring terrorists keep posting on social media and making rookie mistakes.
Kevin Strouse ran for Congress in 2014 in Pennsylvania’s 8th District after serving as an analyst for the CIA and as an Army Ranger who deployed Iraq and Afghanistan. Kevin lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his wife Amy and two young children, Walter and Charlotte.
photo: Mohamud’s federal indictment.