Syria a magnet for young Islamists, including Americans

Amiir Farouk Ibrahim, who was born in the US and has a US passport, goes missing while fighting with an al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria

Syrian rebels stand before what they claim is a downed regime helicopter. (photo credit: image capture YouTube/Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)
Syrian rebels stand before what they claim is a downed regime helicopter. (photo credit: image capture YouTube/Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Born in Pittsburgh 32 years ago, Amiir Farouk Ibrahim took a path to holy war in Syria increasingly traveled by tens of thousands of young Muslim men, counterterrorism experts tell the Tribune-Review.

American and Egyptian passports for Ibrahim, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and Cairo before returning for college in the United States, were discovered last week in a compound once held by Sunni Muslim militants from Al Sham and the Islamic State of Iraq. The group, formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, is a franchise of the terrorist organization once fronted by Osama bin Laden.

“In the Middle East right now, Syria is everything,” said Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, where he studies foreign fighters worldwide. Watts served as an Army infantry officer in Iraq.

“I call it the ‘Second Foreign Fighter Glut.’ The first was in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Today, the foreign fighters who were kicked out of Iraq and Afghanistan have reorganized, and they’re drawn to Syria. It’s the big stage.”

The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have died in Syria’s ongoing civil war between the Bashar al-Assad regime and a diverse coalition of rebels. Many of them are Sunni Muslims drawn to wage jihad against a government seen as an apostate dictatorship.

“The war in Syria is being portrayed as that of non-Muslims in the Assad regime who have invaded Muslim territory, and that’s a compelling narrative drawing a lot of young men to Syria,” said Brian Fishman, a researcher at the Army’s Combating Terrorism Center, West Point, and the New America Foundation in Washington.

Born in the United States

Ibrahim’s Egyptian father spent 14 years in Western Pennsylvania, including engineering studies at the University of Pittsburgh. The family returned to the Middle East in 1982, about two years after Ibrahim’s birth.

A 1980 telephone directory indicates the family lived in an apartment complex along Royal Drive in South Park. The father, Farouk Ibrahim, told the Trib that he worked for Pullman Swindell, a Downtown industrial design firm.

Amiir Ibrahim returned to the United States in 2003, when he enrolled at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, according to school transcripts. All three of the Ibrahim sons would attend US colleges, their father said.

On October 11, 2003, Columbus police officers arrested and charged Amiir with disorderly conduct when finding him at the Long Street Live nightclub shouting obscenities at the staff and others, according to the criminal complaint.

Ibrahim spent the night in jail and was later convicted of disorderly conduct in Franklin County Municipal Court. He paid a $50 fine and was credited with time served.

He transferred to Tallahassee Community College in Florida, then he enrolled at Florida International University in Miami. In 2008, he received a bachelor’s degree in business administration, according to school records.

Concerned that he was trying too hard to convert Americans to Islam, his family soon wooed Amiir back to Cairo. At the end of February or early March, they say, he left for Turkey, saying he was going to work in a software business. His father did not believe him.

Once in Syria, Ibrahim told his family that he was providing humanitarian aid.

His departure coincided with calls by Egyptian Islamists to wage holy war in Syria.

Ibrahim is missing and presumed dead because of the discovery of his abandoned passports by Kurdish fighters who overran an Islamic State of Iraq guerrilla compound in Ras al-Ein, a northern Syrian city across the border from Turkey.

“It’s amazing how they could be brainwashed,” said Farouk Ibrahim. “This is exactly what I saw from the beginning. It is the story I said would happen. Al-Qaeda, oh God. It’s a shame.”

A ‘golden passport’

It’s not so much his radicalization that makes the younger Ibrahim unique, but that he never used his US-issued “golden passport” to fly here and cause trouble, said Michael Noonan, an expert on foreign fighters at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

That was not the case with Jose Padilla, Najibullah Zazi or David Headley, all American citizens tied to al-Qaeda. All three were arrested before they could act.

Ibrahim did not go to Pakistan to link up with al-Qaeda cells there or terror affiliates in Yemen or Somalia. Instead, he went to Syria.

Noonan cited the May death of Nicole Lynn Mansfield, 33, a Muslim convert from Flint, Michigan, slain by Syrian government forces while fighting alongside rebels, and the June indictment of Eric Harroun, an Army veteran from Phoenix who took up arms with Jabhat al-Nusra, an extreme Sunni militia.

They followed a similar exodus of Americans of Somali descent to Africa in 2007 to fight alongside Al-Shabaab, an organization tied to al-Qaeda. Dozens of Somali-Americans fought there, including three suicide bombers.

That, Watts said, begs the question: Is today’s generation of radicalized American Muslims drawn to homemade domestic terror attacks like that of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers — Chechnyan brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev — or to Syria, the bloodiest conflict arising out of the “Arab Spring” uprisings?

Watts said that al-Qaeda’s terror masterminds in Pakistan have little control over events in Syria and grow increasingly marginalized by groups like the Islamic State of Iraq that are competing for funds and foreign fighters with other al-Qaeda offshoots.

What’s “blurring a lot of lines” that once existed between Sunni terror groups in Syria and US policies, Watts explained, is the American goal of ousting their shared nemesis, the Iran-backed Assad regime in Damascus.

Ibrahim’s Facebook page decried a Dutch filmmaker who he believed insulted Islam, French forces fighting Islamist militants in North Africa and Israeli policies in Palestine, but he didn’t appear to post anything directly negative about the United States.

Nevertheless, New America Foundation’s Fishman said it’s vital for the United States and its allies to stop citizens like Ibrahim from journeying to Syria and Somalia to get training and combat experience. It’s difficult to predict who may become hard-core revolutionaries set on destabilizing their nations.

“The danger with this scenario is that embedded in the Islamic State of Iraq are fringe elements who would want to exploit that ‘golden passport,’ ” Fishman said.

Citing privacy laws, officials at the State Department that issued Ibrahim’s passport on March 6, 2012, and the Department of Homeland Security — charged with barring potential terrorists from US shores — declined to comment.

Officials at the Terrorist Screening Center told the Trib that they are forbidden by law from saying whether Ibrahim was on the government’s terror watch list. Of about 500,000 people in the database with known or suspected ties to terrorism, only about 5 percent are Americans, the center said.

However, Terrorist Screening officials say any American who travels to Syria to aid, train or fight with known terrorist groups could be placed in the database and its related no-fly list barring them from returning home.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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