Wednesday 22 May 2019

Hunt begins for 'Jailer John' as gardai step up surveillance on 30 Irish jihadi fighters

As world repulsed by murder of James Foley, Irish Islamists fighting in Syria and Iraq are subject of international watch

Tom Bradyand Tom Worden

THIRTY jihadi fighters are using Ireland as a base while travelling regularly to conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, according to Garda intelligence.

The group is being kept under close surveillance by gardai here and is also under watch abroad by international police agencies.

But senior officers admit they cannot assess the extent of the jihaidists’ involvement in the fighting when they enter the strife-stricken countries.

Gardai have now stepped up their surveillance efforts as part of an EU-wide move to track the group’s movements and identify associates as fears grow over the radicalisation and security risks they pose when they return from the conflicts.

Officers are also forging closer links with the Muslim community here to uncover any signs that the fighters are trying to influence the radicalisation of a new generation.

Three of those known to have travelled to the conflict zones have been killed, including a 16-year-old boy.

Garda and other agencies have also revised the current strategy to tackle international terrorism as it was felt it did not take account of what were described as “lone wolf” terrorists and foreign fighters.

The new strategy provides wider options for the Government to consider in addressing the threats of radicalisation and recruitment to terrorism, both domestically and in a wider context, according to Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald.

Details of the additional steps being taken by the Gardai and the Government emerged as the world expressed its revulsion at the beheading of US journalist James Foley by jihadist militants of IS (Islamic State).

Read more: Editorial: Homegrown 'jihadists' could pose risk to State

American journalist James Foley is pictured while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. Photo: AP
American journalist James Foley is pictured while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. Photo: AP
Journalist James Foley who was purported killed by Islamic State militants. Photo: AP
Journalist James Foley went missing in 2012 in northern Syria while on assignment for Agence France-Press and the Boston-based media company GlobalPost. Photo: AP
Diane and John Foley talk to reporters after speaking with U.S. President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

The overall assessment is that the threat to Ireland from international terrorism remains low.

An estimated 2,000 European citizens have travelled to fight in foreign conflicts, particularly to Syria and there is no evidence internationally of a slowdown in the numbers heading there.

And while the 30 known to be based here are top of the police watch list, they comprise a small percentage of the 50,000-strong Muslim community in this country.

Some of the group have legitimate Irish passports.

But so far there is no indication that recruitment in this country is on the scale seen elsewhere in the EU.

This followed confirmation from the US national security council that a video, showing the beheading of Mr Foley, was authentic.

Surveillance of international terror suspects here is carried out under the supervision of the Garda Special Branch Middle Eastern desk and military intelligence.

Most of those under surveillance in the past couple of decades were regarded as sympathisers or were involved in providing logistical support for active terror cells based elsewhere.

Read more: 'There is no reason for more slaughter'

This support included fundraising, supplying forged documentation such as passports and identity cards and establishing safe havens for terrorists on the run from other countries.

Most of those are living in the greater Dublin area and two of those kept under constant watch are regarded by international agencies as key logistic figures. It is estimated there are less than 100 sympathisers in total but they provide the nucleus for logistic cells to back up the activists operating outside the jurisdiction.

But the biggest fear of security chiefs more recently has been the potential emergence of previously unknown youths, who had been radicalised by hard-liners and turned into jihadi fighters.

One of the masterminds of an al-Qa’ida terror plot in London was radicalised while he lived here although his training and instruction was received elsewhere.

Mohamed Meguerba, an Algerian whose parents lived in Belgium, came to Dublin in 1997 and was radicalised by a cleric he met in Belfast. He was arrested in Algeria in 2002 in connection with a deadly ricin plot to poison hundreds of Londoners. It is believed that most of those travelling to Syria and Iraq are using Turkey as an access route. Some are using the guise of being involved with humanitarian aid groups and mixing with genuine travellers.

One suspected Islamic State fighter, who describes himself as Irish-Nigerian, has been using social media to urge fellow Muslims to travel from Europe and elsewhere to fight in Iraq and Syria.

The fighter, who appears to be a teenager or in his early 20s, has posted photographs on social media of himself in Syria wearing combat gear and carrying machine guns.

He used a publicly accessible message board to urge fellow Muslims to take up arms and gave advice on how to get to Syria without raising the suspicions of western intelligence agencies. The same fighter has also been seeking to recruit people on an encrypted messaging service.  He advised potential fighters to travel to Syria via Turkey, but to fly to another country first and buy a return ticket so as not to arouse suspicion.

Meanwhile, An international manhunt is under way for the jihadist, believed to be British, who appeared in video footage showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley.

Police and intelligence services are analysing footage of Mr Foley's death for clues amid suggestions that the Islamic State (Isis) extremist - who has been reportedly identified by a former hostage as "John" - is from London.

A former hostage, who was held for a year in the Syrian town of Raqqa, told The Guardian the killer was the ringleader of a trio of UK-born extremists the captives nicknamed "The Beatles" because of their nationality.

The Guardian's Martin Chulov told Sky News: "We spoke to a hostage today who was released several months ago and he clearly identified to us this man in the video.

"He was the leader of the pack, someone who was very assertive and was responsible for negotiations with hostage families and certainly had spoken to many mums, dads, (and) wives on Skype."

They are “very much at the forefront of this conflict” with roles ranging from suicide bombers to executioners, he added.

Shiraz Maher, a senior researcher at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College London, said Mr Foley's death was evidence that British jihadis were "some of the most vicious and vociferous fighters" in the Middle East.

A US Special Operations mission tried and failed to free Mr Foley and other hostages in Syria weeks before he was murdered by militants, officials have confirmed.

The White House and Pentagon released statements yesterday confirming that President Barack Obama personally authorised the July raid on an oil refinery in northern Syria.

The mission failed because the hostages, thought to have been held there in the weeks leading up to the operation, had recently been moved.

The several dozen special operations troops who were dropped by aircraft into Syria did not find them and engaged in a firefight with IS militants before departing.

The officials said a number of militants, but no Americans, were killed. One American suffered a minor injury when an aircraft was hit.

David Cameron and Mr Obama have condemned the murder of Mr Foley as "hateful" and "barbaric", insisting it would not force them to back away from tackling IS in Iraq and Syria.

Irish Independent

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