A grand jury in Ohio has indicted Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, a recently-naturalized US citizen and resident of Columbus, with two material support counts (and one false statement count) based on allegations that he traveled to Syria to fight, that he received military-style training from al Nusrah, and that he came back to the United States after receiving directions from "a cleric in the organization" who told him "he should return to the United States and carry out an act of terrorism." The indictment alleges that Mohamud told an unidentified person, upon his return, that he meant to kill Americans, preferably at a military base in Texas.
For the sake of the discussion that follows, I will assume the allegations are true. In some respects, this story recalls the dramatic announcement in 2002 that authorities had arrested an American citizen named Jose Padilla, alleging that he had traveled to Afghanistan to train with al Qaeda and then come back to carry out terrorist attacks at home. There are, of course, some salient differences. Most notably, the claim about Padilla focused on the possibility that his attack would involve a "dirty bomb" (i.e., a bomb laced with radioactive material). Also, over the course of the intervening thirteen years it seems the public has simply become much more accustomed to the possibility that a citizen might become radicalized, travel abroad for training, and come back to carry out an attack. (Of course, the Padilla story grew even hotter once he was shifted into military custody, but for purposes of this comparison I am sticking with the initial stage involving arrest by the FBI on a material witness warrant, as Padilla came off the plane in Chicago).
In any event, it seems unlikely the Mohamud story will generate quite the same level of attention. Should it? At first blush, it seems like a huge deal, in that we may be looking at the first example of an American who traveled to Syria and came back with the express intent to carry out a terrorist attack. But it is by no means obvious that this particular threat depended in any crucial way on Mohamud having actually gone to Syria. It seems he was radicalized to violence, including violence directed at Americans, before leaving the country. And nothing in the plot he had in mind would seem to depend on the sort of intensive or specialized training he may have received in Syria, though no doubt that training would help him successfully carry out his plans. That is a disturbing conclusion.
Another interesting question to ponder: For presidential candidates who are open to sending newly-captured al Qaeda suspects to GTMO, does that principle extend to cases like this one (involving citizens, and involving persons linked to AQ via al Nusrah)?
More on the arrest here.