The message from an unknown sender was only one line: “Here a new Nasheed [Islamic devotional music] of Abu Talha al Almani” and a link to a video on YouTube posted on July 30.
The voice in the YouTube video was familiar. It was a voice that used to sing gangster lyrics when it belonged to the rapper “deso dogg,” who had tattoos even on his hands—the one on the right hand said “STR8”; on the left, “Thug.”
Then he turned into a supporter of jihad under the nom de guerre Abu Talha al Almani (Abu Talha the German).
Abu Talha, whose real name is Denis Mamadou Cuspert, is a German citizen, born in Berlin in 1975 and among an increasing number of radicalized Western passport holders who have joined jihadist movements in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies.
Abu Talha has been known to the intelligence community for years after giving speeches all over Germany, primarily about his transition from a “real bad boy” into a man who had found the “right path.” He never hid his advocacy of jihad, for him not only a personal struggle but also a military fight, a “duty. ” He had sworn allegiance to Mullah Mohammed Omar, whom he called one of the “greatest men.”
According to Western intelligence services and members of jihadists’ circles, he is now fighting as a member of the Al-Nusra Front against troops of Assad and his supporters, fighters of the Shia militia Hezbollah and members of the Mahdi Army from Iraq. Al-Nusra had sworn allegiance to al Qaeda and was designated as a terrorist organization by various countries.
There’s wide disagreement over the numbers of foreign fighters in Syria. Western intelligence services and analysts believe the numbers of foreign fighters are around 6,000, and 10 percent of them believed to be from Europe, Australia, and North America. But Arab intelligence services believe there are at least 15 ,000 foreign fighters, while jihadists speak of even about 30,000. Most of them are believed to be from Turkey, Southeast Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, and Caucasus.
Not all foreigners who flocked to Syria went with a jihadist agenda. “Some wanted to go and join the Free Syrian Army, but got quickly recruited by the jihadists,” an Arab intelligence official told me. “They know how to recruit.”
A Libyan man whom I met in Turkey, where he was being treated for his wounds, confirmed this. Unlike most of the meetings I had with members of jihadist groups in the past, this one did not take place in hiding, but in the dining room of a five-star hotel, where he was staying with some other Libyan friends.
Abu Abderrazak had fought with the Al-Nusra Front. In Aleppo, when a rocket hit his group, he lost a leg—but continued coordinating with fighters inside Syria and helping them cross the border via Turkey.
“There are many brothers from Europe who have joined us. Some of them need more training than us, because we learned to fight during the war against Gaddafi. But the brothers are brave,” he said, speaking in a soft voice.
According to Abu Abderrazak, some Westerners had been sent back to their countries. “Some had been too weak to participate in fighting, but they might be helpful to the cause in other ways when they are back in their countries,” he said, and stated that he did not want to describe further the ways they could be helpful.
Abu Abderrazak said he had seen several European fighters in a unit near Aleppo, but wasn’t aware of their names. However, another man, known to the jihadist scene, said he had heard of the “German brother.”
“Abu Talha al Almani is a very known brother. He is a brave fighter,” said Omar Bakri Muhammad, founder of the banned organization al-Muhajeroon in Britain.
Bakri Muhammad was accused of radicalizing and inciting violence. He is no longer allowed to return to Britain and is now living in Tripoli in north Lebanon.
“The fight is no longer between Syrian opposition and [the] government. Now it is between Muslims and kufar [unbelievers]," he told me in a recent conversation.
Is Syria the new El Dorado for jihadist groups? This is what worries intelligence services in Western and Arab countries. As the situation in Syria has turned into a civil war and threatens to further destabilize the entire region, the fight is becoming increasingly sectarian. “This is turning into a nightmare. The mistakes were made from the beginning, when we warned especially the U.S. to be aware that many foreign fighters who had clearly a jihadist agenda were crossing into Syria from Turkey,” an Arab intelligence official said under the condition of anonymity. “Radical Shia fighters from Iraq and Lebanon have also joined Assad, and we see that is turning more into a regional sectarian conflict.”
The first indications of this shift were seen in Iraq, where attacks committed by al Qaeda affiliates were hitting mainly Shiite neighborhoods, while in Bahrain in the last couple of weeks bombs have exploded increasingly in Sunni neighborhoods.
“We see also an influence of radical Shiite groups from Iraq, such the Shiite anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in Bahrain,” a European intelligence official said, “We need to do whatever possible to stop a sectarian wave in the Middle East, as this will just increase the radicalization and create bigger security issues for us,” he said.
But in order to do so, politicians would have to support attempts for dialogue and peaceful solutions before it’s too late and countries end up in chaos and violence.
While intelligence analysts and officials are worried that men like Cuspert might return to their home countries and become a big security problem, he is still considered a threat even though he is outside the West fighting in Syria. With the release of videos like the one I received in my email, he encourages suicide missions.
“I am wishing for death and can’t wait for him come, carrying bombs and grenades: push the bottom, paradise, paradise,” he chants in German.
In one section he directly encouraged suicide missions, saying “I am lighting the bomb in the middle of a crowed, push the button—al Jannah, al Jannah (paradise, paradise)”—or in “the underground” or the base of the "crusaders."
The video shows photos and footage of bombings and attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Britain and ends with images of New York on 9/11.
To contact the author about her columns, she can be reached at [email protected]