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July 22, 2013

Florida Teen, Shelton Thomas Bell, Latest American To Attempt To Join Al Qaeda

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Shelton Thomas bell

The latest American citizen to apparently respond to Al Qaeda’s call by attempting to join the terrorist group is 19-year-old Floridian Shelton Thomas Bell.

Bell, who according to prosecutors attempted to join Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, has been charged with conspiring and attempting to provide material support to terrorists.

Since 2007, at least 52 American citizens and permanent residents have been arrested or charged for successfully traveling or attempting to travel abroad to reach Al Qaeda affiliate groups. Many joined or attempted to join Al Shabaab in Somalia, while others have received training in Pakistan. More recently, some Amer­i­cans have been attracted to Jab­hat al-Nusrah in Syria.

Bell, reportedly a Muslim convert, “devised a plan to travel to the Arabian Peninsula to join Ansar al Sharia (AAS),” an alias for (AQAP), “and participate in violent armed conflict that he termed ‘jihad,’” according to the federal indictment.

Bell and a juvenile traveled to Jordan September 2012 and made contact with someone who could facilitate their travel to Yemen and introduce them to terrorists, according to the indictment.

The indictment also alleges that between May 2012 and September 2012, Bell and others engaged in physical, firearms, and other training in preparation for what Bell described as “the actions of jihad,” including “a night-time mission” in which they vandalized religious statues at a Jacksonville cemetery.

Bell allegedly also made video and audio recordings for the purpose of soliciting and recruiting others to participate in violent jihad.

Leaders of the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville reportedly notified law enforcement about Bell because they were concerned about conversation he was having about weapons and jihad at their mosque.

AQAP has been described by the U.S. government as “the most active and dangerous” branch of Al Qaeda. The growth of AQAP has led American officials to indicate that Yemen could become Al Qaeda’s next operational and training hub for the group’s militants from around the world.

A key component of AQAP’s operational strategy entails reaching out to English-speaking audiences with its messages and propaganda in order to recruit new members. This material encourages Western audiences to adopt its ideology and carry out attacks against Western interests in the Arabian Peninsula and abroad.

The driving forces behind AQAP’s English-language propaganda machine were Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric, and Samir Khan, an American blogger and propagandist, both of whom were killed in a September 30, 2011 drone strike.

Bell, who worked as a computer repair vendor at a flea market in Jacksonville, is in jail awaiting trial on unrelated grand theft charges.

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June 20, 2013

Syrian Front Attracts American And Foreign Fighters

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Eric Harroun

Update – October 15: Arrest of Orange County man and fate of Pittsburgh man drawn to Syrian front underscores emerging trend.

Increasing numbers of foreign fighters, including Americans, have been attracted to the conflict in Syria and are attempting to join the rebels fighting against the Assad regime.

According to some observers, there are somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 foreign fighters already in Syria, comprising about 10% of the rebel forces. Estimates of fighters arriving from Europe vary widely, from fewer than 200 to over 600. Various rebel groups have claimed “martyrs” from Britain, Denmark, France and Ireland.

To date, there have been three publicly disclosed cases of Americans involved in fighting with rebels. Each has been linked to Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN), a State Department-designated alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq (it is unknown how many Americans have entered the conflict on the side of rebel factions unaffiliated with Al Qaeda).

  • Eric Harroun, a former American soldier, was arrested in March 2013 for allegedly conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction while fighting with Jabhat Al-Nusrah in Syria. While Harroun was not necessarily recruited, after arriving in Syria he appeared in a propaganda video put out by Jabhat Al-Nusrah. On June 20, Harroun was indicted on charges of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and conspiracy to use a destructive device overseas. Eric Harroun pleaded guilty to non-terror-related charges in September, 2013, and was sentenced to time served. That Harroun fought in Syria is uncontested; however, reports differ as to whether he fought with Jabhat al Nusra.
  • Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, who was arrested in Chicago in April 2013, allegedly researched ways to join Jabhat al-Nusrah on the internet. He allegedly found a website advertising itself as providing information to those interested in joining “your lion brothers of Jabhat Al-Nusrah who are fighting under the true banner of Islam.” The website, however, was created by the FBI to attract potential extremists.
  • Nicole Mansfield, a convert to Islam from Michigan, was killed in Syria in May 2013. According to Syrian state-controlled media, she was killed in a car along with two others, including a Briton, while fighting with the rebels. Syrian media claimed that JN’s flag was found in the car.  It should be noted that the Syrian regime considers all rebel fighters and their allies to be terrorists. Mansfield’s family did not know she was in Syria, but say that she had been interested in the Arab Spring.

Syrian rebel groups, including JN, have created social media space and various propaganda to raise awareness, support and potential recruits for their cause in the English-speaking world. These include the exploitation of Facebook, blogs, Twitter and other platforms.

In the past, Americans have proven willing to join militant groups abroad. For example, since 2007, at least 52 American citizens and permanent residents have been arrested or charged in connection with making trips abroad in attempts to reach terrorist groups, receive training, or to participate in terrorist attacks. Many of these individuals joined Al Shabaab, but other individuals traveled abroad to receive training in Pakistan or to join Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The conflict in Syria has attracted foreign support not just for the rebel cause, but for the Assad regime as well. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is reportedly assisting the regime, and Hezbollah fighters have joined with the Syrian army in combating the rebels.

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