The beheading of American photojournalist James Foley, apparently by a British member of the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq, is yet another shocking example of the danger posed to Western countries by their own citizens who have joined the forces of jihad.
It follows several recent chilling incidents involving Western jihadis, including Twitter photos published by an Australian fighting for Islamic State holding the severed heads of two Syrian soldiers.
Estimates of the number of Western “jihad tourists” in Syria and Iraq reach as high as 3,000. Others have traveled to Yemen to join al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and to Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab. They have been involved in countless atrocities including beheadings, executions and suicide missions.
As former British foreign secretary William Hague noted in a February statement to the House of Commons, some of them “may return ideologically hardened and with experience in weapons and explosives.”
Three months later, Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-yearold Frenchman of Algerian origin, returned from a stint in Syria, where he is believed to have fought with Islamic State – in its previous incarnation, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – and shot dead four people, including two Israelis, at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
It was the first instance of a “blowback” attack by a jihadi returning from Syria.
The EU’s counterterrorism czar, Gilles de Kerchove, warned afterward that Europe should prepare itself for similar attacks and that several hundred European Islamic radicals may have already returned to their home countries. “It is very likely that the ISIS... is preparing, training, directing some of the foreign fighters to mount attacks in Europe, or outside Europe,” he said.
The danger that Western jihadis will come home to roost has now intensified following American air strikes on Islamic State spurred by the organization’s genocidal actions against Iraqi religious minorities and as a result of European arming of Kurdish forces fighting the terrorist group.
The slickly produced video showing Foley’s execution was titled “A message to America,” and its threat toward the United States and the West was clear.
“You’re no longer fighting an insurgency, we are an Islamic army and a state that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide, so effectively, any aggression toward the Islamic State is an aggression toward Muslims from all walks of life who have accepted the Islamic Caliphate as their leadership.
Any attempt by you, [President Barack] Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic Caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people,” the British jihadi said before beheading Foley.
It is, as noted by Prof. Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, the first time that Islamic State has made such a direct threat against the West. “They are saying we’re going to come after you if you bomb us,” said Neumann.
It is a threat that Western leaders are taking seriously.
Obama called on governments and peoples across the Middle East to make a common effort “to extract this cancer, so that it does not spread.” British Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his summer vacation upon hearing that the execution was carried out by a Briton, while his new foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said: “What’s going on in Iraq and Syria...risks spreading to other parts of the international community and affecting us all directly.”
Meanwhile, at anti-Israel demonstrations triggered by the Gaza conflict, the Islamic State flag has been seen on the streets of London and Paris, in Brussels and in The Hague, while leaflets recruiting for the organization are handed out on London’s iconic shopping mecca, Oxford Street.
The “cancer,” it appears, is spreading to the heart of Europe. Having made the diagnosis, can the West see just how far the disease has spread, and will it be prepared to administer a sufficient dose of medicine?