A North Carolina man was arrested November 2 on charges of attempting to travel to Syria to join the Al-Qaeda group Jabhat al-Nusra. His arrest underscores a continued trend of American citizens and permanent residents attempting to join terrorist groups in the Syrian conflict; it marks the fourth such arrest and sixth publicly disclosed case of Americans fighting or attempting to fight in Syria this year. It also demonstrates the increasing power of Facebook and other social media platforms in terrorist recruitment and propaganda.
Basit Javed Sheikh is a 29 year-old permanent resident originally from Pakistan, residing in Cary, North Carolina. His arrest marked his third failed attempt to travel to Syria – attempts that were made and advertised over social media.
Sheikh allegedly was even more active on his older Facebook profiles. According to an affidavit in support of his arrest warrant, he regularly used the site to post jihadist videos and propaganda and to interact with other extremists. In addition to being a member of a now-defunct Jabhat al-Nusrah Facebook group, Sheikh allegedly posted multiple times about the war in Syria and about the need to join the fighting there, and quoted a number of sources praising martyrdom. He also allegedly posted videos and comments calling for the death and punishment of American leaders and soldiers, including one video that said, “Let the mujahideen kill them and destroy them…Allah give victory to Sheikh Usama [bin Laden].”
Sheikh also appears to have been included in conversations of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. In one thread of an online forum, he was included in a note blaming Jews for “intentionally spread[ing]” moderate – or, as the thread called it, “wrong” – interpretations of Islam that, among other things, “states that jihad is HARAM [forbidden].”
Sheikh had initially travelled to Syria in the fall of 2012, when he reportedly joined the Free Syrian army but left because he disagreed with the group’s motivations. He then booked a flight in September 2013, but did not follow through because he “could not muster the strength to leave his parents.” His continued Facebook posts, however, suggested that he was determined to try again.
Ultimately, it was Sheikh’s alleged online activity that led to his arrest on his third attempt. After joining a Facebook page created by the FBI that purported to promote extremist Islam, Sheikh allegedly began to regularly converse with an FBI agent over Facebook, Skype, and email. According to the affidavit, he made a new set of travel plans to Syria in consultation with the agent, insisting that he was eager to fight in jihad even when told he could back out, and was arrested at the airport.
Since 2007, over 50 American citizens and permanent residents have been arrested or charged in connection with attempts to join terrorist groups abroad, including Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.