The arrests of two 23-year-old U.S. citizens in Texas in separate incidents on Tuesday for allegedly planning to join terrorist groups overseas underscores the ongoing concerns over Americans joining terrorist groups abroad and the continued allure of Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Dozens of Americans and permanent residents have been charged in recent years in connection with attempts to jointerrorist groups abroad, including Al Shabaab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, as well as terrorists groups in Syria.
Michael Todd Wolfe of Austin, Texas, is alleged to have attempted to travel to join a terrorist group fighting in Syria. The criminal complaint filed against him indicates that he was initially interested in joining Jabhat al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate, but later decided instead to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which broke with Al Qaeda earlier this year.
Wolfe, a convert to Islam who grew up in Texas, was arrested at George H.W. Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport just before he attempted to board a flight to Europe, en route to Syria.
Authorities say the second individual, Rahatul Ashikim Khan of Round Rock, Texas, conspired with others to recruit people who would “travel overseas to support terrorist activities including committing violent jihad,” in particular with Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia and Kenya. Khan is a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Bangladesh, and is a college student at the University of Texas, Austin.
Demonstrating the central role the Internet plays in online radicalization and recruitment, both Wolfe and Khan had used the Internet to abet their activities. Wolfe allegedly watched videos online of terrorism in Syria. Khan called himself a "jihadi" and used an online chat room to identify potential terrorists between March 2011 and January 2012, according to court documents.
Khan allegedly spent time on a chat room dedicated to Abdullah al-Faisal, a Jamaica-born Muslim preacher who served four years in a British prison for urging his followers to kill non-Muslims, including Americans, Hindus and Jews. Al-Faisel was also the “imam and spiritual advisor” of Revolution Muslim (RM), a New York-based fringe anti-Semitic Muslim organization that justified terrorist attacks and other forms of violence for many years.
Americans traveling abroad to join terrorist groups have been a consistent threat since 2001, with three distinct waves of travel apparent. Between 2001 and 2005, Americans travelled mostly to join Al Qaeda Central and the Taliban. Between 2007 and 2011, travel and support were especially directed at Al Shabaab. Travel to Syria – the greatest threat since 2011 – has been the third wave; since the start of the Syrian civil war, as many as 100 U.S. citizens are believed to have travelled to Syria to join the fighting.