From Portsmouth to Kobane: the British jihadis fighting for ISIS

Shiraz Maher, from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), an academic research unit at King’s College London, has over the last year been interviewing dozens of British fighters who joined ISIS in Syria. He says that social media has played a crucial role as a tool for recruitment.

The use of the internet by jihadists is hardly new but the manner in which its potential is being harnessed has vastly changed. During the Iraq war, sympathisers of al-Qaeda needed access to password-protected forums, where they could learn about events on the ground. These forums were not easy to find and access was harder to gain. Crucially, most of the conversations were in Arabic, a language alien to most British Muslims.

Social media has changed all this, empowering individual fighters to become recruiting sergeants in their own right. What makes them so powerful is their sheer ordinariness. Indeed, most fighters tend to stress their unremarkable nature: “There’s nothing special about me,” they might say. “I just decided to come. If I can do it, you can do it.”

The effect of social media is to normalise the experience, while also motivating and inspiring potential recruits. Perhaps most significant is that the conversation runs two ways. In the past, al-Qaeda would issue unidirectional edicts and vague instructions to followers to “do something” at home. Today, you can talk to fighters directly and have a proper conversation.

These interactions help prospective fighters overcome lingering fears and emotional barriers. Fighters are asked, for example, how they broke the news to their parents and how their families are coping with their decision. Others ask what living arrangements are like in Syria, or how to cross the border safely.

Maher classifies the fighters in the following way:

There are those who are principally motivated by the region’s human suffering, whom we call missionary jihadis; there are martyrdom seekers, who regard the conflict as a shortcut to paradise; there are those simply seeking adventure, for whom the supposed masculinity of it all has great appeal; and, finally, there are long-standing radicals for whom the conflict represents a chance to have the fight they had been waiting for.

Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, had been a supervisor at a clothing store in Portsmouth before going to Syria. He craved martyrdom.

Speaking with Rahman was difficult. During our first exchange, he was deeply suspicious of me and recommended that I quit my job in order to join him in Syria. We didn’t talk for several months.

Then, one day, he resumed contact shortly after IS had swept into Iraq and taken Mosul. Despite his obvious excitement and pride, Rahman painted a sober picture of daily life. “One of the hardest things about being here is the waiting,” he told me. “We are trying to build a state. This is why a lot of ribat [guard duty] is required, so the area is secure.”

The downtime is something that a lot of foreign fighters complain about. The reality on the ground is a world away from the glamour of well-produced recruitment videos. Boredom is not just confined to those in IS. Foreign fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra and lesser-known, independent groups complain of the same thing.

At the same time, however, many use the phrase “five-star jihad” to describe their living arrangements on the camps. Some have taken to posting pictures of themselves online, posing with chocolate bars or jars of Nutella to prove that they can still access their home comforts on the Syrian front line.

A callousness towards the concerns of ordinary Syrians had also crept into the attitude of these fighters – the constituency in whose defence they once claimed to be acting. When asked what he thought of those Syrians who opposed Islamic State, Rahman conceded, “There are a number of them that dislike us. However, the lands belong to Allah’s [sic] not them. Also I [came] here to please my creator and not them.” [Continue reading…]

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