Radical Chic

Radicalized, trained and battle-hardened,homegrown Western jihadis are becoming a growing threat

Veiled woman shoots gun (illustrative)‏ (photo credit: REUTERS)
Veiled woman shoots gun (illustrative)‏
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 “If you can’t come over here, then stay inside your countries in the West and plan something over there. You don’t need to blow something up and get caught, you can just stab somebody right there in the street.”
This is the message, transmitted via grainy footage filmed on a cellphone camera inside an al-Qaida-linked base north of Aleppo, Syria, given by a balaclava-clad jihadi known as Abu Maryam, his thick London accent betraying his British origins.
A British Muslim of Pakistani heritage, Abu Maryam is a member of a Chechen-led extremist Islamist battalion associated with al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
In his videotaped message, Abu Maryam appeals to British Muslims to carry out terror attacks on British soil.
Two other jihadis appear alongside him in the film – one masked and carrying a rifle and another bareheaded and bearded. These two men are jihadis from Russia’s Northern Caucasus known as Abu Rofik Tatarstani and Abu Zahra, and it is they who gave per - mission to film their “British brother” as he urges British Muslims to “follow the example of Michael Adebolajo,” one of two men convicted of the May 2013 stabbing murder of off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby on a south - east London street.
“You can stab a soldier, and you know where all the soldiers are. There are many soldiers walking around with their uniforms on,” Abu Maryam insists.
He concludes his speech with a prayer. “ In - shallah [God-willing], I hope I’ve inspired you, because it’s an obligation for me to in - spire you,” he says.
Abu Maryam is one of an estimated 500 UK nationals who are fighting in Syria. Most have joined the ultra-violent extremist group Islamic State or IS (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL), but some fight with another al-Qaida offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra or as “freelancers” – hired guns who join any group that needs them.
Fears that young Britons like Abu Maryam, radicalized, trained and given battlefield experience in Syria, could return to the UK and commit terror attacks against British targets have skyrocketed in recent weeks, sparked by the news that a British member of IS had been filmed beheading two Western journalists. That British jihadi, a former rapper nicknamed “Jihadi John,” murdered the American James Foley on August 19, and then two weeks later, Foley’s Israeli- American colleague Stephen Sotloff, who freelanced for The Jerusalem Report ( see page 29 ). A British aid worker, David Haines, was executed by IS on September 13.
According to Raffaello Pantucci, a Senior Research Fellow on counterterrorism and radicalization issues at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, Europe already has seen evidence of blowback from Syria, with IS-trained foreign jihadis returning home and plotting attacks on domestic soil.
Pantucci cites the case of Mehdi Nemmouche, the 29-year-old French national suspected of killing four people in a shooting attack at the Brussels Jewish Museum in May. French journalist Nicolas Henin, whom IS held captive in Syria alongside Sotloff and Foley, named Nemmouche as one of their cap - tors, and accused the Frenchman of torture.
It is not surprising, Pantucci believes, that blowback from Syria has materialized in the West, given the sheer number of foreign fighters taking part in the hostilities there.
“If we look at history and consider the fact that every other battlefield which has had foreign fighters going to it has produced a terrorist plot of one shape or form, and the numbers going to Syria eclipse all other battlefields, it only makes sense that something is going to happen with fighters coming back from Syria,” he told The Report. 
In the wake of the Foley and Sotloff murders, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK had raised its terror threat level to “severe” – meaning that there is a high likelihood of a terrorist attack but no specific information about a plot.
BRITAIN ALSO has announced new measures to help combat the terrorist threat from nationals suspected of fighting in Syria, including legislation to allow police to confiscate passports and block suspected home - grown terrorists at the border.
Britain is not, of course, the only Western country concerned by the threat IS poses. Ac - cording to Prof. Peter Neumann of the Inter - national Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, over 12,000 foreign fighters from over 74 countries have mobilized to fight in Syria. Of these, about 700 are from France, over 500 from Britain, 400 from Germany, 300 from Belgium and 100 from the United States, Neumann told re - porters in New York, on September 9. There are no figures for the number of fighters who have returned home.
A report published by Canada’s Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney stated that as of early 2014, the government knows of “80 individuals who have returned to Canada after travel abroad for a variety of suspected terror - ism-related purposes.” It is believed that many of those individuals returned from Syria.
Just as in Britain, Blaney’s report has sparked calls by Canadian MPs for tougher legislation to deal with the threat from IS, as well as an enquiry into government efforts to combat the radicalization of Canadian Muslims.
Syria returnees could commit terror attacks against US interests as well as in their own country, says Dr. Steve Hewitt, an expert in Canadian security and intelligence issues at the University of Birmingham, in the UK.
Hewitt believes the Canadian authorities must seriously consider the possibility that Canadian returnees from Syria could attempt attacks against the US, as well as domestic targets.
“This would seemingly have a greater impact for IS since the US is its main enemy, plus it would damage Canadian-American relations,” says Hewitt, adding that such a scenario is something the Canadian government has feared since 1999, when al-Qaida terrorist Ahmed Ressam was caught crossing into the  US from Canada as part of a plan to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.
While attention in the UK and Canada has focused on toughening anti-terror legislation, legal and terrorism experts say these moves might not be effective.
Dr. Alan Greene, a legal expert from Durham University in the UK, told The Re - port that Britain’s plans to revoke the pass - ports of those suspected of fighting in Syria were unclear and problematic from a legal standpoint, and questionable as a means of preventing terror.
“Essentially, revoking passports would be rendering a person stateless and would be contrary to international law,” he says.
Canadian terrorism expert Hewitt says current Canadian legislation may not be sufficient to block Canadians from going abroad to fight. The real issue, he believes, lies in understanding why young Western Muslims are drawn to jihad in the first place.
“Why and how people go is such a com - plicated phenomenon that I’m not sure any Western country has a proper handle on the situation,” Hewitt tells The Report. Certainly, I think the emphasis on increased penalties is somewhat self-defeating since it hardly seems likely to discourage those driven by factors such as idealism, excitement, adventure, and being part of a cause larger than themselves.”
Although the sheer numbers of Western nationals fighting in Syria have given rise to fears of increased radicalization in the West, Aaron Zelin, a Middle East scholar with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says factors other than radicalization may be in play.
“I think it highlights the uniqueness and resonance and the specific appeal of Syria. It’s completely unprecedented,” he says.
Part of the reason more Western jihadis are going to Syria is that fighting there is consid - ered “defensive jihad” – protecting one’s fel - low Sunni Muslim brethren – rather than the “offensive jihad” of training to attack Western targets preached by al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden, Zelin believes.
“The argument to go fight in Syria is a lot easier to swallow than say going to an al- Qaida camp to train to kill civilians back home,” he adds.
These sentiments – a sense of adventure, a yearning to belong to a global cause, and the desire to help fellow Sunnis – are expressed openly by many British and North American jihadis in Syria, who talk about their lives via social media sites like Ask.fm, a website where users can ask other users questions.
On Ask.fm, jihadis document their escapades in Syria, casually preach radical Islam, and reach out to their peers back home in the UK, US or Canada with advice and instructions about joining them in Syria.
Zelin says Ask.fm has been important for jihadi recruitment because it provides an unprecedented level of intimacy.
“[Ask.fm] allows fighters on the ground to show what it’s really like or what they need to bring, therefore, reassuring potentially hes - itant individuals,” says Zelin.
Among those prominent on Ask.fm is 24-year-old Canadian IS fighter Abu Khalid al-Kanadi (“the Canadian”). Via his Ask.fm account, al-Kanadi relates that he was raised Christian and converted to Islam shortly be - fore traveling to Syria.
“Didn’t tell my parents ’till I got here,” al-Kanadi says.
As well as giving information about his personal reasons for being in Syria, al-Kanadi offers advice and encouragement to would-be jihadis from back home.
IN RESPONSE to a question put to him by a fellow Canadian, a 17-year-old recent convert desperate to run away from home and join IS, al-Kanadi advises caution. “The intelligence agencies are working harder against aspiring emigrants... Be careful who you talk to, don’t tell a single friend or family member, don’t watch jihadi videos, go ASAP,” he says.
Al-Kanadi also advises his Ask.fm followers that Western society, particularly the US, is corrupt. “America is a barbaric, immoral society, such that many of its people are sexual deviants,” he writes via Ask.fm.
Another jihadi, who uses the nom de guerre Al-Muhajir al-Britani (“the British foreign fighter”), tells would-be recruits that life with ISIS is not as comfortable as the West, but that jihadis are rewarded spiritually.
”If you have just come from the luxury life in the UK, then it can be difficult at first...
[but] it’s a better living. You live under the Sharia [Islamic law] and not democracy. Is there any comparison?” he writes.
Beyond these unofficial outreach activities, IS recently has begun to expand its official propaganda designed for consumption by a young, English-speaking audience in the West.
Until recently, jihadist material was avail - able almost exclusively in Arabic on specialist jihadi forums. In recent months, IS opened a new media outlet, Al-Hayat, under the au - thority of the group’s official propaganda arm, the Al-Itisam Establishment for Media Production. Al-Hayat targets Western and non-Arabic speaking audiences by publishing material in English. Its publications include a color magazine, Dabiq, named after the area in northern Syria where IS believes Arma - geddon will take place. Launched in July, with content ranging from religious homilies, tales of battle victories and anti-Western diatribes, Dabiq is distributed openly on social media.
The main theme of the latest issue is the beheading of American James Foley. Next to a graphic image of the kneeling, orange-clad Foley moments before his brutal death, is an article titled “Foley’s Blood is on Obama’s Hands.”
“Foley’s work entailed documenting the wars through the crusaders’ eyes, reporting all that which serves their foreign policy and agenda whilst withholding any news that could expose their evils. In the archive of photographs he had personally taken, there were images glorifying the American crusaders in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Dabiq writes.
To counter the appeal of IS’s outreach efforts, which are specifically calibrated to appeal to Western youth seeking validation, adventure, excitement and belonging, some experts say Muslim community leaders must do more to address and combat IS’s hold over young Western Muslims.
Julie Lenarz, executive director for the London-based foreign-policy think tank, the Human Security Centre, tells The Report community involvement in the fight against IS is “of critical importance” and should be part of a wider counterterrorism strategy.
“It may be possible to defeat ISIS by military means alone, but to eliminate the root of their fanatical barbarity will require a united front with the Muslim community at the heart of it,” says Lenarz.
In an unprecedented move in late August, a group of prominent British imams issued a fatwa – a religious ruling – saying Muslims were prohibited from fighting in Syria. The fatwa , which aims to combat the influence of IS in the UK, was penned by Sheik Usama Hasan, the former imam of the east London al-Tawhid mosque, and endorsed by six other senior Islamic scholars including Sheikh Muhammad Shahid Raza, the head imam of Leicester Central Mosque.
Lenarz called the move a “welcoming development,” but senior British Islamic leaders have admitted that it is hard to reach some young Muslims. The head of the Muslim Council of Wales, Dr. Saleem Kid wai, admitted that though Welsh imams have been preaching against fighting in Syria for months, some local Muslims see themselves as “Rambos.”
Alongside fears that it will be hard to stem IS’s appeal among some Muslim youth are concerns that the current urgency over com - bating IS’s influence will fade. Though the graphic images of the Foley and Sotloff murders raised mass public awareness and condemnation of IS in Europe and North America, RUSI’s Pantucci warns that the attention of UK and other Western governments could dissipate over time even though the threat of IS remains.
Speaking before President Barack Obama’s September 10 speech, in which he announced that the United States and its allies would act to degrade and destroy IS, Pantucci told The Report, “Western governments have short attention spans and tend to be driven in reactive mode. They have broadly let the civil war in Syria trundle along for almost three years while watching Iraq burn steadily since the withdrawal. Currently there is an intense focus, but this will fade as other things compete for attention. The problem is that attention spans are short and there are lots of competing issues on the international agenda."