Increasing numbers of Muslims in Europe are travelling to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and other conflict zones to obtain training in terrorist methods.
Although intelligence agencies have been following the trend since the July 2005 bombings of the London commuter system, which were perpetrated by four home-grown Islamic terrorists, the scale of the problem has come into greater focus in recent weeks.
European security officials are especially concerned about reports that al-Qaeda is recruiting and training Western operatives who have "clean" criminal records and have the ability to travel freely and blend in with European and American cultures.
In Norway, for example, an ethnic Norwegian convert to militant Islam who has received terrorist training from al-Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen, is awaiting orders to carry out an attack on the West, officials from three European security agencies said on June 25.
European officials have confirmed that the man is "operational," meaning he has completed his training and is about to receive a target. Although the terrorist-in-waiting is believed to still be in Yemen, even if he is found he cannot be extradited: under Norwegian law it is not a crime to attend a terrorist training camp.
The London-based newspaper Sunday Times, quoting intelligence services, published a story on July 1 that said the Norwegian jihadist had been trained by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] to evade airport security and is plotting to hijack an American passenger plane and, in a suicide mission, crash it. The newspaper portrayed the plot as an attack on the upcoming London Olympics, to be held from July 27 to August 12, but said the target was specifically supposed to be an American aircraft.
The paper described the recruit as being a Norwegian citizen in his 30s, with no immigrant background, but who calls himself Abu Abdulrahman. The man, who converted to Islam in 2008, has apparently in recent months been undergoing training at AQAP bases in Yemen.
According to a detailed report in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, on July 5, the individual is a 33-year-old Norwegian who, in his youth, was associated with Oslo's far-left Blitz movement. Despite his one-time radical credentials, he later worked as a babysitter at a daycare center in Oslo, the city where he was born and raised. He did not have a history of violence, the paper said.
Dagbladet went on to report that eventually he became a member of the Green Party; a source close to the suspect said that, after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, he had come to be viewed as an easily-led conspiracy theorist.
His ideological priorities shifted, according to the paper, after he married the daughter of a diplomat from an unspecified North African country. In 2008, he converted to Islam and underwent a change of lifestyle: he gave up alcohol and broke off almost all contact with his earlier friends. The newspaper stated that he recently became a father, and that his wife had travelled to her home country with their child.
Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, Britain's domestic security service, recently provided important context to the threat posed by would-be jihadists. In a rare public address on June 25, Evans said the Olympic Games in London "present an attractive target for our enemies and they will be at the center of the world's attention in a month or so. No doubt some terrorist networks have thought about whether they could pull off an attack."
"In back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here," Evans continued. "It is essential that we maintain pressure on al-Qaeda."
Evans also said that al-Qaeda militants are using the countries which toppled their leaders in the Arab Spring as bases to train radical Western youths for potential attacks on Britain: "This is the completion of a cycle. Al-Qaida first moved to Afghanistan in the 1990s due to pressure in their Arab countries of origin. They moved on to Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban. And now some are heading home to the Arab world again."
"Today," Evans added, "parts of the Arab world have once more become a permissive environment for al-Qaeda. A small number of British would-be jihadis are also making their way to Arab countries to seek training and opportunities for militant activity, as they do in Somalia and Yemen. Some will return to the UK and pose a threat here. This is a new and worrying development and could get worse."
Some 100-200 British residents are thought to be involved in militant activities in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, mostly young men from cities such as London and Birmingham between the ages of 18 and 30, according to MI5.
Although al-Qaeda has made no successful attack on Britain since 2005, Evans said the threat has not evaporated, and that Britain has been the target of credible terrorist plot every year since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
A suspected al-Qaeda militant and would-be suicide bomber, for example, was caught at the Olympic Park in London on July 7. The 24 year-old has previously tried to get to Afghanistan, allegedly for terrorist training; he is suspected of fighting for the Somali Islamist group al Shabaab, which has been responsible for thousands of deaths, including those of Western aid workers. He is also accused of trying to recruit other Britons to the Islamist cause.
In Germany, the country's international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, published a detailed story about German jihadists on July 2. Citing intelligence sources, Deutsche Welle reported that "since the beginning of the 1990s, around 235 people with German connections and Islamic terrorist backgrounds have at least attempted to obtain paramilitary training." There is concrete evidence that around 100 were actually trained or engaged in military operations. More than half of those are said to be back in Germany, and around 10 have been imprisoned.
Deutsche Welle interviewed a spokesman for Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), who said: "Should they [the jihadists] return to Germany, these people could be involved in activity which poses a threat to national security. Another risk factor is that these people have big reputations in the Islamist scene. That can lead to the further radicalization of Islamists who until now weren't necessarily prepared to engage in violent conflict."
The report also describes the lives of two Turkish-German brothers from the German city of Wuppertal, who went to join Islamist fighters in the mountainous Pakistani region of Waziristan on the border of Afghanistan. One of the brothers, named Bünyamin, was killed by an American drone attack shortly after his arrival in October 2010. (His death caused German politicians to protest the American policy of drone strikes in Pakistan.)
After Bünyamin died, his brother, Emrah, left Waziristan and travelled to Somalia where he joined al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. East African security agents became aware of him at the end of May 2012 in connection with an attack in Kenya on a shopping mall. He was arrested in Tanzania on June 10, 2012, and later deported to Germany. The Federal Prosecutor's Office has accused him of being "an active member of the foreign terrorist association al-Qaeda."
Deutsche Welle also made mention of Mounir and Yassin Chouka, two Moroccan brothers from Bonn who regularly appear in German-language propaganda videos from Waziristan. In the most recent video, dated May 2012, Yassin called for the murder of journalists and activists from the conservative political party, PRO NRW, which is opposed to the Islamization of Germany.
A new book, entitled, "Young, German, Taliban," sums it up nicely. Author Wolf Schmidt, who is also the editor of Berlin-based newspaper Tageszeitung, states: "Many of these young men intended to go to Chechnya, but ended up in Pakistan. They don't know the war zone, have relatively little idea about the conflict, and often have shockingly little knowledge of the religion which they claim to defend."
Soeren Kern is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.