Quilliam’s Political Liaison Officer Jonathan Russell contributed to this article in the Mirror on the manipulation of young Britons leading them to take part in the civil war in Syria.
British teenagers are being radicalised and lured to the bloody Syrian battleground through Twitter and Facebook, a Sunday Mirror investigation has discovered.
A call to arms through social media is encouraging youngsters to fight jihad – the struggle – and seek martyrdom.
Spurred on by heroic tales from older fighters who achieve idol status, as many as 500 British Muslims may have gone to Syria in the past two years, with at least 20 known to have died in battle.
The youngest and most recent is 18-year-old student Abdullah Deghayes, nicknamed Dooley, from Brighton, East Sussex.
The devout teenager, outraged by reports of unspeakable atrocities, told no one he was going to Syria to join the fight to free its people from the brutality of president Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Social media first reported his death last week, circulating graphic videos showing him lying dead on the ground wearing military clothing.
One message posted on Twitter shows a fighter dressed all in black glaring at the camera as another bearded rebel standing next to an anti-aircraft machine gun gives a victory salute. It has the words “Real struggles need real men” on it.
Another propaganda poster shows a fighter looking down the barrel of his rifle with the words: “We shall never live with the rule of men.”
The campaign has drawn hundreds of Brits into the fighting in Syria and our investigation gives an extraordinary glimpse into their lives.
Most boast about fighting alongside other anti-government rebels but others tweet about missing home-comforts.
Jonathan Russell, of the anti-extremist think tank Quilliam Foundation, said: “Twitter acts as an echo chamber for their views. Twitter has really changed the way radicalisation and recruitment works in that it’s not so much groups or hate preachers like we saw in the past.
“Rather, there are people doing nothing illegal, just disseminating information. But they are followed by these young, impressionable Brits and it riles them up.”
Spies from MI5 and GCHQ, Britain’s secret eavesdropping station, regularly monitor jihadis’ messages amid fears they are trying to recruit others to fight.
Young British Muslims who choose to join the battle face a 2,000-mile journey to the frontline, often travelling via Turkey.
But bizarrely, when they arrive in the battle-scarred streets of Aleppo, Homs or Damascus, the enthusiastic “gap year” jihadis find themselves longing for the British way of life.
Alongside gruesome online images of beheadings, bomb attacks and gun battles, they tell pals how they miss McDonald’s food, Premier League football and their favourite Kellogg’s cereal.
“This is Generation Y, people who have grown up with social media,” said Mr Russell. “They see no difference between the online and offline world, so they do what they feel.”
He went on: “If they’re missing the football they will tweet about it, if they have got some downtime they get on Twitter the same way I will.
“You see some of the bravado in some of the tweets, some saying, ‘I just got my first kill’, or, ‘Hoping my brothers in England are going to come out and join me soon’.
“But there are also tweets about people missing food from home, saying, ‘Looking forward to getting back home and getting a Big Mac again’. There are also ones about missing playing video games and their PlayStation.”
Casualty Ifthekar Jaman, 23, from Portsmouth, was killed in December, days after boasting about war in Syria being a “five-star jihad” due to ample supplies and luxury villas often provided as accommodation.
But Mr Russell said the reality is very different for many amateur soldiers faced with daily bloodshed.
“There’s this perception that jihad is really cool, an adventure – it’s the new thing for 18 to 25 year olds to do, like a gap year,” he said. “But the consequences mean that many end up dying out there, as this lad from Brighton has.”
He warned British youngsters joining the fight could also suffer post-traumatic stress if they survived.
“They’re seeing people blown up, people dying on a regular basis. It’s like any reality of war – it’s never as glamorous as it’s made out to be before you go,” he added.
Abdullah, the nephew of former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Omar Deghayes, was killed by a sniper while fighting with the Nora Sy group.
His elder brother Amer, 20, was injured in the same gun battle, believed to have been shot in the stomach.
Back in Brighton, his father says he found out his son was dead after reading messages on Facebook.
Worryingly, intelligence suggests hundreds of Brits in Syria end up fighting with hardline groups linked to terrorist organisations. It is feared they are being trained up by extremists to carry out atrocities in the UK.
One plot for a Mumbai-style attack against a large British city, planned by people returning from Syria, has already been thwarted by MI5.
Incredibly over half of the threats handled by the UK security service have their origins in Syria.
Just two days ago William Hague warned that terror-trained Brits coming back from Syria were “a threat to our national security”.
Today a senior security source warned: “Syria is now regarded as the new training ground for disaffected young Britons hellbent on waging terror. The threat is real and it is increasing.”
Mr Deghayes, who works for the British Libyan Solidarity Campaign, said his son was a martyr, but denied encouraging his sons to fight in Syria.
“Of course I think, as a Muslim, that my son is a martyr. Anyone who dies for a just cause is a martyr,” he said. “I never encouraged them, nor anybody, as far as I know, who is around them encouraged them.
“They went of their own free will. They went without taking consent from their parents.”
He insisted his son was never a danger to the UK and added: “I am sad for the loss of Abdullah but at the same time I can feel some comfort that he went for a just cause. I hope he is rewarded and I hope he is in peace now.”
Click here to read this article in the Mirror.