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Excerpts from The Economist, Aug. 30, 2014:
The Soufan Group, a New York-based intelligence outfit, reckons that by the end of May as many as 12,000 fighters from 81 nations had joined the fray [Islamic State], among them some 3,000 from the West (see chart above). The number today is likely to be a lot higher. Since IS declared a caliphate on June 29th, recruitment has surged. Syria has drawn in fighters faster than in any past conflict, including the Afghan war in the 1980s or Iraq after the Americans invaded in 2003. […]
Most Western fighters are men under 40, but this war has attracted more women than past causes. Some 10-15% of those travelling to Syria from some Western countries are female, reckons Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), a London-based think-tank. As many as 30 may have gone from Sweden alone. Some hope to marry, others join all-female units to ensure that women in areas under IS control obey the strictest version of Islamic rules, such as covering up; a few take part in battles.
IS is not the only group Westerners join, but it is the most appealing thanks to its global outlook, which includes spreading the caliphate across the world, to its attempts to implement immediate sharia law—and to the glow of its military success. In a five-part documentary filmed in Raqqa by Vice, a news website, as a guest of IS, the group’s religious police are shown educating Syrians, running courts, indoctrinating children and putting on public entertainment.
The motives of those going to fight are as varied as their passports. In the early days of the war in Syria, foreigners wanted to help their fellow Muslims, by bringing them food and medicine, or by fighting alongside them. Governments throughout the West were saying that President Bashar Assad and his atrocities must be stopped. Doctors such as Abbas Khan, a Briton, travelled to rebel-held Aleppo—only to be killed in Syrian custody after being captured by Mr Assad’s forces.
Since then the fight has become bloodier and more sectarian. Civilians have died in the tens of thousands—the UN says at least 190,000 Syrians have been killed—and rebel crimes have become more frequent. As a result the war is drawing in more extreme types. Those who talked of defending Syrians now deny that the land belongs to the locals, says Shiraz Maher of ICSR. “Bilad al-Sham”, or Greater Syria, has a special status in Islam because it appears in end-of-time prophecies. It belongs to Allah, fighters declare. But what if Syrians do not want Islamic law? “It’s not up to them, because it’s for Islam to implement Islamic rule,” says the European fighter who says he left his home country because it was not Islamic enough. He says he wants to “educate rather than behead Syrians”.
IS is the most extreme manifestation of a Muslim response to the history of the past few centuries when the West has been seen to thrive as the Muslim world has declined. One line of thinking blames this on the absence of a caliphate—the last one was abolished by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s secular moderniser, in 1924—and of sharia rule. Most of IS’s ideas and all of its gorier methods are rejected by most Muslims, who see the group simply as criminal. But it does draw on Islamic theology, arguing—for instance—that non-Muslims should pay jizya, a special tax.
Poverty does not explain the lure of jihad for Western fighters. Many of them are quite middle-class. Nasser Muthana, a 20-year-old Welshman who goes by the name Abu Muthana al-Yemeni in IS videos, had offers to study medicine from four universities. Nor does a failure to integrate into the societies around them. Photographs of Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, another British fighter thought to have recently been killed, show a young man in a snazzy suit with a slick hairstyle. He worked at Primark, a cheap retailer, in Portsmouth, a city on the English coast. His father ran a curry restaurant. Nor does religious piety. Before leaving for Syria, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, two young men from Birmingham who pleaded guilty to terrorism offences in July, ordered copies of “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies” from Amazon. Some fighters are religious novices, says Mr Maher.
More plausible explanations are the desire to escape the ennui of home and to find an identity. “Some individuals are drawn out there because there is not a lot going on in their own lives,” says Raffaello Pantucci, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think-tank. Images of combatants playing snooker, eating sweets and splashing in swimming pools have sometimes suggested that jihad was not unlike a student holiday, without the booze. For young men working in dead-end jobs in drab towns, the brotherhood, glory and guns seem thrilling. Many of Belgium’s fighters come from the dullest of cities, where radicals have concentrated their efforts to get recruits. […]
Many say they feel more comfortable in a country where the way of life is Islamic—even if not yet Islamic enough—and have no plans to leave or carry out attacks elsewhere. “I am much happier here—got peace of mind,” says the European fighter. […]
Coming back home is far from simple. Western authorities have some idea of who has gone and notice them when they return. […]
Yet the jihadists’ return is just what Western governments fear. So far foreigners such as Douglas McCain, who recently became the first American known to have died fighting for IS, seem to have focused on fighting in Syria and Iraq rather than at home. More likely are lone-wolf attacks, such as the murder last year of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, by two jihadists in London. Mehdi Nemmouche, a French-Algerian who was arrested on suspicion of having shot and killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels earlier this year, is believed to have spent a year fighting in Syria. Such attacks are much harder for security services to predict and stop.
So far the responses of Western governments to their citizens’ self-deployment have varied. America has cracked down on anyone it suspects of going to fight. It can afford to do so, argues Mr Hegghammer, because its Muslim population is smaller than that of many European countries, as is the fear of a political backlash. European governments have been more cautious. Their citizens have travelled out with ease. Harsher penalties might deter some. But prosecute too widely and governments may end up boosting the flow of recruits. And prisons have proved fertile recruitment grounds for Muslim radicals.
Deradicalisation programmes, such as those run by Saudi Arabia and Sweden, have mixed results. Most successful, in Britain at least, have been attempts by the so-called Channel programme, part of the British government’s counter-terrorism strategy, to divert young people from extremism. Such efforts, with police, social services and local authorities working together, draw on methods used to help young people leave gangs.
And not all of those returning will have blood on their hands. Governments need to offer a way out for those who realise they have made a mistake, says Mr Neumann. Western countries may even benefit from a softer approach. Chastened returning fighters may be the very people to persuade more young men to forgo the fight. But no one yet knows whether today’s European jihadists fighting for IS will become tomorrow’s murderers on the streets of London, Paris or New York.