WASHINGTON, Aug 30, (AP): The case of Mehdi Nemmouche haunts US intelligence officials. Nemmouche is a Frenchman who authorities say spent 11 months fighting with the Islamic State group in Syria before returning to Europe to act out his rage. On May 24, prosecutors say, he methodically shot four people at the Jewish Museum in central Brussels. Three died instantly, one afterward. Nemmouche was arrested later, apparently by chance. For US and European counterterrorism officials, that 90-second spasm of violence is the kind of attack they fear from thousands of Europeans and up to 100 Americans who have gone to fight for extremist armies in Syria and now Iraq.
The Obama administration has offered a wide range of assessments of the threat to US national security posed by the extremists who say they’ve established a caliphate, or Islamic state, in an area straddling eastern Syrian and northern and western Iraq, and whose actions include last week’s beheading of American journalist James Foley. Some officials say the group is more dangerous than al-Qaeda. Yet intelligence assessments say it currently couldn’t pull off a complex, 9-11- style attack on the US or Europe. However, there is broad agreement across intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the immediate threat from radicalized Europeans and Americans who could come home to conduct lonewolf operations. Such plots are difficult to detect because they don’t require large conspiracies of people whose emails or phone calls can be intercepted.
■ Moner Mohammad Abusalha, an American who grew up a basketball fan in Vero Beach, Florida, killed 16 people and himself in a suicide bombing attack against Syrian government forces in May. US officials say he was on their radar screen but acknowledge he traveled from Syria to the United States before the attack without detection. Had he attacked in the US instead of Syria, it’s unclear whether he would have been stopped.
. ■ Three Norwegian residents were arrested in May and accused of having fought with the Islamic State group.
■ Eight men, including a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, were arrested in June by Spanish authorities and charged with recruiting for the Islamic State group.
Of the thousands of foreign fighters who’ve flocked to Syria, many have fought with the al Nusra front, an al- Qaeda affiliate and rival to the Islamic State.
The group poses its own threat, American officials say, but poses less of a threat than does the Islamic State, whose battlefield successes have made it a stronger draw for foreign fighters than any Jihadist group in recent history. It has seized advanced military equipment and has millions of dollars in cash. Intelligence officials estimate that about a dozen Americans are fighting with the Islamic State group. Nemmouche, who has a long criminal record, allegedly killed two Israeli tourists outside the Brussels museum entrance with a .357 Magnum revolver.
Then he walked inside, removed an assault rifle from a gym bag and shot two museum employees in the face and throat, prosecutors say.
United States ■ Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, a native of Illinois, reported killed in August. He is believed to be the first American killed while fighting with the Islamic State group. The U.S. is investigating whether a second American also was killed.
■ Moner Mohammad Abusalha, an American who grew up a basketball fan in Vero Beach, Florida. Killed himself in May along with 16 people in a suicide bombing attack against Syria government forces.
■ Mohammad Hamdan, 22, a Detroit-area man charged in March with providing support to a terrorist organization. Arrested for attempting to join Hezbollah in order to fight in Syria.
■A 13-year-old Belgian boy who British terrorism experts identified in August as having gone to Syria to fight with the Islamic State.