When air Canada flight 8112 to Toronto took off from George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on June 17, it was missing four passengers who had been scheduled to fly that afternoon. For several months a pair of undercover law-enforcement officials working for the FBI had been spending time with two of the intended passengers: a young Muslim convert named Michael Todd Wolfe and his wife Jordan Nicole Furr, according to an affidavit filed June 18 by an FBI agent. During that time, the affidavit says, Wolfe had discussed with the two undercover employees the possibility of joining an extremist Islamic group that the agent believed to be the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which is run by the Iraqi terrorist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for whose capture the U.S. State Department is offering a $10 million reward.
ISIS has long been fighting a war in Syria against the regime of President Bashar Assad, but over recent weeks the group has seized control of much of northern and western Iraq. Many terrorism experts and government officials now consider ISIS–an offshoot of al-Qaeda that broke with its parent organization over strategic differences–to be the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization.
Wolfe, who is 23 and lives in Austin, had allegedly spent months getting ready for the journey. Among other preparations, he bought a pair of sturdy hiking shoes and started martial-arts and CrossFit training, according to the FBI. He advised one of the undercover employees, who he allegedly believed would also be traveling to Syria, to exchange his glasses for a durable, thick pair that fastened with a head strap, fretting that regular eyewear “wouldn’t hold up on the battlefield, potentially causing him to inadvertently shoot a brother over there,” the affidavit says. At one point Wolfe told an undercover operative “that he had learned that al-Qaeda in Syria was training brothers from other countries and then sending those fighters back from Syria to their home countries to conduct terror attacks.” There is no indication in the affidavit of how Wolfe viewed such reports.
Law-enforcement officials watched as Wolfe, Furr and their two children entered the airport, according to the affidavit. The Toronto flight was, the FBI alleges, the first leg of Wolfe’s intended journey to Syria. As he tried to board the flight, he was arrested. He has been charged with attempting to provide material support and resources to terrorists.
Wolfe has waived his right to a formal arraignment and has submitted a plea of not guilty. He also waived a detention hearing on June 20 and remains in custody. His court-appointed lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. His wife reportedly told friends that the charges were false, but she has refused to speak to reporters. An imam at an Austin mosque told TIME that he had met Wolfe only once, when Wolfe was seeking help in finding a job. In the affidavit, Wolfe sometimes comes across as a less than committed jihadi, at one point allegedly telling one of the undercover employees, “It’s not that I don’t want to go. I just need to figure out the best situation.” Nonetheless, Wolfe faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Wolfe did not make it to Syria, but the U.S. has concluded that “as many as dozens of other American citizens have attempted to join or have traveled to Syria to join the conflict,” according to a senior intelligence official. Washington doesn’t know, however, how many have joined ISIS or are fighting in Iraq. According to Laith Alkhouri, a senior analyst at Flashpoint Global Partners, a security firm based in New York City that tracks Western jihadis through their social-media accounts and online presence, most Americans join ISIS, which has made a point of accommodating foreigners. At least one, Eric Harroun, came back to the U.S. Upon his return, in March 2013, he was arrested on charges of using a weapon of mass destruction outside the U.S. He was released on a plea deal but died a few months later of an apparent overdose. American intelligence officials are concerned that more will eventually return–battle-hardened and radicalized by master terrorists–ready to engage in attacks on home soil.
For the moment, ISIS–also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL–is primarily focused on taking control of more Iraqi and Syrian land, fighting off rivals and resurrecting an Islamic caliphate modeled on the 7th century empire established by the Prophet Muhammad’s successors. But ISIS’s offensive in Iraq has it potentially facing off against the West for the first time. On June 23, Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Baghdad, said American support of Iraq will be “intense” and “sustained.” The U.S. has decided to send in up to 300 military advisers, but there are no plans for those troops to engage in battle. The U.S. has also considered targeted air strikes on ISIS positions, but on June 24 Kerry ruled out such escalation until Iraq’s leaders can form a more inclusive and effective government. Should the U.S. target ISIS in Iraq, those Western recruits may turn on their home countries, says Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, an advisory body to Norway’s Ministry of Defense. “What worries me is the prospect of U.S. military intervention, or even just drone strikes. Now that might lead some ISIS fighters to launch attacks in the West as a form of revenge.”
Syria-inspired attacks in the West may already be happening. A French citizen named Mehdi Nemmouche is accused of having shot dead four people in an assault on Brussels’ Jewish Museum on May 25. French prosecutors said Nemmouche had spent more than a year in Syria and had links to ISIS. In March, France’s counterterrorism unit said it had discovered 2.2 lb. (just over 1 kg) of explosives in the apartment of a recently returned jihadist from Syria, and British authorities arrested a 21-year-old man at Gatwick Airport on suspicion of training for terrorism in Syria, according to a statement from the Metropolitan Police. Two other men returning from Syria were arrested at Heathrow in January and were charged with engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorist acts.
German authorities, presenting their domestic intelligence service’s annual report in June, noted that the security services had averted a major terrorist attack in Bonn before Christmas. It is not clear that the plot was related to Syria, but German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said Germany remained a target. “We had feared that those returning from the Syrian conflict might plan attacks here,” he said recently in regard to the aborted attack. “An abstract danger … has turned into a concrete, deadly danger in Europe.”
With some 3,000 Europeans, North Americans and Australians fighting in Syria and Iraq, according to security analysts, a once distant war in which the West had no immediate involvement could be coming much closer. The U.S. has “an interest in making sure that we don’t have a safe haven that continues to grow for ISIL and other extremist jihadist groups who could use that as a base of operations for planning and targeting ourselves, our personnel overseas and eventually the homeland,” President Obama said on June 19. The conflict in Syria, he said, “has attracted more and more jihadists or would-be jihadists, some of them from Europe. They then start traveling back to Europe, and that, over time, can create a cadre of terrorists that could harm us.”
At this point, ISIS is more terrorist army than terrorist group. A U.S. intelligence official says ISIS has about 7,000 fighters in Syria and 3,000 in Iraq. Of those, the official says, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 are from outside those two countries. Overall, experts believe 12,000 foreign fighters have flooded into Syria over the past three years, with volunteers coming from at least 81 nations and joining an assortment of rebel groups.
Western security officials have seen this movie before. Afghanistan’s decadelong battle with the Soviet Union in the 1980s attracted anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 foreign fighters, some of whom went on to form al-Qaeda–including Osama bin Laden. “All of us with a memory of the ’80s and ’90s saw the line drawn from Afghanistan to Sept. 11,” FBI Director James Comey told journalists on May 2. “We see Syria as that, but an order of magnitude worse.” The Syrian conflict, security analysts say, has attracted significantly more Westerners–most of the foreign fighters in Afghanistan came from Muslim-majority countries–with passports that grant them easy access to targets back home for attacks.
Geography and ease of travel make Syria comparatively simple for Western volunteers to reach–especially from Europe. It takes less than four hours to fly from London to Istanbul, and British citizens can get a visa on arrival in Turkey, as can Americans. Would-be jihadists then travel east and cross into Syria. An estimated 500 Britons have left to fight in Syria, according to British security officials; police arrested 40 people on Syria-related offenses in the first three months of 2014, nearly double the number for all of last year. France estimates that 700 of its citizens have gone to Syria, and Germany believes there are roughly 320 German citizens fighting alongside Islamist rebels there.
ISIS’s success in establishing what it portrays as a pure Islamic state in parts of Syria and Iraq has proved attractive to some Muslims who may have become disenchanted with life in the secular West. In January, an ISIS statement declared the Syrian city of Raqqa the “nucleus” of the group’s caliphate. Its territory has since expanded to include Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. By late June, ISIS fighters were an hour’s drive north of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, where government troops were preparing to defend the city. ISIS appeared to have seized Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baiji, as well as all the frontier crossings with Syria, effectively erasing the border between the two countries. “For many Western Muslims, ISIS has attained the ideal: a liberated city under Shari’a rule,” says Flashpoint’s Alkhouri, referring to Raqqa. “It has created a huge euphoria, and now with such a solid presence in both Syria and Iraq, ISIS will be able to bring even more recruits.”
When Wolfe and his wife allegedly first considered jihad in Syria, the chance of living in an ideal Islamic state governed by the Quran appears to have attracted them, according to the FBI affidavit. As Wolfe became firm in his decision to go to Syria, he asked his wife and one of his undercover confidants to watch a pro-ISIS video that had inspired him, the document says. Eschewing the gruesome battle scenes typical in other videos distributed by ISIS’s media affiliates, the Light Revelations series is, in part, a paean to ISIS’s charitable work in Syria. Members are depicted praising God, ministering to the sick and teaching young children how to pray.
But if some ISIS videos portray the group’s attempts to create the perfect Islamic form of governance, many make it clear that recruits need to be ready to die for al-Baghdadi’s caliphate. On June 19, ISIS released a slickly produced video featuring three young British men and two Australians. Sitting cross-legged in a leafy, sunlit dell, an ISIS flag behind them and automatic rifles piled in front, the men exhort fellow Muslims in the West to “answer the call.” “What prevents you from obtaining martyrdom?” asks Reyaad Khan, identified by the nom de guerre Abu Dujana al-Hindi, speaking English in a British accent. “You are going to die anyway.” Khan’s mother has since appeared on British television tearfully begging her only son to return to their home in Cardiff, Wales.
Alkhouri says the video featuring Khan and his comrades is part of ISIS’s innovative social-media strategy, which combines appeals on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Ask.fm to attract tech-savvy millennials. “This is a classic recruitment video, speaking to the guys back home in language they can understand,” he says.
But not all foreigners who end up fighting in Syria travel there with the initial intent of engaging in battle. When Abdul Waheed Majeed, a Briton of Pakistani origin, set out for Syria last August, he had planned only to help Syrian civilians who were suffering the effects of a brutal war now well into its fourth year, according to his brother Hafeez Majeed. Six months later, Majeed blew himself up along with a truckload of explosives at the gates of a government prison in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Majeed, a 41-year-old father of three who had been employed as a highway-maintenance worker back home, was, according to his brother, “a good family man” known in the neighborhood for his extensive charity work. He is believed to be the first British suicide bomber to perish on the Syrian battlefront.
Majeed wasn’t alone. In late May, 22-year-old Florida native Moner Mohammad Abusalha blew himself up in a truck-bomb attack on a Syrian government target in Idlib province, according to the U.S. State Department. Both Abusalha and Majeed were part of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
Threat Level Rising
The news of American and British citizens blowing themselves up in a distant war has yet to generate the primal fear in the West that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. ISIS’s chief concerns appear to be local–battling Assad in Syria and the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government in an increasingly sectarian regional war. But that could change. A senior U.S. intelligence official tells TIME that as a former al-Qaeda affiliate, ISIS “absolutely has intentions to target U.S. interests … We believe that while their focus appears to be on their operations in Iraq and Syria, that they do have at least some aspiration or intent to threaten U.S. interests.”
The attack in Brussels has raised the prospect that terrorist masterminds in Syria may have started to take advantage of the human traffic that flows from the West to Syria and back. “It would be naive to think that there will never be an organization that is tempted to use Syria as a safe haven for planning attacks against the West,” says the defense analyst Hegghammer.
Richard Barrett, vice president of Soufan Group, a security-analysis firm, and formerly of MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, estimates that 300 Britons have already returned home from Syria. But it is not, after all, a crime in any country to travel to Syria. And it is extremely hard for spy agencies to gather intelligence in such a war-torn region. When foreign fighters return home, Western governments have to strike a balance between preventing attacks and further alienating people who may pose no threat to their home countries. Last year, in a practice that has human-rights organizations up in arms, the British government stripped 20 dual nationals of their British citizenship, some of them because they were suspected of having fought with radical groups in Syria.
The best approach may be to help returning fighters rejoin their communities if they do not pose a risk–when it is possible to tell. “You can’t stop people from going, and you can’t stop them from coming back, so you need to help them reintegrate,” says Barrett. “If you treat them all as potential terrorists, they are more likely to become one.”
For intelligence officials, social-media sites–there for all the world to see–are sometimes the best source of information about foreign fighters and their intentions. But the clues to future threats are hard to discern through online braggadocio. One frequent tweeter, Abu AK47 al-Britani (who now tweets as Abu Klashnikov), claims to be a Briton fighting in Syria. On June 16, he promised his fellow Britons “beheadings in you [sic] backyard soon.”
But many fighters say they have no intention of returning home. They have found what they were looking for in al-Baghdadi’s Islamic state. Some burn their passports in a show of allegiance. “This idea of us wanna go back and plot terror attacks in our home countries, I think it’s absolute rubbish,” Abu Sumayyah al-Britani, a British fighter in Syria, told the online radio program The ISIS Show. “All of the people I am speaking to on the ground, they have no intention of going back at all. We are having a good life here.” But not much lasts forever in the volatile Middle East, and ISIS’s Islamic paradise could collapse as quickly as it was established. And then thousands of young fighters may have little choice but to go home.
–WITH REPORTING BY MASSIMO CALABRESI/WASHINGTON, PATRICK MICHELS/AUSTIN AND CONAL URQUHART/LONDON
This appears in the July 07, 2014 issue of TIME.