Jihad for Beginners: Westerners Fighting With al-Qaeda in Syria

Western governments are increasingly worried about foreigners going to fight in Syria with extremist groups

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Guillaume Briquet / AFP / Getty Images

Center: A Turkish fighter of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front, bearing the flag of Al-Qaeda on his jacket, holds position with fellow comrades on April 4, 2013 in the Syrian village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo.

The men appeared confused. They huddled around a rotisserie-chicken stand in the Syrian city of al-Bab, 11 of them, dressed in the black tunic and trousers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda affiliate that is fighting against the Syrian government of Bashar Assad. Back from the front lines, guns slung from their shoulders, they tried, in vain, to communicate with the shopkeeper. Their Arabic was nonexistent; their English fractured. They consulted with one another in Albanian. Was the chicken halal, appropriate for observant Muslims to eat? Another foreigner, an adviser to an international aid agency who happened to speak Albanian, solved their dilemma. He assured them that the chicken, in this most conservative part of Muslim Syria, would be nothing but halal. Satisfied, they placed their orders.

“It was just so bizarre to see a Kosovar Albanian asking if the shawarma was halal,” said the aid worker, laughing, as he recounted the incident over Skype. He spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his organization. “I’ve seen Chechens, Norwegians, Belgians and even a guy who said he was Somali but who spoke in a thick Birmingham accent. These fighters are coming from everywhere.”

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While Westerners make up about 10% of the foreign fighters in Syria, according to counterterrorism analysts, European and U.S. officials have raised the alarm about increasing numbers of their citizens taking up the fight. Most join al-Qaeda-affiliated groups like ISIS, which are dominated by seasoned jihadis from South Asia, North Africa and the Persian Gulf. The fear, say concerned officials, is that when fighters return home, they bring with them battlefield skills and extremist ideologies, or worse — intent to do violence in their home countries. Andrew Parker, head of the U.K.’s domestic intelligence service, MI5, said in a parliamentary hearing last week that British citizens in “the low hundreds” had been going to Syria to fight with al-Qaeda. The danger, he said, is when al-Qaeda elements in Syria “meet British citizens who are willing to engage in terrorism, and they task them to do so back at home, where they have higher impact.”

While al-Qaeda might be focusing on Assad at the moment, the group is already discussing taking the fight beyond Syria’s borders, according to U.S. Congressman Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “They’re talking about conducting external operations, which is exactly what happened in Afghanistan, which led to 9/11,” he said at a foreign policy forum on Oct. 22. In Europe, Syria-related arrests have begun. On Nov. 5 six ethnic Albanians were arrested in Kosovo on suspicion of “preparing a terrorist act against the safety and constitutional order” in Kosovo, according to an arrest warrant seen by the Associated Press. Two of the men are also suspected of attacking American Mormon missionaries in the capital, Pristina. Authorities believe that at least two of the men have recently returned from Syria.

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Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, told Reuters that at least 220 German citizens had gone to Syria. Belgian authorities estimate that 150 of their citizens have joined the fight. So too have 150 ethnic Albanians, according to Kosovar officials; at least a dozen of those have been killed in Syria, as reported by the Associated Press. In the U.S., a Pakistani immigrant was caught in a FBI sting trying to go to Syria to join the Nusra Front, another al-Qaeda group named by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. “Syria has become the premier location for jihad,” says Shiraz Maher of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, a London-based think tank focused on understanding and analyzing violent extremism. “Al-Qaeda groups in Somalia and Yemen are saying, ‘Don’t forget about us, we need fighters too.’”

Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, where Western troops led the war effort, the fight in Syria is far less controversial for would-be jihadis who might be put off by the idea of confronting their own nationals on the battlefield. It’s also a lot easier to get to. Syria is on Europe’s doorstep. All it takes is a flight to Turkey and a contact to help cross the porous, 560-mile-long border. German citizens do not even need a passport to enter Turkey; an ID card suffices. “Once you are there you can be quickly integrated into brigades, and you can fight alongside people with the same language,” says Maassen.

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The Syrian jihad has taken on an almost summer-camp feel for some young Muslim men, says Maher, who maintains regular contact with several British fighters in Syria. It’s a rite of passage that gives them a sense of community while testing their manhood. “Going out to the fight gives them a kind of euphoric high,” he says, pointing out that unlike some of the less well-funded moderate rebel groups, the al-Qaeda affiliates can offer fighters a far more comfortable experience. Their food, clothing and shelter are taken care of, they have wi-fi in well-appointed camps and they are given weapons. They take selfies with their balaclavas and post them on Facebook and Instagram. And for believers, the religious aspects of the fight ensure hero status. “Either you win the battle, or you die and you become a martyr and go to heaven. So it’s victory or paradise,” says Maher. The only risk is when they bring that philosophy home.

42 comments
YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

Why are you surprised that "multi-culture" ideology breeds also Jihadists? What can be more enticing than: "fight with no limits in Syria, rest in glory in the UK and get the 72 virgins bonus in heaven?"

Ed Zamborsky
Ed Zamborsky

Maybe their parents didn't love them enough?

Abdul Naeem Quraishi
Abdul Naeem Quraishi

With the West the score is one down (USSR) one to go. Europeans can join up and enjoy the benefits of Jihad.

Cara Berk
Cara Berk

I always get strange looks when I say the word balaclava. This is probably why.

AsherGammon
AsherGammon

Due to the affordable, accessible and broad reach the use of social media by terrorist groups are inevitably going to use social media in an attempt to achieve their aims and raise their messages across a wide audience within western states. 

Of course the relationship between terrorism and the media is already difficult, the medias nature to compete for coverage of terrorist attacks is in inevitably helping to spread the message of the terrorists groups by doing so.  Therefore a free and open media is always free and open to exploitation and manipulation of terrorist organisations. 

People are reliant on media to inform them of terrorism, as a threat to there safety they want to know about it. However it is a "curiosity killed the cat" scenario, as there demand on information on terrorism will only help terrorists secure their goals of spreading fear. Although western democratic media does not share the interests of terrorist groups, terrorism in the media will inevitably sell as it is regarding the safety of the consumer  - we can only hope the media does not exploit the public's vulnerability in order to secure profit.

 

Bio Ou
Bio Ou

down with Jihad and islamic terror

Clarence Ching
Clarence Ching

If they want to join them then they can die with them as well. Turning their backs on the good guys.

Cameron Tooman
Cameron Tooman

I know some young men in training posting selfies on Facebook too. They are called the United States Army Infantry. ;)

Tebe Sozani
Tebe Sozani

وهابی یعنی بن یهودی یعنی الحیوان

Ash Roshan
Ash Roshan

great, now all qaedas using fb, whats next

Dan Kummer
Dan Kummer

Financed by the US Government. The US goverment laid it's cards out on the table with Syria and admitted publicly what we've always known, that the CIA and Al Queda are joined at the hip.

Matt McRimmon
Matt McRimmon

Dear rest of the world, Not all of us American's approve of this approach. By now, I hope you see that most of the moves made by our government are politically driven, financially driven decisions, so on and so fourth. This isn't the America our forefathers built.

Jonathan D Borazjani
Jonathan D Borazjani

lol, terrorists are terrorists. USA should know to stay out of a situation like this.

Brian Giddens
Brian Giddens

..Like Jim Morrison said " the West is the best" ... you see, since they can't top Western civilization they seek to destroy it. If they had something better to offer it would be obvious and people would look up to them, but that's not the case is it... That's why they have to brainwash they're young and make it seem like they are doing God's work.

Keith A. West
Keith A. West

Oh it's always over religion to them....it sure isn't about human rights and equality now is it lol?

Keith A. West
Keith A. West

Yes in the West we speak dozens of different languages we are of different cultural beliefs different religious beliefs define the West

Veselin Vasilev
Veselin Vasilev

We have 500 years experience with terrorists in Bulgaria during the Ottoman rule. Send these rats of Al-Qaeda in Bulgaria, and the whole organization will be ruined by us. When Bulgarians are fighting, they are fighting as a lions. Be sure that none of them will survive :)

Ray Ramirez
Ray Ramirez

The west you all talk about the West what's up with that?

Vladimir Yosifov
Vladimir Yosifov

Те ще дойдат ... СКОРО !!! Бъдете солидарни и помогнете на тези добри хора ...

Keith A. West
Keith A. West

Ali...don't get your panties in a bunch....their no different... But you look foolish when this article is not talking about them its talking about specifics Syrian people

Keith A. West
Keith A. West

I hate the West....but I will use their technology.

Saadia Ali
Saadia Ali

is anyone keeping account of all the British men and women who have gone to fight "against the west"? also all the men and women who are in Syria at the moment? what about when they come back? and not just asians but white people too

arvay
arvay

One positive outcome could be that many of these fanatics go to Syria from Europe and other places and never return. The Russians  for sure will happily dispatch as many Chechens as feasible. Muslims who migrated to Europe for a better life will be well rid of a hefty slice of the looney fringe.

For Americans, this offesr a lesson in the inadequacy of our typical "good guys" vs. "bad guys" conversation. The best possible outcome in this mess is a victory by Assad, who kills as many of these fanatics as he can in the process. Assad is certainly no "good guy" but he's preferable to these jihadists. 

The thought of angry and feeling-betrayed insurgents migrating to Saudi Arabia and Qatar is hopeful as well.

We Americans have to grow up and acquire a bit of real insight into the world. John Wayne should not be our geopolitics professor. 


Openminded1
Openminded1

I wonder if obama's brother malik a member and recruiter for the muslim brotherhood in kenya, helped train or get the funding for these so called non violent muslims. You dumb  liberal morons so naive .

Openminded1
Openminded1

ah the non violent muslims , all the dummy libs think are great people. they keep tell me how many they are and that they all can not be bad. Libs so naive. You trust a Muslim you are not just naive, your stupid. If there are goods one, they do not wear nametags, stating I am a nice Muslim. You idiot bleeding heart libs.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@azmalhome Nice try moron,the only thing al-qaeda is an agent to if anything is the Muslim brotherhood.