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US Steps Up Fight to Block Islamic State Volunteers

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US Steps Up Fight to Block Islamic State Volunteers
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WASHINGTON: As a 19-year-old man passed through security at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Saturday, federal authorities executed a plan they have honed across the country in the past year.

Border patrol agents asked Mohammed Hamzah Khan to step aside for questioning while FBI agents waited nearby. At Khan's home in Bolingbrook, Illinois, investigators with a search warrant arrived to comb through his room and car, and to interview his parents.

By the time the agents were done searching, they had several pieces of evidence that they said tied Khan to the Islamic State - including a letter he had written to his parents telling them to come live with him in the caliphate in Syria.

"Western societies are getting more immoral day by day," he wrote in the letter, adding that he did not want to remain in the United States where his taxes would go toward killing fellow Muslims. "I do not want my kids being exposed to filth like this."

Khan was the 10th person the Justice Department has charged with trying to travel abroad to aid terrorists this year as it has tried to stem the flow of Americans and others to terrorist groups in Syria, like the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. From 2011 to 2013, it prosecuted only five people on those charges.

Most of those arrested this year were young - the oldest was 29 - and male. Three were born outside the United States, and one was a woman who was arrested after she got engaged on the Internet to a man who fought for the Islamic State - and despite being warned by the authorities not to travel to Syria, attempted to fly there. In another case, a man tried to move his entire family to Syria.

The Justice Department says it must focus its resources on Americans traveling abroad because they could receive training, become radicalized and return to the United States to attack on behalf of the groups, although the government says it knows of no active plots against the United States from these organizations.

Civil libertarians believe that the government's efforts are misguided because it is not clear that the groups are interested in training Americans and returning them to the United States to initiate attacks. They say the deaths of several Americans on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq for groups like the Islamic State show that the organizations are more intent on using them to gain territory there.

"Even if you can prove they are a threat, are the counterterrorism activities we are engaging in going to mitigate the threat or increase it?" said Mike German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Are "increasing the domestic pursuit and the heightened rhetoric and alarm making it more romantic for a segment of society that may be inclined to get involved in something like this?"

Federal authorities contend that the increase in prosecutions is a sign of how they have become more vigilant at identifying possible threats as the conflict has attracted more volunteers from the United States and Western Europe.

"We're facing a dedicated terrorist group that has slick propaganda that they push out to populations that are vulnerable," said John P. Carlin, the assistant attorney general for national security.

As part of its efforts to identify foreign fighters, the FBI on Tuesday released the video of an Islamic State fighter speaking in unaccented North American English as he holds a gun to a prisoner. Agents hope someone will recognize the man's voice.

But some law enforcement officials acknowledge that far more Americans are making it to Syria than are being stopped.

Intelligence agencies estimate that since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, more than 100 Americans have gone there or tried to. At least three died on the battlefield, and about a dozen are believed to be fighting for the Islamic State.

It is not illegal to travel to Syria, or any country. Nearly all the people who have been arrested have been charged under a federal statute that bars providing material support to terrorists. To gain a conviction on such a charge, the government must prove that the person intended to provide some type of aid to the group.

In many of the cases, the FBI and federal prosecutors have followed the same procedures in order to make that argument.

Through confidential informants and undercover agents, the authorities have obtained statements from the people under investigation about their intentions to join the groups. The authorities then wait for the suspects to book a ticket to travel abroad. After the suspects pass through airport security, FBI agents move in for the arrest. Passing through security, according to the FBI, proves the intention to travel abroad.

Someone convicted of providing material support to a terrorist organization faces a maximum of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. At least five people have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from their arrests; most have received less than the maximum sentence.

In the case of Khan, who lived with his parents and had attended Benedictine University, the investigation began with a tip. The FBI began surveilling him to substantiate that he wanted to join the Islamic State. He was taken into custody as he began what he believed was a trip to Turkey to cross the border into Syria.

In an interview with FBI agents at the airport, Khan waived his Miranda rights and began speaking about his plans, according to court documents.

He said that he had met someone online who had given him the phone number of a person he was supposed to contact when he arrived in Istanbul. That person was then supposed to take him to join the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq.

Khan said that he knew that by going to fight with the militant group, he would never be able to return to the United States.

"When asked what he was going to do there, Khan advised that he expected to be involved in some type of public service, a police force, humanitarian work or combat role," according to the court documents.

At his parents' home, the agents found a notebook that included the name of the person he had mentioned he talked to in the chat room. There was a drawing of what appeared to be the United States and Turkey "that included an arrow from the United States to northwest Turkey, two arrows across Turkey, and one arrow pointing across what appeared to be the border of Turkey and Syria or Iraq," according to the documents.

On one page was a drawing of the Islamic State's flag, and on another was a message that appeared similar to statements Khan had made to his family about going to live in caliphate.

"Islamic State in Iraq and Levant. Here to stay. We are the lion of the war. My nation, the dawn has emerged," it said.
 

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