CLEVELAND - The Cleveland office of the FBI is concerned that clashes overseas could directly impact safety in Northeast Ohio.
“One of the most pressing concerns we have with all of the counterterrorism areas that we focus on is the conflict in Syria,” said Assistant Special Agent in Charge Eric Smith.
Smith oversees the counterterrorism unit of Cleveland’s FBI. Special agents are worried about the impact that the conflict in Syria could have in Northeast Ohio, let alone the rest of the United States.
The Syrian civil war began in 2011. Since then, the number of estimated deaths is greater than 232,000. It started mainly as an uprising against the Ba’ath government and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but has grown to include many groups with various causes.
One of the more powerful driving forces behind the clashes is sectarian religion; Shia groups and Sunni rebels are battling.
Northeast Ohio has a diverse ethnic culture, including strong Middle Eastern communities. While many people are concerned about the clashes in Syria, it could have stronger meaning for people with roots in that country or its religious sects.
For one, many Northeast Ohioans may call Syria their homeland and have family members who still live there and are currently trying to survive the clashes. Others may identify strongly with a religious sect involved in the battles.
Northeast Ohioans who feel invested in the fate of Syria may feel compelled to do something to help, including traveling overseas to Syria.
But Smith said traveling to Syria is the worst possible idea. Any foreign visitors would be entering a war zone and find major cities in rubble.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis and they want to go and stop the slaughter of innocents,” Smith said.
But it is possible that foreign travelers could wind up getting killed.
“We've seen at least two individuals travel from the United States, go oversees for religious training or studying, and got caught up in the fighting in Yemen, and they went over for standard religious training, practices, and they got killed in the last two or three years,” said Supervisory Special Agent Tim Nock.
While some people want to travel to Syria to help, others view the religious fighting as their calling.
“Just recently, there was the suicide bombing in Syria that was believed to be effected by a U.S. person,” Nock said. “So these are real world activities drawn on behalf of U.S. citizens who are going overseas and fighting on behalf of terror groups over there and also fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.”
While some may travel to Syria with good intentions only to get drawn into the fighting, there are those who travel there with the deliberate intent of seeking out terror groups.
“The foreign fighters are going over for ideology reasons, to really get their jihad on,” Nock said.
The agents said that disenfranchised people in Northeast Ohio could be self-radicalizing with extremist materials online. In fact, ABC News issued a report that the same group fighting parts of Syria – Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS – is now invading Iraq, and posting highly-polished propaganda videos online directly aimed at recruiting Americans.
“While it's likely they were radicalized before they left, certainly after they've gone there and experienced what they experienced and been subjected to the ideologies that they see there, what they bring back is a whole different set of problems to us,” Smith said.
What concerns the FBI is what happens to Northeast Ohioans who travel to Syria to join in the battle – then return home. The worst case scenario would be comparable to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a Chechen who lived in the U.S. but traveled to Russia in 2012, where he received militant training. He eventually returned to the U.S., only to set off a bomb at the Boston Marathon in 2013.
“Our primary concern is stopping the travel, and those who are traveling on behalf of Al-Qaeda or an Al-Qaeda affiliated group to go over and fight, and then come back to bring those skills here to visit on the U.S. once they return,” Smith said.
The agents said they know some people in Northeast Ohio may have an interest in helping in Syria, but the Cleveland office has not had to deal with the worst case scenario yet.
“We have really diverse population. I think that's what makes Cleveland unique,” Nock said. “We have not seen any internal strife in the Cleveland community.”
Only a small fraction of the community would likely ever become radicalized and travel to Syria, but Nock said that there are warning signs that people should be mindful of.
“Dramatic changes in their appearance, maybe radical changes in their religious devotion, online activity maybe if they're pouring over countless hours online looking at the conflict, involved in chat rooms or accessing maybe radical forums,” Nock said. “Those individuals are really of interest, and if people see individuals like that, family members like that, they should definitely contact us.”
The Cleveland FBI is reaching out into the Middle Eastern community of Northeast Ohio, in an effort to have dialogues over these clashes, in the hopes of preventing people from traveling to a war zone, and possibly returning as a threat to the U.S.
“We're looking to get out in the community, talk to individuals from Syria, who have family members over there, try to prevent individuals from traveling over there, gaining the training and combat experience and bringing that back to the United States and conducting attacks here,” Nock said.