Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

An American's gateway to jihad

By Peter Bergen and David Sterman
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
An explosion rocks Kobani, Syria, during a reported car-bomb attack by ISIS militants on Monday, October 20. Civil war has destabilized Syria and created an opening for the militant group, which is also advancing in Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region. An explosion rocks Kobani, Syria, during a reported car-bomb attack by ISIS militants on Monday, October 20. Civil war has destabilized Syria and created an opening for the militant group, which is also advancing in Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region.
HIDE CAPTION
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
Iraq under siege
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen: New video of American suicide bomber shows Turkey networks key in jihad
  • He says Moner Abu-Salha describes how Turkey was gateway in al Qaeda connection
  • He says "homegrown" terrorists a key concern in U.S., but so far none have attacked on U.S. soil
  • Bergen: Turkey must step up efforts to stem flow of fighters through country to Syria, Iraq

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." David Sterman is a research associate at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- On Wednesday, a propaganda video appeared on the Internet featuring Moner Abu-Salha, the U.S. citizen from Florida who died conducting a suicide bomb attack in Syria for al Qaeda in May.

The video -- the third in a series of al Qaeda videos about Abu-Salha--underlines the importance of militant networks in Turkey that have enabled many hundreds of fighters from the U.S. and other Western nations to travel to fight with jihadist groups in the civil wars that are tearing apart Syria and Iraq.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen
David Sterman
David Sterman

Abu-Salha says he travelled from the States to Turkey where he eventually connected with representatives of the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, explaining, "From tons of research I knew that mujahideen [holy warriors] come from all around the world, they come to Istanbul. I heard that the Turkey-Syrian border is close."

Abu-Salha says that he was inspired to go to fight in the Syrian "holy war" by a lecture by the notorious Yemeni-American militant cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki who said this about traveling to jihad: "It's like a cliff, you jump off the cliff but you don't know if the water is deep or shallow. ... You just have to jump and put you're (faith) in Allah that the water is going to be deep and you won't be harmed."

As Abu-Salha tells it, he arrived in Turkey with barely enough money for a Turkish visa and no contacts, but he eventually encountered a member of al Qaeda in Turkey who was bearded, dressed all in black and was missing an arm.

The al-Qaeda fighter didn't speak English but Abu-Salha said, "I'm mujahidin, I'm mujahidin," which the man understood and he took him on a bus to meet another al Qaeda member who did speak some English. Abu-Salha recalls, "They get me something to eat. I tell them I come to fight jihad. I want to feel, die shaheed (as a martyr)."

He says that the members of al Qaeda then took Abu-Salha to a "safe house" in Turkey where he encountered two other al Qaeda fighters who had been wounded and who were recovering in the house.

Abu-Salha stayed at the safe house for a month, he says, before he was spirited across the border into Syria.

The issue of "homegrown" American extremists fighting in Iraq and Syria has raised significant concerns among counterterrorism officials. The government is tracking about 100 Americans who have fought or attempted to fight in the Syrian conflict.

Douglas McArthur McCain, who grew up in Minnesota, died while fighting for the ultra-militant Islamic State in Syria this past weekend.

How to destroy ISIS from the bottom up
W.H. defends Obama's 'no strategy' line
ISIS executes 250 Syrian soldiers

In addition to Abu-Salha and McCain, eight Americans have been charged with crimes related to supporting or attempting to support militant jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.

However, for now, no American involved in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts has been charged with plotting an attack inside the United States. Both Moner Abu-Salha and Douglas McCain died fighting in the region rather than conducting attacks in their own country.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on August 25 that there are, so far, no signs of "active plotting against the homeland" by the Islamic State.

As fears heighten of the potential threat from returning Western foreign fighters who have traveled to Syria or Iraq, restraining the flow of these fighters through Turkey must be a key objective.

A European diplomat in Turkey told Reuters, "In recent months especially we've seen a real hardening in Turkey's attitude, a recognition that this is a potential threat to their national security and a desire to take more practical steps through intelligence channels, police channels."

There are signs that Turkey's new efforts may be having an effect. One Islamic State spokesman told the Washington Post, "It is not as easy to come into Turkey anymore."

Abu-Salah's recounting of his travel illustrates the potential risks foreign fighters take when seeking to reach Syria -- which may be exploitable by security services. Of his initial attempts to connect with militants in Turkey he said: "It was very dangerous what I was doing because I could have went to jail."

If Turkey's new measures to disrupt the foreign fighter flow continue and a coalition can be built to adequately track and disrupt movement of militants into Syria and Iraq, the threat posed by Americans and other Westerners fighting with jihadist groups in the region may diminish over time.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT