The Dangerous Nexus Between Radicalism in Britain and Syria’s Foreign Fighters
In the last few months, the United Kingdom has seen an intensified wave of online radicalism within its borders, particularly by British nationals advocating violent jihad. Combined with the substantial and growing cohort of British fighters joining combatant groups in Syria, this trend could portend a real change to the threat the country faces from jihadists.
Propaganda campaigns against the UK have increased considerably, whether on jihadi forums or social media platforms. This is being manifested through a profusion of messages circulating the jihadi web platforms, and may serve as an indication that Britain is on the agenda of violent jihad.
Extremists who selectively interpret Islamic scripture and issue religious rulings declaring jihad, defined as a call for violence against both non-Muslims and Muslims they deem ‘inferior’, have ramped up threatening rhetoric on jihadi forums and social media platforms. The United Kingdom, home to a large Muslim population, has lately become on the target list of terrorists advocating violence and bloodshed.
The UK has been on high alert, fearing a resurgence in Islamist terror attacks since homegrown Islamist hardliners started ‘migrating’ to the Syrian battlefield to participate in a holy war against the supposedly apostate and infidel regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Numerous Britons have found their way to Syria in numbers far exceeding their jihadi predecessors who participated in other foreign campaigns, although the exact figure is almost impossible to determine. Yet to date, between 400-700 people are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq. British fighters tend to join the most ruthless and brutal terror groups in Syria, such as ISIS (now the Islamic State, spanning from Iraq to Syria) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), which is leading to an increasingly significant potential source of future threats to the UK and British interests overseas.
Simultaneously, Jihadi sympathizers who remain in Great Britain are increasingly active on Facebook and Twitter, where they instigate violent reprisals against fellow infidel citizens and British soldiers, promote Sharia law in Britain and call for the installation of caliphate rule. These ambitions, of course, will remain unfulfilled. But the fact is that these media jihadists harbor alarmingly hostile sentiments and plans for the UK, its officials and people.
The UK: A Hotbed of Homegrown Terrorism
The rapid radicalization among native youth converts to Islam, in addition to the large Muslim immigrant community, has contributed to the concept of the UK government as a key participant in the “Crusader War” against Islam.
Traditionally, the global jihad movement’s attitude toward the United Kingdom has been similar to its treatment of other Western countries: referring to the UK as Dar kufr (land of disbelief) and Dar Da’wa (a land of preaching), as opposed to Dar-ul-Islam (Islamic territory conquered or reigned over by an illegitimate ruler), so it is not a priority jihadi battlefront. However, like Spain and France, the UK has in the past witnessed terrorist attacks and plots by radical homegrown Islamists on its territory.
In recent months, Prime Minister David Cameron has on several occasions attributed the rise in extremism in Britain to a policy that is “too tolerant” while calling for the protection and promotion of “British values” as a counterweight to the attempts to Islamize Britain.
“It is not enough simply to respect these values in schools. They are not options. They are the core of what it is to live in Britain,” Cameron reiterated in one speech.
Increasingly, radicalism within the UK and the ongoing conflict in Syria are being seen as growingly linked as dual contributors to the overall threat the country faces. On June 15, former PM Tony Blair commented on ISIS’ takeover of almost a third of Iraq, saying that the jihadists “are not simply fighting Iraqis; they are also willing to fight us and they will if we do not stop them […] We are going to have to engage with it or the consequences will come back on us as we see in Syria today.”
Following Mr. Blair’s announcement, a pro-ISIS British activist who lives in Cardiff, Wales and runs a Facebook account under the name Sadam Mohammed, wrote a post advising the UK against intervening in Iraq, adding ominously, “You have been warned.” Replying to a commenter who counseled preaching as a preferred way to change peoples’ minds about Islam, Sadam commented: “People shall think differently about Islam once we turn the UK into an Islamic state!”
In a previous post from June 4, Sadam published a snapshot of the front page of the Sunday People newspaper featuring American whistleblower Edward Snowden, under the title “UK is ‘wide open to attack’.” Sadam wrote next to the photo that this was a “dose” of what the press does to help Islamists in the UK. He added a comment on his post that reads: “You can see that the cracks are appearing in the U.K. so that Allah can take his place here.”
(Later in June, Mohammed completely wiped all of his Facebook posts and pictures, and changed his name to Jules G Forcer – likely out of fear of repercussions from the authorities. This occurred immediately after police arrested Salafist hate preacher Anjem Choudary, who is known for his radical ideology, his aspirations of Islamizing the UK and his encouragement of henchmen from Britain as well as from all over Europe to join violent jihad in Syria and elsewhere.)
Fears such as those stoked by Sadam are not without foundation in the UK. Reports indicate that MI5 and the police thwarted a terrorist plot by extremist “tourists” operating on British soil on October 14, 2013. The terror cell was allegedly planning a mass shooting and bombing, similar to the Mumbai attack in 2008, which resulted in 168 deaths and over 300 wounded. The four men comprising the cell were confirmed to be British nationals of varying backgrounds: Algerian, Azerbaijani, Pakistani and Turkish ethnicity.
Nonetheless, more Islamists with extremist views in the UK are becoming increasingly active on social media networks, where they defiantly voice their support of ISIS. Previously, Muslim fundemantalists exploited free speech rights to practice Da’wa, promote the implementation of Sharia in the UK and to hail terrorist attacks in Europe and the US. Nowadays, they utilize the virtual sphere to intimidate the infidel population and incite outright violence and murder in the country.
Abu Baraa, a popular Facebook jihadist who seems to be well-connected with jihadists on the ground in Syria and Iraq, advocated the killing of British soldiers. On the occasion of the anniversary of the murder of Lee Rigby, a British soldier murdered last year by extremists, Abu Baraa cited an epigraph by an early Islamic scholar about collective punishment, stating that the slain soldier “and all his pals are equally responsible for the death, rape, drone strikes and the torture of Muslims in Afghanistan.”
Abu Waleed, a founding member of the radical Salafi Media UK with a Twitter following of 13,500, is especially interested in covering ISIS news. Although he refrains from blatant anti-UK rhetoric, he clearly expresses hatred toward Shiite Muslims and frequently inveighs against infidels and moderate Muslims.
On June 17, he posted a news report titled “ISIS Threatens to Invade Jordan, Slaughter King Abdullah,” topping it off with an ominous statement reflecting his enthusiasm for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate.
One day earlier, Abu Waleed quoted Muhammad ibn-Abdul Wahhab, an 18th century Islamic hate preacher whose teachings inspire current radicals. The citation reeks of flagrant hostility and incites hatred toward Kuffar and mushrikeen (infidels and polytheists).
The aforementioned shows that hardline UK Islamists have grown spitefully emboldened in their hateful rhetoric towards their fellow citizens, owing to years of indifference by the authorities, and an atmosphere of tolerance and freedom of speech. As well, it indicates that at least some homegrown radicals are not necessarily driven by emotional reactions to the alleged involvement of their government against a Muslim country or people. Rather, their enmity toward infidel governments and people stems from the takfiri beliefs of Wahhabism and the teachings of medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyah.
Returnees Pose Serious Security Concern
The largely porous borders between Turkey and Syria and the ease of air travel from the European Union have enabled an influx of thousands of Western-based Islamists into the Syrian arena. This has amplified the security threat already posed by foreign fighters who are bound to return to their home countries at some point.
The war in Syria and the remarkable gains of ISIS in Iraq constitute a major source of fascination for Muslim hardliners in the West. This fascination, particularly with the establishment of a pure Sunni Caliphate and its self-appointed Caliph, has combined with a proliferation of new media platforms such that, for the first time in recent history, jihad is projected on a scale that has Muslim youth around the world lured into dreadful schemes against societies they live in, such as lone-wolf attacks.
In mid-April 2014, the British government released its latest annual counterterrorism strategy (CONTEST) report, in which it highlighted its concern about”the threat to the UK from Syria-based groups and the threat from foreign fighters returning to this country.”
A government report on the threat from foreign fighters has also been published on the UK Security Service’s (MI5) website, highlighting the phenomena of British nationals traveling overseas to receive training.
With regards to Syria specifically, it concluded that, “Over the last two years, we have seen Syria become an attractive destination for UK extremists wishing to engage in violent jihad.”
“They may not pose a threat to us when they first go to Syria but if they survive, some may return ideologically hardened and with experience in weapons and explosives,” said Foreign Secretary William Hague on February 14, 2013 during a statement to the House of Commons on Syria and Iraq.
To cope with this phenomenon and increased media and public pressure on the government to take a decisive stance with regards to British passport holders that join jihadi theaters, Hague later announced that Britain could cancel passports or arrest any UK jihadists fighting in Syria or for ISIS in Iraq.
Details regarding the first suicide attack carried out by a British national in Syria seem to have exacerbated new security measures. Abdul Waheed Majid, a fighter with AQ’s official branch in Syria’s al-Nusra Front, is reported to have driven a truck SVBIED into Aleppo Central Prison on February 6. Majid was reportedly the subject of serious investigation in the UK for years; he was implicated in a 2004 plot called Crevice that planned to attack a shopping mall outside London with a large fertilizer-based IED. This attack serves as an indicator of the potential threat that such radicalized individuals can pose, and the lengths to which they may go in their ideological indoctrination. It also shows that extremists are less likely to forsake their zeal with time, especially with the lack of a de-radicalization process.
Highlights of Anti-British Rhetoric by Syria-Bound Jihadists
Many Syria-bound Britons remain active on social media while in the embattled country. They call for terror operations in the UK and encourage lone-wolf attacks against citizens and soldiers alike. Some even share their stories with interested would-be recruits or offer tips and advice on kik and ask.fm for those wishing to join jihad in Syria.
In a tweet from June 4, Abu Musab al-Jazairi vowed to wreak havoc in the UK when he and his fellow jihadists returned home.
On May 13, 2014, a jihadist by the name Jundallah called for lone wolf attacks in the UK in response to news that a far-right British political party, Britain First, had attempted to confront Muslim community leaders in Northern England. In one tweet, he wrote: “These kuffs [kuffar aka infidels] need another beheading on the streets… like bro mujahid did.”
Abu Hussain al-Britani aka Junaid Hussain, who skipped bail in the UK and fled to Syria, describes himself as a “Random British Mujahid Somewhere in Syria.” On June 16, he retweeted a message by Abu Klashnikov intended as a response to a British user, promising to carry the beheadings to the backyard of the user.
In what may signal an intention to carry out terrorist attacks during elections, Junaidexpressedon June 4 his wish to see the whole system disrupted by targeting polling stations with bombs.
While many jihadists shared threats and gory images of summary executions and maimed bodies of dead enemy fighters, they also passed on information about operations in Syria.
For instance, an ISIS fighter sporting the name Abu Abdullah al-Britani confirmed on his ask.fm account on July 1 not only that foreign fighters are entitled to leave at their free will, but also that the group helps with their travel expenses.
Earlier in January he recounted that Turkish troops allowed him to cross the border into Syria.
Abu Dujanah al-Britani, another Briton fighting with ISIS, but in Iraq, not Syria, answered a question on his ask.fm account regarding the number of his countrymen in Iraq:
This open online jihadi discourse is believed to be targeting a wide audience of activists for the purpose of recruitment.
A Worrisome Threat
The vast majority of the messages posted on open social media platforms propagate jihadi discourse specifying the obligation of every Muslim to battle infidels, and also promoting martyrdom for the sake of Allah, with the ultimate aim of establishing the Islamic Caliphate worldwide. Voicing threats against those perceived as their enemies, including Western countries, remains an integral part of the jihadi diatribe.
The intensive anti-UK atmosphere prevalent over most networks activated by British jihadists in recent months, together with the expertise in warfare and explosives, and coupled with long experience in gruesome killings, illustrates an extremely alarming and worrisome scenario for the UK should such battle-hardened terrorists return home undetected.
So, what can be done? Revoking the citizenship of terrorists conspiring against the state’s integrity and stability has proven to be an effective policy adopted and applied by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to curb the threat of political Islam and radical Islamists. This policy may dissuade extremists from further radicalization as they may not only be jeopardizing their legal status as legitimate citizens of a country, but will also have to take into consideration the damage that could befall their families.
The specter of returning fighters looms over Britain. Responsible de-radicalization policies may stem the explosive growth of homegrown Islamists, but the British government must develop a comprehensive plan, combining de-radicalization tactics with active counterterror investigations, or it risks bloodshed. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that if the UK decides to intervene alongside the Iraqi government against ISIS, it will be used as an excuse by would-be terrorists to seek revenge.
Roger S. Farhat is a Senior Analyst and Researcher at Terrogence, a Virtual HUMINT-driven Web Intelligence Services & Technology company.
Correction: The original article cited tweets by Abu Rashash Britani, but we have been informed by reliable sources that this individual is a fraud and is not actually fighting in Syria. – RE