We are watching the largest mobilization in a generation of volunteers traveling abroad to join a war. An estimated 11,000 foreign fighters have been mobilized in Syria, according to a just-published study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (PDF). More than a quarter of those combatants are from Western countries, mostly from Britain, France, Germany, Sweden and Belgium. Australians, Canadians and U.S. citizen also have joined the ranks.
But judging by our complacency, you would be forgiven for not knowing this. Partly, that’s because some on the left in Britain and elsewhere have been busy downplaying the conflict or romanticizing it as something akin to the international brigades during the Spanish Civil War that attracted George Orwell and other idealists. But unlike Orwell in the 1930s, these fighters on their way to Syria are not traveling to fight against fascists. Many are young Western Muslims rushing to join a fascist group that is too extreme even for al-Qaeda: the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Members have been known to behead even fellow fighters. And it’s not much consolation that the more “moderate” volunteers are joining, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the official Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
The problem is metastasizing rapidly. As the number if ISIS volunteers grows, and as all other jihadists groups -- including al-Qaeda -- unite to fight against them, they are beginning to leave Syria and spread their uniquely “Western” jihadist-criminal brand to third countries, including next-door Iraq.
So what can be done? We must start by asking why so many Western Muslims are prepared to travel and risk their lives to fight everyone else, including their fellow Muslim rebels, in Syria. Such decisions are not made overnight, and not in an isolated context. No amount of charismatic recruitment alone is powerful enough to achieve this feat if people are not already primed for exploitation.
For years, the intolerant Islamist ideology has been spreading unchecked across Western capitals, as we stand by navel-gazing and wondering what to do. There are thousands of young Muslims who already subscribe to the basic views of ISIS and al-Qaeda and thus are ready to be called upon for mobilization. Yet the ostensibly non-violent versions of Islamism are patronized as antidotes to Al Qaeda and violent extremism. It is time to challenge that idea and to challenge its advocates in civil society.
A new standard, expecting a commitment to universal human rights and a freedom of varied cultures and identities must be raised by government, by private organizations and the media, to combat the kind of one-dimensional Islamism prevalent among many angry Western Muslims.
When the “moderate” option for Western fighters in Syria is Al Qaeda, the term “moderate” loses all meaning. In fact, jihadist affiliation has become a brand and ISIS, in particular, has a very attractive online presence. My organization, Quilliam, will soon release a ground-breaking report on the way the Internet is utilized to recruit jihadists.
What we will recommend is that private-public partnerships build grass-root initiatives that discredit the ideas, symbols and leaders of this jihadist brand in all forms of media, online and off. The information is out there, and there are many people willing to engage in this work, but sadly the resources to make it possible have been few and far between.
As part of the fight back against this jihadist brand, it is crucial that the alternative -- a free and fair civil society -- be respected by the rest of us. If we are to push for human rights as a standard, then government measures to stem the flow of these fighters must be seen to adhere to the rule of law. This requires genuine engagement at multiple levels and across the government spectrum, not simply the blunt tools of police and prosecutors.
In both Britain and France this month, the governments put forth proposals meant to discourage young men from heading off to war in Syria. The French aim to heighten surveillance of websites, encouraging relatives to notify police if family members are attending radical mosques or if they are spending time watching jihadi sites online. Police files on young people can now be opened with no higher standard than “strong intuition” that they might go abroad to fight. In Britain, counter-terrorism police chiefs are trying to persuade mothers to keep their boys at home.
A more coherent messaging strategy needs to be employed. We are missing an opportunity when we fail to highlight the fact that joining one of the militias in Syria is futile and counterproductive, especially when an aspiring jihadist is more likely to be engaged in fighting other rebels than against the Assad regime. Indeed, many Britons have already been killed by intra-jihadist infighting.
While it is important to engage with Muslim families and focus on the role that parents can play, the messaging must involve all aspects of society, and needs to reach a wider audience. Some of those who travel to Syria are converts to Islam and less likely to listen to the admonitions of their non-Muslim relatives. Many are alienated from their families already and defiance is part of their motive for leaving.
Political inclusion and engagement through the mainstream political system must be encouraged as a non-violent and legal way to address grievances. At the same time we should discourage the kind of isolationist, exclusivist identity politics one sees where only intra-community solutions are looked for or accepted. In the United Kingdom we need to promote an inclusive British identity that involves and empowers people from all ethnic and faith backgrounds.
We are already years behind in this work. We are faced with people who are battle-hardened, indoctrinated, globally networked and fluent in English. They are not bound even by Al Qaeda’s discipline. They are angry at everyone because of what they have seen in Syria; because they have been rejected there; because they were angry to begin with. It would be naïve in the extreme to assume that some of these fighters will not plan attacks on the West. In fact, they are already warning us. A member of ISIS with a North American accent recently released a video vowing to Canada and “all the American tyrants: We are coming and we will destroy you.”
What is coming, without doubt, is the blowback from Syria’s savage war, and we are woefully unready to address it.