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Surge in English-speaking militants worries U.S., European officials

A boy carrying a toy gun stands near members of Somalia's hardline al Shabaab rebel group after attending Eid al-Adha prayers inside a footb
A boy carrying a toy gun stands near members of Somalia's hardline al Shabaab rebel group after attending Eid al-Adha prayers inside a footb

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Increased use of English in videos by Islamic extremists and a rising flow of recruits from Europe to fight in Syria and on other battlegrounds is disturbing U.S. officials who fear some could return to Europe or come to the United States to plot attacks.

Only last week, a man who spoke English and Arabic and called himself Abu Ahmed al-Amriki (Arabic for 'the American') starred in a new video message posted on jihadist websites and produced by al Shabaab, the Islamic militant group based in Somalia.

Abu Ahmed, whose face was blurred and whose real identity is not known, called on Muslims to give up their comfortable lives in the West and head for the front lines, in places like Somalia, Mali and Afghanistan, to wage Islamic holy war, according to an account by the Long War Journal, a counterterrorism blog published by the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Although the fears of the West have sometimes proven overblown, this video and others highlight what senior U.S. and European security officials say is a fresh increase in English-speaking recruits, including dozens of British citizens, traveling abroad to fight - most notably to Syria.

The United States and Europe want to see Assad defeated themselves. The concern, officials said, is that many English-speaking recruits are joining the most militant, anti-Western Syrian rebel factions.

Earlier in February, a person describing himself as an "American mujahid," or holy warrior, posted the second of two video messages touting his involvement with rebels fighting the government of Syria, according to Flashpoint Global Partners, a New York-based consulting group which monitors militant websites.

"Bashar Assad, your days are numbered," the fighter, who spoke in English with an American accent, declared, referring to Syria's beleaguered president. "You should just quit now, while you can, and leave. You are going to die, no matter what. Where you go we will find you and kill you."

Simultaneously, U.S. officials said, English-language literature has blossomed online exhorting aspiring militants to violence wherever they are and providing them step-by-step instructions on how to use household materials to cause death and destruction.

"We've been monitoring (these developments) and yes, it's concerning," said Paul Browne, Deputy Commissioner and spokesman of the New York Police Department, which since the September 11, 2001, attacks has built aggressive counterterrorism operations.

The two videos' authenticity could not be independently confirmed. While some deadly attacks - including the July 2005 London bombings - have been executed by European citizens trained overseas, other feared threats have often failed to materialize.

JIHAD 'POCKETBOOK'

In recent days, al-Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has issued two slick English-language magazines for the would-be weekend holy warrior.

The tenth issue of "Inspire," AQAP's irregular but well-produced Internet magazine, contains what amounts to a list of westerners the group has targeted for death. They include novelist Salman Rushdie, anti-Islamic Dutch politician Geert Wilders, and Terry Jones, the Koran-burning Florida preacher.

The second new publication, published by Inspire with equally slick production values, calls itself the "Lone Mujahid Pocketbook". The guidebook, originally spotted by the Flashpoint monitoring group, asks readers: "Have u been lookin' 4 a way to join the mujahideen in frontlines? Well, there's no need to travel abroad, coz the frontline has come to you... Just read 'n' apply the contents of this guide."

It goes on to offer how-to guides, complete with pictures and maps, for causing traffic accidents, staging "lethal ambushes," "destroying buildings" by creating gas leaks and igniting them, and even "starting forest fires."

Browne said the NYPD is also "tracking the actual and threatened violence accompanying demands" by militants for the release from a U.S. prison of Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted for his role in New York-related plots in the early 1990s.

The latest Inspire issue contains a purported message from Rahman, known as the Blind Sheikh, complaining about insulting and isolating prison treatment.

BRITONS TO SYRIA

The Internet messages targeted at potential English-speaking militants surfaced as European intelligence sources say they are monitoring steady traffic of young British citizens and residents to Syria to fight Assad's government.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said dozens of fighters - and possibly as many as 60 or 70 - from Britain are believed to be in Syria.

It is unclear whether all are Islamic extremists. But many, the intelligence sources said, have joined up with Al-Nusra, a militant anti-Assad faction that the U.S. government declared a terrorist organization linked to al Qaeda in Iraq.

(Editing by Warren Strobel and Tim Dobbyn)

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