Quilliam’s Senior Researcher in Islamic Studies Dr Usama Hasan and Programs Officer Ed Swan look at British participation in the civil war in Syria, and examine why the context of the war sets it apart from previous conflicts that have attracted foreign jihadists.
Last week, a national campaign was launched by police chiefs to spread awareness about the dangers of young British citizens travelling to fight in the Syrian civil war, and to encourage families and communities to help support young people vulnerable to radicalisation. There are now estimated to be around 500 young British Muslims fighting in Syria, the majority of whom are fighting alongside Islamist extremist groups with links to al-Qaeda such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
In the light of these recent developments, this article explores why a sizable number of Britons are travelling to a dangerous war zone in a country where very few have any kind of personal connections and what is driving this worrying trend.
The phenomenon of British Muslims travelling overseas to take part in jihad is nothing new – hundreds of young British men, among them one of the co-authors of this article Usama Hasan, went abroad to attend training camps and fight jihad in Afghanistan from 1987-92, and after that Bosnia, Kashmir and even Chechnya during the 1990s. UK intelligence services estimated that around 1,000 went to fight in Bosnia, the destination that probably attracted the largest number of fighters, although a similar number may have trained in Pakistan, a base for militants operating in both Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Many of these men believed that they were fighting for a just cause, helping oppressed Muslims overcome tyranny and oppression inflicted on them by unjust non-Muslim powers. As such, they felt they were performing a religious duty in protecting fellow Muslims, and many were also motivated by the need to struggle for the worldwide Islamist cause. After 9/11 and the launch of the US-led ‘war on terror’, the situation changed dramatically: much jihadist activity worldwide was subsequently deemed terrorist in nature and was opposed vigorously by international political, legal and military means. In turn, local political conflicts began to be interpreted by some as manifestations of a wider war between the West and Islam, and attacks against the West became, to a small number of fighters, a logical extension of their struggle.
The war in Syria is very different to many of the previous conflicts that have attracted British would-be jihadists. Firstly, evolving technology has meant that information on the war in Syria is more accessible than ever to young people in the UK. Potential fighters in Syria are able to keep up-to-date on events on the ground by means of non-stop updates on social media networks. The ease of using social media to present jihad in Syria as something glamorous and heroic also allows extremist networks to profit from the frustration that many young British Muslims feel at home, whether as a result of discrimination, unemployment, or simply a sense of alienation or youthful malaise – to some, the adventure of taking part in glorious jihad will always be more appealing than a boring nine-to-five job.
Secondly, the ease of physical travel to Syria, compared with previous conflicts, is a factor that helps enable a larger volume of fighters to join the conflict. A flight to Turkey and a short overland journey is all that is required to reach rebel strongholds in Northern Syria. Networks to facilitate foreign fighters with all necessary logistics support are by now well established.
Thirdly, the scriptural and eschatological significance of Syria also means that, in the minds of some jihadists, this war is more attractive than any previous war. Interpreters of Islamic prophecy identify Syria as the location of the final war between the mahdi, the prophesised final ruler of Islam before the day of judgement, and the Antichrist. According to Islamic hadith, the second coming of Jesus Christ will take place near Damascus (or Jerusalem according to some interpretations) in the midst of this war, and the returned Christ will ally with the mahdi to defeat the Antichrist. The significance of Syria is increased by its proximity to Jerusalem, making the conflict a precursor to the destruction of Israel in the imagination of some jihadists. These aspects of the conflict are heavily marketed in extremist propaganda aimed at recruiting fighters to Syria.
Beyond eschatological dimensions, Islamist groups of all persuasions have long hated the ruling Assad dynasty in Damascus. Hafez al-Assad’s 1982 Hama massacre, in which 20-30,000 mainly unarmed civilians were murdered in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, lives long in the memory. To this is added numerous atrocities committed by the regime since the outbreak of war, and a long history of nepotism, corruption, and the perceived privilege of the secular-minded and wealthy Alawite minority over the Sunni majority. Following the fall of Hussein, Gaddafi and Mubarak, Assad remains as the last of the ‘old guard’ of hated Arab dictators.
However, the Syrian conflict is also far more brutal and dangerous than many of the previous conflicts of this nature. Whilst jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1990s were to some extent attentive to Islamic teachings on the conduct of war, in terms of ethical treatment of prisoners for example, this is no longer the case. Ruthless executions of civilians and secular rebel fighters by extremist factions in Syria are now commonplace whilst extremist factions are also increasingly turning on each other. The result is that the Syrian conflict no longer resembles a rebellion against an unjust and unpopular dictatorship but a slow and steady descent into chaos.
Furthermore, from interviews with Islamist fighters in Syria, and the emerging reality in Islamist controlled cities such as Raqqa, it is clear that the ambitions of Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are not limited to overthrowing the Assad regime, but also extend to establishing an Islamic state, imposing by force a medieval interpretation of Sharia law, with discrimination against non-Muslims and women, and severe penalties for dissidents and non-conformists. This is clearly very far from modern notions of universal human rights and equality.
While some British Muslims may be travelling to Syria with the noble intention of protecting Muslim brothers and sisters facing murderous assault, in their naivety they are in fact prolonging and aggravating a brutal civil war in which Muslims are killing Muslims on a horrific scale. There is an urgent need for the international community to take part in serious diplomatic engagement to end the war, just as the 1995 Dayton accords brought an end to war and jihadism in Bosnia. At the same time, false narratives that present the Syrian conflict in idealistic terms need to be challenged, the dangers of travelling to the region need to be exposed and the counter-productive nature of the involvement of untrained and naïve young Britons needs to spelled out.