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 Iranian Kurdish female member of the Freedom Party of Kurdistan keeps a position in Dibis, northwest of Kirkuk, on Monday, September 15. The world's top diplomats pledged today to support Iraq in its fight against Islamic State militants by "any means necessary," including "appropriate military assistance," as leaders stressed the urgency of the crisis. ISIS has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq. An Iranian Kurdish female member of the Freedom Party of Kurdistan keeps a position in Dibis, northwest of Kirkuk, on Monday, September 15. The world's top diplomats pledged today to support Iraq in its fight against Islamic State militants by "any means necessary," including "appropriate military assistance," as leaders stressed the urgency of the crisis. ISIS has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq.
HIDE CAPTION
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
<<
<
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
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
>
>>
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 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT