They're Coming

Measuring the Threat from Returning Jihadists

An Islamist fighter takes part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014. Courtesy Reuters

In an interview with the Washington Post in May, FBI Director James B. Comey, who also served as President George W. Bush’s deputy attorney general, compared the wave of militants pouring into Syria and Iraq to the rush to join Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan as the Taliban swept that country. “We see Syria as that, but an order of magnitude worse in a couple of respects,” he said. “Far more people going there. Far easier to travel to and back from.”

But not everybody agrees that the United States should be alarmed. Writing in the New Yorker last month, the journalist Steve Coll pointed to “some terrorism specialists,” who argue that Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is fighting a sectarian war and is more concerned with killing other Muslims than Westerners; that it “has shown no intent to launch attacks in the West, or any ability to do so.” In a widely cited article in the American Political Science Review, Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Establishment, argued that there is an essential philosophical difference between those who carry out attacks at home and those who go abroad to fight on behalf of al Qaeda and its affiliates. Many of the Westerners who have gone to Syria and Iraq, he wrote, are unlikely to want to attack targets at home.

Yet fighters returning from Syria have already attempted to carry out violent attacks in the West, and, in one instance, they succeeded. In October 2013, the London Metropolitan Police stopped a car traveling near the Tower of London carrying two men who were reportedly on their way to execute an attack. The two men, both London residents but not British citizens, had recently returned from Syria. In March this year, the French police unraveled a terrorist cell in Nice that was allegedly planning to use improvised explosive devices on the French Riviera. The perpetrators had also recently returned from Syria and were linked to a cell that was held responsible for an

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