[Published here June 9, 2014]
“There are brothers from all over the place – America, Canada, China, Indonesia. This is the most beautiful thing about the Islamic state,” says Abu Sumayyah excitedly, in flawless, London-accented English. “It’s beautiful ‘cause we’re all one ummah.”
An ethnic Kashmiri raised in the UK, Abu Sumayyah has been in Syria for the past 11 months. As one of the roughly 400 British nationals fighting in Syria, he recently pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an Al-Qaeda-inspired extremist group embroiled in the country’s three-year civil war.
“My main inspiration to come to Syria was George Bush, Tony Blair, and the presidents of the West and their foreign policy towards Islam,” fumes Abu Sumayyah, without any mention of toppling the Bashar al-Assad regime. He said he was in his late 20s and hadn’t told his parents he was heading to Syria. “Why are these governments – the West especially – murdering and killing my people? This is the main reason I came to al-Sham.”
According to strategic consultancy firm The Soufan Group, there are well over 12,000 foreign fighters currently engaged in Syria. Almost all – at least 11,000 – have joined rebel groups fighting Syrian government forces, and about 3,000 of these fighters are from Western countries, notably the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium.
The vast majority of foreign fighters have chosen to join extremist groups, including ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham. ISIS has attracted the largest number of foreign fighters thus far. Abu Sumayyah said he pledged allegiance to ISIS because it was the only group implementing shari’a in Syria. “I came here to implement the laws of God. ISIS is the only group doing this,” he told NOW. He added that he was drawn to ISIS because it operates as a “state:” “It runs the affairs of the people, and it does everything a normal state does – no other groups are doing that.”
As more foreigners join the ranks of extremist groups, Western governments are becoming increasingly worried about what these fighters will do when they return home. On May 24, a French national who had spent time with radical groups in Syria opened fire at a Jewish museum in Brussels, killing four. Since then, leaders of the Group of Seven have launched joint talks on how to prevent similar incidents in the future.
Yet, analysts and foreign fighters themselves haven’t noted strong evidence of Western jihadists being encouraged to return home and launch attacks there.
“The soldiers I met never ever mentioned anything about going back home, or training people to go back home,” Abu Sumayyah said. He said he encountered many Americans, Canadians, and British nationals, both on the battlefield and on the football field for the occasional pickup match between prayers. “I don’t think that’s part of the plan – we need brothers and sisters here in al-Sham.”
According to independent analyst Pieter Van Ostaeyen, the volume of videos depicting foreign fighters burning their European passports indicates a majority have no interest in returning home. “I don’t think that Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have sleeper cells that train these guys for attacks in the West,” he said. “They have their own battle to fight within Syria.”
Although there haven’t been indications of an organized effort to train foreign fighters to launch attacks at home, the Soufan Group has identified several worrisome trends in Syria that could boost that likelihood.
“The most important trigger that may turn a foreign fighter into a domestic terrorist,” according to the Soufan report, is a group’s shift from a local enemy to a broader one. Many foreign fighters, including Abu Sumayyah, already note the West’s inaction towards the Syrian crisis as a major catalyst for their decision to join extremist groups. If this hostility towards the West continues to fester, it may make groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda prioritize attacks on Western countries.
The deepening recruitment and transfer networks bringing fighters into Syria are also cause for concern. Van Ostaeyen called the recruiting process “very diverse” and said it ranged from Twitter, where ISIS is very active, to large recruiting networks including more well-known fighters. One such network includes members from the now-dissolved Sharia4Belgium group, who have been facilitating the transfer of Belgians to fight with ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. The group’s members call for the establishment of an Islamic state in Belgium. Similar networks that have a foothold in European nations and contribute to the radicalization of European citizens could make it easier for foreign fighters returning home to launch attacks.
Some individual fighters are already expressing, largely via social media, desires to implement an Islamic state back home. “One day, the flag of tawheed [flag depicting ISIS logo] will fly over 10 downing street and the white house,” tweets Abu Hussain al-Britani. Another foreign fighter with a well-established online presence, Abu Musab Al Jazairi, threatened, “Don’t know why people in the UK think they can speak for us, we’ll come back to the UK and wreak havoc bidnillaah [if God wishes]. British people watch out.”
As for Abu Sumayyah, the new ISIS fighter told NOW he had no intention of returning to the UK, unless it was to “implement the law of God.”
“I don’t see myself going back to that country again,” he said.