He claims to have traveled to Afghanistan in 1993 and 1998, where one of his acquaintances had become the Taliban’s shadow governor for Mazar-i-Sharif. He also spent time in Pakistan, Tajikistan, and India, then traveled to Chechnya, where he hid out in a forest for three months with jihadists from Chechnya, Russia, and Central Asia, and converted to Islam. By his own account, he later ‘covered’ Iraq and Palestine, and returned to Afghanistan in 2009.
He states: “All the networks I’ve built up over the years, especially in Chechnya, have been very useful to me in Syria.” One of his former Chechen jihadist buddies put him in contact with Abu al-Walid Muslim the Chechen, the commander of the jihadist group Jund al-Sham, an al Qaeda-inspired group that has used foreign fighters. Tsuneoka says that while “many of the soldiers are Chechen or of Chechen origin, many are European citizens or political refugees in Europe.”
After arriving in Syria with the help of the Jund al Sham, Tsuneoka then became friendly with Sheikh Omar the Syrian, from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (or Levant), one of al Qaeda’s two affiliates in the country. France 24′s photograph of Sheik Omar bears a close resemblance to the Sheik Omar Raghba who was filmed last month smashing a statue of the Virgin Mary in Yakubiya, a Christian town in Idlib province that was taken over by Islamists earlier this year.
Tsuneoka blithely defends his appearances in jihadist propaganda as allowable under Japanese law, and dismisses the idea that he himself is an extremist. Furthermore, he claims that there is no “moral problem with befriending jihadists.” He continues: “If they were Al Qaeda militants, that might be a different story, but these fighters espouse a different ideology; they do not launch attacks that target civilians.”
It is unclear how Tsuneoka could have missed ISIS’ status as one of al Qaeda’s two official affiliates in Syria, the other being the Al Nusrah Front.
Nor has he kept up with the news; just three days ago, a senior US official said 38 suicide bombers have detonated in Syria during last month alone, and that all of them came from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant network. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Syria a ‘transnational threat.’]
And he is definitely not a follower of The Long War Journal, which in March stopped trying to trying to tally the suicide attacks conducted by jihadist groups in Syria when the number neared 70. They are now a near-daily occurrence.
Perhaps the key to his attitude is his unique perspective, as noted by the leader of a jihadist group in Latakia:
[Tsuneoka] just goes anywhere he pleases in areas where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is present. Certainly, someone always accompanies him, but he is completely free in what he chooses to do and the brothers trust him completely. I think it’s due to the fact that he introduced himself as a Muslim from the outset, but also thanks to his objective coverage of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This man has shown that he hasn’t taken sides in his work.
As Bill Roggio remarked after reading the France24 article, “The guy is a moral hazard wrapped up in a cloak of confusion.”
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