Why American Jihadists Returning To The US Aren’t Arrested Immediately

A man waves an Islamist flag in celebration after ISIS militants took over Tabqa air base, the Syrian army’s last foothold in an area otherwise controlled by Islamist militants, on August 24, 2014. Reuters

On September 22nd, Obama administration officials confirmed that the FBI is monitoring Americans who have returned to the US after fighting alongside the militant Islamist group ISIS.

An official speaking to reporters at the White House said the National Counterterrorism Center estimates that more than 100 Americans were fighting for ISIS and other terrorist groups such as al-Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.

When pressed for details on the returned fighters, the official deferred to the FBI, but another said that no-fly lists, tougher screening at airports, and passport seizures were all under consideration.

The US doesn’t have the same foreign fighter problem as several European countries — 500 people from the UK have traveled to join the war in Syria and Iraq, along with nearly 1,000 from France. Earlier this month, UK Prime Minister David Cameron called for “targeted, discretionary power to allow us to exclude British nationals from the UK.” Dozens of people from the UK have already been arrested for their actions in the region.

A similar discussion is underway among Franch lawmakers. Earlier this week, three French citizens who had traveled to the Turkish border with Syria were transferred to Paris by Turkish authorities, a French newspaper reported.

European countries are obviously concerned that their citizens could return from Iraq and Syria to commit terrorist acts back home. US decision-makers are aware of the problem, even if it isn’t clear how it’s being dealt with at the moment.

Moner Mohammad Birth Registration Card
The Florida birth registration card of Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, who died in a suicide bombing in Syria in May 2014. A US security official said US agencies were aware before the suicide bombing that the American had traveled to Syria to join militants. Reuters

Last week, New York Democratic congressman Tim Bishop said in a speech outside of Congress thatup to 40 fightershad returned to the US from the ISIS ranks, but that the organisation didn’t yet pose a threat to national security. US officials quicklydismissedthe figure.

With this more recent and higher-level announcement that ISIS fighters are back on US soil, some are asking why they haven’t been arrested yet. It’s possible that they might actually be more valuable as surveillance or human intelligence targets — something that the ex-fighters’ arrest would preclude.

“The FBI and the NYPD have dozens and dozens of people under surveillance all the time that they could probably indict under material support of terrorism charges. People can be charged for up to 20 years for writing a check to a known terrorist organisation,” Stuart Gottlieb, who teaches courses on counterterrorism and international security at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, told Business Insider.

If that person actually picked up a weapon for ISIS, the charge could escalate to an act of terrorism or even a war crime, Gottlieb adds.

Gottlieb wouldn’t speculate as to the administration’s motivations in revealing the presence of former ISIS fighters in the US. But as a blogger at Hot Air notes, this week’s announcement doesn’t make much sense if it came in the course of an ongoing surveillance effort: “The revelation that the FBI is conducting an ongoing investigation into suspected American jihadist fighters who have returned to the United States would seem to compromise that investigation.”

Terrorist attacks have plotted on US soil before. Two Saudi citizens had been living in San Diego, California, for a year before 9/11, helping plot the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It’s now understood the CIA had failed to inform the FBI of evidence against two future hijackers and one of them, Khalid al-Mihdhar, had gotten a new multiple entry visa from the State Department just four months before the attack.