Shiraz Maher writes: For those of who have followed the conflict in Syria and Iraq closely, it came as no surprise – shocking though it was – to discover that a seemingly British jihadist had beheaded the American journalist James Foley. Over the past year jihadists from this country have participated in suicide bombings, tortured detainees in their care, and executed prisoners of war.
It is true that not every British fighter who has travelled to Syria engages in these types of acts. Indeed, many of the early fighters who went did so for humanitarian reasons. Through numerous interviews it is clear to me that their motivations and ambitions were materially different from those who followed them.
Over time, however, it is also clear that attitudes have hardened. Romantic notions of saving oppressed civilians from a government intent on killing them has given way to a culture of casual brutality and callousness.
That nonchalance was epitomised by a British fighter I used to speak with regularly. When he was first in Syria he complained about the brutality of the Islamic State (Isis) and condemned its strategy of kidnapping journalists and aid workers. Months later he published a picture of three captured men with the caption: “Will be killed tomorrow, can’t wait for that feeling when you just killed someone.” Days later he posted a picture of his bloodied hand. “My first time,” he said. What is perhaps more disturbing is that he is an intelligent man who attended Queen Mary University.
A long list of similar incidents could be reproduced here. Indeed, a number of British fighters have celebrated Foley’s murder, often joking in macabre fashion about wanting to “play football”. A man from Manchester using the pseudonym Abu Qaqa tweeted: “Beheaded by a British brother! What an honour! What a beautiful message to America.” Qaqa has himself posted pictures of beheaded opponents on his Twitter account.
Messages like that are ones that Isis seems increasingly keen to direct towards the west. Another British fighter warned of terrorist attacks back home. “To the people of the UK, because of the actions of your government, it will be you who pay the price. Blame them & not us,” he wrote. The most recent Briton to have been killed in Syria, Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, also spoke of his desire to see a repeat of the 9/11 attacks shortly before his death.
It has repeatedly been suggested that foreign fighters today are no different to those who participated in the Spanish civil war. Proponents of such a view argue that George Orwell and Laurie Lee would now be treated as terrorists. To persist in this belief is to allow the owl of Minerva to spread its wings at dusk, because it ignores the changed and changing nature of both our society and the global jihad movement. [Continue reading…]