London, Asharq Al-Awsat—A man in a balaclava and fatigues gives a virtual tour of his brigade’s living quarters in Syria. He says he fights for a group called Rayat Al-Tawhid (Banner of God), which is affiliated with the extremist militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In his thick London accent, he complains about the cold when performing his ablutions outdoors: “At nights this place gets so cold, like literally I was wearing my North Face thermal bottoms.”
The YouTube video is one of hundreds posted on the Internet by European fighters in Syria. At least two-thirds of the Western fighters posting on social media are believed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda–inspired groups. These London boys, armed with their Kalashnikovs and Palmer’s cocoa butter body scrub, are causing David Cameron some serious concerns about the threat of terrorism coming out of Syria.
An intergovernmental conference held in London on Wednesday between British, French, Belgian and German officials illustrates the sense of urgency now felt among European governments about tackling their citizens’ participation in Syria’s war. The French government has said it has detected a total of 740 of its citizens who belong to Syrian terrorist networks, with nearly 300 of them currently in Syria. Up to 700 British fighters are also in Syria, while Germany and Belgium each have about 200 nationals fighting in the country. For many of these officials, the biggest threat is not that these young men are going to fight—it is what they will do once they return home. Stopping radicalization before it happens is seen as the key to preventing these young men from becoming involved in extremist activities once they are back on European soil.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, counter-terrorism analyst Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute described these fighters’ presence in Syria as a “very European phenomenon.” Pantucci sees the benefit of a joint European effort to curtail routes across the continent to Syria, as fighters often cross through several European states on the journey to their final destination. As a Europe-wide phenomenon, Wednesday’s meeting presented an opportunity to share notes on counter-terrorism initiatives that work—and those that do not.
The British government looks to be running out of ideas in its attempts to stem the tide of UK citizens going to fight in Syria. Tough measures introduced last year by Home Secretary Theresa May, including the stripping of citizenship, have not deterred new recruits. In what many have described as an act of desperation, last week the police made an unprecedented appeal to Muslim women to help dissuade their relatives from going to join the three-year-old conflict. At the same time, France rolled out some twenty measures to prevent its own citizens from joining the fray, including a hotline for parents and what France’s interior minister described as “repressive elements aimed at dismantling networks” within France, seen in the recent police raids and arrests in Paris of alleged Syria-bound radicals.
Many of Europe’s governments see engagement with the Muslim community as key in trying to discourage would-be jihadists. In several towns and cities, Belgium has set up programs where police, experts and social workers cooperate in community outreach. Britain has its “Prevent” program, with designated officers operating throughout the country to stop the radicalization of British citizens.
But the program has come up against significant resistance. Representatives of Muslim communities that spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat felt let down by the government’s approach to counter-terrorism in failing to target the right people, and instead stigmatizing entire communities. Reactions to the recent police appeal have included accusations of “spying” and forcing families to “grass” on their own. British Muslims talk of a general mistrust between the government and police after years of what they see as aggressive and wrong-headed policies.
Shaista Gohir, who chairs the Muslim Women’s Network UK, says she broke her long silence on the government’s anti-radicalization strategies in supporting the police appeal last week. “I myself disengaged with the government on this particular issue because I feel that, although we have a problem, the police and particularly the government can mishandle it and they can do it in a way where you tarnish all Muslims.” She says she had a change of heart with this appeal, as she does believe Muslim women have a unique opportunity to dissuade family members from going to fight, saying she knows of several cases where women have been able to talk their relatives out of going to Syria.
Just down the river from Westminster in London, the borough of Tower Hamlets is a glaring example of counter-terrorism strategies gone wrong. Government initiatives such as Prevent have failed to halt the recruitment of many of the area’s residents to fight in jihadist wars. A classified government document leaked to the Daily Telegraph earlier this month described Tower Hamlets as “the local authority with one of the highest threats from extremism.” One local Islamic scholar who used to teach religious classes in the neighborhood has even been described as an “emir” of a Syrian jihadist brigade.
The East London Mosque, the biggest Islamic institution in Europe serving the UK’s largest Muslim community, is located in Tower Hamlets. Salman Farsi, a spokesperson for the mosque, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the government needs to take heed of the mainstream Muslim community and not plan its counter-terrorism policies around the advice of what he describes as “neoconservative, counter-extremist think tanks.” He is skeptical about how effective this latest government initiative will be: “The police’s relationship with our community hasn’t been as good as it should be. That obviously will act as a hindrance to the campaign that they’ve launched.” The mosque has previously been very critical of the government’s Prevent program, and Farsi protests that the program is a “tailor-made strategy focusing on our community exclusively.”
The mosque itself has come under scrutiny for inviting extremist preachers and for what some say is its overly lax approach to tackling extremism in Tower Hamlets. Farsi admits that speakers in the past may have given inflammatory sermons elsewhere, but that the mosque has tightened up on the selection of guest speakers since 2010.
Yet some recruits live in total isolation from their communities, and even their families. Huddled behind a computer screen in their bedrooms, many fighters are being indoctrinated over the Internet—and especially teenagers. Research conducted by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London has shown that extremists are increasingly using the Internet, particularly social media, as a tool for both radicalization and recruitment.
Gohir describes how her Twitter account was bombarded with aggressive and insulting messages after she voiced her support for the police initiative, saying she was astounded by the online community she encountered when looking into the accounts of her critics and their connections. “I stumbled upon lots of young people from different parts of the world, including the UK, talking to one another, glorifying jihad, sending links to each other, links to manuals and guidance on how to do jihad,” she said.
A recent study conducted by a French research center, CPDSI (the Center for the Prevention against Sectarian Islam), showed that the vast majority of those who had gone to fight in Syria were indoctrinated via the Internet. In these situations, the dissuasion cannot be done through traditional community channels. Governments are becoming increasingly aware of this threat, and France has called for a Europe-wide plan to cooperate with Internet service providers and social media sites where calls to jihad are posted.
But none of these anti-radicalization initiatives can do much once an individual makes it across the Syrian border. With so many European fighters set to return, there is a real fear that they will bring the violent extremism back home with them. While French president François Hollande says his government has done everything it can to “dissuade, prevent and punish those who are tempted to fight,” the reality is that 130 of its citizens have now returned to France from the Syrian battlefield.