Experts worry they're all going to come back screaming for jihad.
Hussam Najjaar, AKA "Irish Sam" (on the right).
Syria is currently stuck in a torturous stalemate of prolonged fighting and death that has no sign of any realistic outcome. And while most European governments have remained vocal supporters of the revolution against Bashar al-Assad, they've all stopped short of sending in ground reinforcements to help push the increasingly dire situation forward.
Now, as the conflict rolls into its third year, a new wave of young Europeans are going all For Whom the Bell Tolls and leaving their homes behind to lend Syria's rebels some vigilante assistance. But while these ideological crusades may sound noble, experts warn that the young men flying off to fight for what they consider to be Syria's freedom could return radicalised and dangerous.
The latest news furrowing the brows of European leaders came in the form of a new study by King’s College London, which estimated that as many as 500 Europeans have joined the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. According to the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, up to 134 of those are British citizens (though I have no idea how they came up with a number so precise). EU anti-terror authorities warn that these young fighters could be corrupted by the increasing number of jihadist organisations operating on the Syrian battlefield – like the notorious Jabhat al-Nusra (who VICE spoke to last week). The fear is that the Western fighters in these international brigades could pose a threat to national security once they return home.
The spectrum of Europeans booking tickets to the warzone ranges from young thrill-seekers to religious extremists. Many, however, are simply young men who feel compelled to help their fellow Muslims and try to eradicate the injustices they see reported on the nightly news. One such fighter is Hussam Najjaar, also known as "Irish Sam". Born in Dublin to a Libyan father and an Irish mother, Sam first made headlines during the Libyan civil war, when he led a brigade of freedom fighters to help liberate Tripoli from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.
“I joined up after witnessing rape being used as a tool of war, and I said to myself that this is a step too far for the regime and the measures they were willing to take to crush the rebellion. So I made a decision to buy a one-way ticket over to Libya,” he told me through a thick Dublin accent. Over the past year, Sam has used his experience training and fighting with Libyan militia and foreign covert operatives to command, train and arm brigades of Syrian rebels.
Yet he was quick to stress the distinction between his own story and those of other foreign combatants he has encountered in Syria. “There’s a big difference between people like myself and this new kind of fighter that’s going over. I don’t agree with it fully myself. These youths are unseasoned fighters going up against Hezbollah and Iranians – people born with bullets in their mouths,” he said. “We're trying to live for these revolutions, not die for them.”
Video footage of an alleged German jihadist fighting in Syria, in a wheelchair.
Responding to the King’s College report, the EU’s anti-terror chief, Gilles de Kerchove, told the BBC that, “not all of them are radical when they leave, but most likely many of them will be radicalised [and trained] there… And as we've seen, this [training and radicalisation] might lead to a serious threat when they get back”.
The combat training that these new foreign militants receive is extensive. Irish Sam worked as a builder with no formal military training before leaving for Libya. “The experience I gained in those battles, you couldn’t buy with money,” he said. “By the time we got to Tripoli, I was a battlefield commando for a reconnaissance team. By the end of the revolution, I must have arrested over 200 loyalists, mercenaries and rapists.”
According to the EU Counter-terrorism Coordinator, reasons for the increased number of Europeans in Syria are not entirely clear. Some reports indicate that a backlash against European multiculturalism is fuelling the new trend, while others maintain that radical Islamic organisations are to blame. Experts say that Islamist groups like Sharia4UK and Sharia4Netherlands have been radicalising young people and encouraging them to take up arms in Syria.
However, Sam says that many of the young Muslims he encountered on the battlefield were there simply out of a sense of duty. “They’re not going over brainwashed; they’re going over making a conscious decision in their lives." he told me. "Their conscience is at them, they can’t sleep at night and they feel that they can make a difference.”
Unsurprisingly, forces loyal to the Assad government are slightly more sceptical. Th3 Pr0 – a member of pro-Assad hacking group the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) – told me that he believed the emergence of foreign combatants in Syria is most likely the work of those in charge of various anti-Assad nations. "Simply, the US government sent them to Syria to destroy it and kill the Syrian people,” he said. “They are funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with some support from Turkey.”
Whatever the motivations of the foreigners fighting on Syrian land, European leaders will be meeting in June to discuss ways to curb the trend. It seems likely that they will place fresh restrictions on those suspected to be travelling to or from the Syrian battlefield. But Sam believes that increased support from EU governments, rather than bans on travel, remains the only answer.
“If they’re going to stop people coming back to Europe, that’s not going to stop them going over to Syria in the first place,” he said. “The international community won’t do anything, and we’re at a 100,000 death toll at the moment, with chemical weapons now being thrown into the mix. Where is the world’s conscience when these people are the only ones answering the call?”
Follow Ronan on Twitter: @RonanOKelly
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