The Slatest

ISIS or al-Qaida? An Indictment in Ohio Reveals How Wannabe Jihadists Choose Sides. 

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters wave their movement’s flag in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus on July 28, 2014. 

Photo by Rami Al-Sayed/AFP/Getty Images

When Columbus, Ohio, resident Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud got back to the United States on June 8, 2014, after spending a little less than two months abroad, he planned to do “something big.” According to an indictment released by the Department of the Justice on Thursday, he told an unnamed individual that he “wanted to go to a military base in Texas and kill three or four American soldiers execution style.” What makes Mohamud’s plan more alarming than the musings of most keyboard jihadists is that Mohamud had just returned from training with a terrorist group in Syria.   

Some headlines today have inaccurately stated that Mohamud was charged with providing support to ISIS. He was actually charged with providing support to ISIS’s rival in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al-Qaida. But the confusion is understandable. As terrorism researcher J.M. Berger notes, Mohamud’s loyalties seem to shift throughout the events described in the indictment. As the case reveals, the lines between the two sworn enemies aren’t always so clear.

Here’s what we know: Mohamud’s brother Aden, also a former Columbus resident, fought for al-Nusra from August 2013 until he was killed in battle in June 2014. Mohamud, who was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in February 2014, traveled to Syria by way of Turkey in April of that year to join his brother. Prior to that, despite Aden fighting for Nusra, Mohamud had posted pro-ISIS propaganda on his Facebook page. Shortly after arriving in Turkey, he gave money to another individual to give to Aden. In a conversation included in the charges, that person says that Mohamud had “wanted to go to ISIS” but is now with Nusra.

Mohamud eventually wound up in Syria, where, he later told an unnamed person, he had “received training from a group in various areas, including shooting weapons, breaking into houses, explosives, and hand-to-hand combat.” He had planned to fight in Syria, but a cleric allegedly told him he should “return to the United States and carry out an act of terrorism.” Oddly, the indictment doesn’t specify what group Mohamud trained with in Syria, though from the context it seems likely that it was al-Nusra.

I’d like to know for sure, because the distinction matters. ISIS has called on its online supporters in Western countries to carry out attacks, and some have done so. But with the notable exception of Mehdi Nemmouche, who opened fire at the Jewish Museum of Belgium last May, we haven’t yet seen Syria-trained ISIS figthers carrying out attacks in the West. This is the nightmare scenario for many governments, but for now it’s incredibly rare, which is why, despite the fact that ISIS has been getting most of the attention over the past year, U.S. officials argue that al-Qaida’s affiliates still pose a greater threat.

Mohamud’s case is also evidence of what was observed during January’s Paris attacks: that international followers of the two groups aren’t that hung up on the distinction. The indictment describes a conversation in which Mohamud “compared different extremist groups within Syria to see which was better or more effective. Mohamud talked about which groups could teach Arabic and which groups could fight better.” This prospective fighter was comparison shopping not based on ideology, but on which group could give him the better jihad experience. It sounds as if he was more enthusiastic about ISIS but wound up with Nusra mostly because of his brother’s connections.

Either way, it appears that just like some recently arrested ISIS supporters, Mohamud didn’t get too far with his plot before the authorities caught up with him. When foreign fighters in Syria stop broadcasting their affiliations on Facebook is when we’ll really have to start worrying.