Syria’s global conflict
“I am Isis. This is the group I am with. We are trying to establish the law of God, the law of Allah.” Ifthekar Jaman, 23, died fighting with the jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is also known by the acronym ISIL in Syria in December, a few weeks after this interview with the BBC. In a war that has claimed more than 120,000 lives, this in itself is unremarkable. But Jaman was from Southsea in Hampshire, a county in southern England.
Last month, a suicide bomber drove a bus packed with explosives into Aleppo Central Prison, allowing 300 men to break free. Nicknamed Al Britani, Abdul Waheed Majid is believed to have been the first British suicide bomber in an attack co-ordinated by Jabhat Al Nusra, a rebel group linked to Al Qaeda.
These are just two stories among hundreds of young men who have travelled from Europe to fight with the rebels in Syria.
Experts say there are now more than 5,000 foreign fighters in Syria. The majority come from neighbouring countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, but an unprecedented number are travelling from Europe. Intelligence figures show that between 1,100 and 1,700 European men are currently fighting in Syria, with the largest contingents from France (200 to 400), the UK (200 to 300), and Germany (200). There are also significant numbers from Spain, Denmark and Belgium.
Syria is not the first Islamic conflict to see an influx of foreign fighters. But by comparison, the numbers that travelled from Europe to fight in Somalia, Afghanistan or Iraq pale into insignificance. One study suggests that the number of fighters from Europe in Syria exceeds the total number of Muslim foreign fighters from all western countries to all conflicts between 1990 and 2010.
This is partly because it is simply much easier to travel to Syria from Europe – overland from Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan – than it was to reach Afghanistan or Iraq 10 years ago. But beyond such practical considerations, what is motivating these young men – and occasionally, women – to travel to a war zone to fight for a country many have never even visited?
The overwhelming narrative in the western media is of radicalised young men, like Jaman, signing up with extremist jihadi groups that aim to establish an Islamic state in Syria.
Thomas Hegghammer, a senior fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, is tracking foreign fighters from Europe and elsewhere in Syria. “It is not just a story of ideological contamination,” he says. “There is an ideological prerequisite to people going, which is a view that the Muslim world is under siege, and that Muslims in these other conflicts need other Muslims to help. But that’s a view that’s shared by many – and those who go to fight are by no means a cross-section of the Muslim population. Other motivations include the search for adventure, for a meaningful cause.”
Ali is a 20-year-old British-Syrian man. He grew up in west London, spending childhood summers in Damascus with extended family. When the war broke out, his cousins joined the secular Free Syrian Army. In April 2013, Ali decided to follow suit. “My uncle was killed in shelling in Damascus and I wanted to stand with my cousins and protect my family,” he says.
Ali, driven by the desire to fight alongside his family and defend his country of origin, does not fit the profile of a radicalised Islamist extremist. “I was the only foreign fighter in my battalion,” he says. “I read stories about foreign ‘jihadis’ and it makes me anxious people think that’s what I am. I would never be a terrorist.” He returned to London after a few months. He says that he was totally unprepared for the realities of war. “It was impossible for me to be useful – I had never even fired a gun before.”
He suffers from nightmares and persistent anxiety; his relief at getting out alive tempered by guilt about those he left behind.
Experts studying the flow of fighters into Syria acknowledge that – particularly towards the beginning of the conflict – people went to fight for a variety of reasons, including humanitarian concern. However, that appears to be changing. “To say that every foreign fighter is radicalised is an oversimplification, although it’s more and more true,” says Hegghammer. “Over time, the contingent has become clearly more Islamist. The majority of people who go now are in some way in touch with radical communities.”
The war in Syria is first and foremost a civil conflict involving Syrian fighters. However, the presence of foreign fighters from Europe and elsewhere in the region has the power to influence the dynamics of the battlefield. “Even if the foreign fighters are still a quite small minority of the overall rebellion, as well as a minority of Assad’s forces, they often serve in particular areas and have local influence,” explains Aron Lund, the editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s website Syria in Crisis. “On the rebel side, the foreign fighters have very disproportionately joined the most extreme jihadist groups.
That has empowered these groups and contributed to the growth of Sunni Islamist radicalism in northern Syria in particular.
“Suicide attacks are very important to rebels in Syria,” he says. “They’re a weapon the regime has found it difficult to protect against, despite its vast technological advantage.”
Social media is a powerful tool for Islamist groups, with foreign fighters already in Syria using networking sites such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for recruitment. Western media reports have highlighted the so-called “five-star jihad” – drawn from recruitment propaganda referring to the relative comfort of Syria compared with other conflict zones. Many areas are under rebel control, so it is possible to travel to Syria but avoid the front line.
Syria has been described as the most “socially mediated” conflict in modern history. Digital contact is a mixed bag: it is useful for widening networks, but can also expose those involved to monitoring and punishment. Yet the apparent openness of young men posting pictures of themselves on social media confirms the view of analysts that governments are not cracking down on online recruitment to Syria’s many disparate groups as they do with organisations such as Al Qaeda central command.
Such openness also implies that these men are not concerned about being identified. “I have not spoken to a single person fighting in Syria who says he intends to return to the UK,” says Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College in London. “Their bottom line is: ‘We’re here to stay, either to build this utopian Islamic state or to die in the process of achieving it.’ But bear in mind most of these guys are very young. They haven’t had much time as adults to comprehend the idea of staying there for the rest of your life ... we might start to see people returning.”
Yet the risk that these fighters could pose is a concern for policymakers across the Middle East and Europe. Saudi Arabia recently decreed that it will jail any citizen found guilty of fighting in conflicts abroad for up to 20 years and, three weeks ago, banned any involvement in Jabhat Al Nusra and Isil either at home or abroad, after it classified both groups as terrorist organisations. Dozens of Saudi militants who have learnt to use weaponry and build bombs in Syria have turned up in Yemen, it was recently reported.
A study of returnees to Europe from Islamic conflicts from 1999 to 2010 found that fewer than one in nine went on to carry out attacks in the West. However, the rates varied so much between different conflicts that it is difficult to extrapolate a prediction for those returning from Syria. “What accounts for the variation is the presence of an organisation in the war zone that decides to systematically attack the West,” says Hegghammer. “In Syria, you don’t have that.
But there’s a chance that one of the organisations in Syria, or Al Qaeda central, for example, starts using foreign fighters as operatives in the West. They would have a lot of candidates.”
The international response to the conflict in Syria from both western governments and those in the Middle East are increasingly shaped by the perception of the war as a global terrorist problem rather than a local civil conflict. There is debate about the best approach. “Governments have to calibrate their response properly so that they don’t overreact and radicalise people by punishing them too hard for intentions that they don’t have,” warns Hegghammer.
He advocates preventive measures, such as helping Turkey and Lebanon to police their borders, warning of the consequences of going to fight and introducing sanctions against those who do.
Syria’s foreign fighters hail from up to 60 different countries. Many of these men, like Ifthekhar Jaman and Abdul Waheed Majid, have already lost their lives and more appear ready to take their place. “I wanted change in Syria, a new government – that’s why I went to fight,” says Ali. “But none of my family there wants the extremists to win either. Now, we are stuck.”
Samira Shackle is a regular contributor to The National.
Updated: March 27, 2014 04:00 AM