Jihadism or Altruism? Why UK Government discourse on Extremist Ideology is only approaching half of the problem
In a 2013 Foreign Policy article entitled “Syria’s Foreign Fighters”, Thomas Hegghammer argued that the majority of foreign fighters flocking to Syria see themselves as “militarised” humanitarians – “aid workers with Kalashnikovs”. Aaron Y. Zelin has designated such fighters into a group of their own, which he calls “Tourist”. They go to Syria to fight for an altruistic cause, “do their bit for the cause”, and then return home to their peaceful lives. Jihadist ideology rarely factors, and when it does, it is a localised ideology
focussed on protecting their Muslim brothers and sisters against the persecution of Assad, rather than advocating a global caliphate and al-Qaeda-inspired apocalyptic war against Jews and Crusaders. That a great majority of these foreign fighters, particularly those from Europe, end up in the violent extremist outfit known as “Islamic State” [IS], has in many cases far more to do with logistical convenience than ideology.
It must be appreciated that Syria is not as welcoming to foreign fighters as much of the European Press tries to suggest. Most home-grown Syrian rebel fighting units have become increasingly reluctant to welcome foreign fighters into their ranks. Foreign fighters have outstayed their welcome in the eyes of many Syrians, and by 2013 only al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and rogue jihadist group IS continue to welcome foreign fighters on a large scale. Jabhat al-Nusra has insisted upon the most discriminate of vetting procedures for initiating new fighters as a means of weeding out fighters with ulterior motives, inadequate religious devotion and fluency, or those who might simply prove a liability. Therefore, the majority of foreign fighters, particularly those who have joined as altruistic “humanitarian fighters” rather than out of an “educated” religious zeal, are left with only one real choice of host-organisation – the one fighting organisation that recruits en masse with precious little vetting – IS.
Now it can and has been argued that, once in the ranks of extremist groups such as IS, individuals undergo an accelerated radicalisation process. For many recruits who have joined the group as a result of “traditional” radicalisation factors such as social and/or political marginalisation, this is certainly true. However there is substantial evidence that a large segment of recruits are coming away traumatised and alienated after their experience with IS’ brand of jihad, and this is where David Cameron’s heavy-handed tactics against returning British foreign fighters could prove fatal. Vetting returning British jihadists is a necessary procedure. However prosecuting, or even “banishing” them, is not. To be sure, a fighter proven to have committed war crimes – such as the apparently British fighter who executed US journalist James Foley – should be subjected to the same justice as any war criminal, there should be no leniency. However such condemnation should not be automatic just for travelling to Syria. Such heavy-handed tactics leave British fighters in Syria with no other future option but jihad, no matter how altruistic and non-ideological their initial motives were. Unable to return home, and branded pariah bogey-men in more moderate or secular Syrian groups, they are left with no option but to stay in IS no matter how much the group has appalled and alienated them. From here their future is bleak – destined either for a drawn-out, soul-destroying loss of humanity as they witness and partake in the horrors of IS-brand jihad in Syria and Iraq, or a death they no longer desire, away from loved ones and family. A closed-door policy towards returning British fighters also serves to exacerbate the terror-threat that David Cameron is so worried about. By prosecuting or expelling those travelling to fight in Syria – many of whom do not go with extremist, Al-Qaeda-style beliefs (as I have mentioned) – the British government risks perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a small step for a British fighter, denied safe return to the UK, to come to perceive the government as an unjust, tyrannical enemy that must be fought in and of itself.
So what can be done? An open-door, rehabilitation-orientated policy towards returning fighters, similar to that being experimented with in Denmark, is not only merciful; it could also prove a major coup for Britain’s counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation effort. Experiments across the Middle East, even before the Syrian conflict, found that there is often no greater force in preventing radicalisation towards violent extremism, than in the testimonies of disillusioned former extremists. In pre-revolutionary Egypt, reformed jihadists were permitted to visit imprisoned jihadists in order to explain to them the error of their ways, with measurable success. One imprisoned member of the Egyptian Islamic Group recounted to Omar Ashour “Hearing the [theological] arguments directly from the sheikhs [Islamic Group leaders] was different….we heard these before from the Salafis and from al-Azhar [Egypts highest Islamic Institution]…we did not accept them…we accepted them from the sheikhs because we knew their history.” In the same way, by allowing disillusioned British fighters to return home from Syria, they will be able to share their experiences, and urge caution with far greater credibility than the British government, which is already seen to be morally bankrupt, and/or self-serving by many radicalising, marginalised Muslim youths in the UK.