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Originally published Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 9:01 PM

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U.S. concerned about jihadist videos recruiting Americans


The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — Like a trailer for a summer blockbuster, the video begins with loud music and the words “Coming Soon.”

But instead of superheroes or comedians on screen, there are images of a burning American flag and a jetliner hitting the World Trade Center, and the words: “Join the Caravan of Jihad and Martyrdom.”

As the music fades away, the blurred face of a man appears. He makes a direct appeal to Americans to join the fight.

The video ends with footage of a U.S. passport being burned. Men are heard laughing and shouting an Arabic phrase about God’s greatness.

Intelligence analysts believe the man with the blurred face is a 22-year-old from Florida who blew himself up last month in a suicide attack on Syrian government forces that killed 37, according to senior U.S. government officials.

The man, who took his own life in a truck bombing mission, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, is one of roughly 100 Americans who have attempted to travel to Syria to fight alongside Islamic extremists, or who have actually done so. U.S. officials express deep concerns that the video may inspire others to follow his path.

U.S. authorities had tracked his indirect travels to Syria, but they knew very little about him at the time. It is not illegal to travel there, and many others have done so for humanitarian reasons. It was only after he arrived in Syria that authorities here learned through intelligence sources that he was planning a suicide attack, senior U.S. officials said.

Once Abusalha’s intentions were clear, there was little the United States could do to stop him because there are no American or allied forces in Syria, and certainly none who could have taken action inside the militant organization that Abusalha had joined, according to government officials.

Had the authorities known before he arrived in Syria that he intended to fight alongside extremists, they would have most likely had enough to criminally charge him with providing material support to terrorists as they have done several other Americans.

The officials declined to say how the United States obtained intelligence that he was fighting alongside militants and was planning to blow himself up in a suicide truck-bomb attack. But, in the past year the authorities have obtained similar information in Syria from contacts on the ground, electronic intercepts like cellphones and foreign intelligence agencies.

As the unrest in Syria has spread into Iraq recently, and the group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has gained ground, the FBI has received reports from authorities in Minnesota that several young Somali men there have traveled to Syria to fight, officials said.

Starting in 2007, there were a number of Somali men from Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States who traveled to Somalia to fight alongside Islamist extremists there. At least three went through with suicide attacks there.

“There’s an active investigation ongoing to discern how many have traveled there,” said Kyle Loven, a spokesman for the FBI’s Minneapolis field office.

That development has led FBI agents in Minnesota to “refocus” a program it had created several years ago to work with the local Somali residents and organizations to identify people who have expressed interest in traveling abroad to fight, according to officials.

There have been countless videos, Twitter posts and other pieces of propaganda released by extremists since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A number of them have highlighted U.S. citizens. But this video is believed to be the first that features an American in the expanding attempts to recruit other Americans to go fight in Syria.

It comes amid growing fears among American and European officials about young men flocking to fight in Syria — and now Iraq — and who may return home as battle-hardened fighters to commit violence at home.

“We’ve had Saudis, Algerians, Russians but never an American featured in a propaganda video and Americans are the best poster boys for propaganda,” said Laith Alkhouri, a senior analyst at Flashpoint Global Partners, a security-consulting firm that tracks militant websites. “It is the United States who is leading the war on terror. And what they’re saying is, ‘We have Americans, we are here to welcome Americans. Don’t hesitate to travel to come join the fight.’ ”

In the video clip of the man with the blurred face, he points at the camera and pats his chest as he described why Americans should travel to Syria to fight. He used the Arabic word “haq,” which means divine obligation.

“Jihad is protecting Islam, it is now haq on you to protect your brothers and oppressed, and its haq on you to fight,” he said.

The video that appeared to feature the suicide bomber was released last month by the Global Islamic Media Front. That group has put out similar ones from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.



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