An Islamist rebel fighter reads a book while resting next to a weapon in the Hama countryside.

An Islamist rebel fighter reads a book while resting next to a weapon in the Hama countryside.


Nour Fourat/Reuters

Last month, Moner Mohammad Abusalha became the first American to become a suicide bomber in Syria.  Abusalha was born and grew up in Florida. His family and neighbors there are still trying to figure out how be ended up a jihadi. 

Abusalha reportedly emailed his family to say he was in Jordan caring for wounded fighters. In reality, he was becoming deeply involved in Syria's civil war.

One question of deep concern to authorities in America and elsewhere is this: How common is this kind of story? A new report from the Rand Corporation out Wednesday says the ranks of jihadist fighters worldwide has doubled in the past three years. Rand's Seth Jones, the report's author, says that when he looked at the recent growth of militant groups, one thing quickly became apparent. 

"Syria is clearly front and center to this increase in attacks and in fighters and in groups," Jones argues.

But Jones doesn't think that means Americans have more to fear. Although the number of jhadist groups is on the rise, Jones argues the threat of attacks on the US homeland is probably less today than it was in 2009. 

"I think [Americans] should be aware that, globally, a very important ideological struggle is going on in Islam, between moderate views of Islam and some small numbers of extremists — but they're growing — that are trying to hijack the religion and use it to over throw regimes," Jones says. 

Jones says a key component of the struggle against Islamic extremism is the battle of ideas, and hearts and minds.

"Where we've seen groups like al-Queda suffer greatly, it's been in places like Saudi Arabia where in 2003, 2004 and 2005 they were involved in an intense campaign with strikes in Riyadh and other cities. And the Saudi response—- although it did involve some some fairly repressive measures like the capture and killing of some al-Queda in the Arabian Peninsula leaders — it also involved an intense struggle of ideas," Jones says. "Saudi clerics, Sunni clerics stood up in mosques, got out on radio and TV on the internet and denounced the extremists as being un-Islamic, as attempting to hijack the regime."

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