'Foreign Jihadists are flocking to Syria'
07 September 2012
Anthony Tucker-Jones reports on how Syrian rebels are increasingly accepting the support of al-Qaida affiliated radical Islamist groups
There is growing concern that the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) is increasingly relying on foreign al-Qaida affiliated jihadists. This is in part driven by the failure of the international community to act after 18 months of conflict.
In February, Osama bin Laden's heir as leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a call to arms for militants to support their brothers in Syria.
Ever since an Islamist group claimed responsibility for a major bomb attack in Damascus in mid-July it has become apparent that the FSA's guerrilla war is increasingly adopting the urban terror tactics of the jihadist movement.
Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood has warned that British Muslims are travelling to Syria to wage jihad. A Londoner was discovered fighting with the rebels in Aleppo, while opposition fighters including men with British Midlands and South London accents recently took journalist John Cantlie hostage – albeit briefly. This has led to calls that those visiting war zones should have their passports revoked.
Ed Husain, author of The Islamist, has shown how easy it is for disenchanted young British Muslims to be recruited by radical groups such as Jamat-e-Islami and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Foreign fighters are also said to come from Croatia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey.
Sunni Muslims see it as their duty to support their co-religionists in the struggle against President Bashar al-Assad's Shia-based Alawite regime. It is also important to remember that al-Qaida is a Sunni organisation.
General Abdel-Aziz who defected to the FSA has warned: "The longer it takes [to oust Assad], the more groups and agendas get involved, and the more people from outside complicate our battles."
While Syria has its own local jihadist groups such as the Ahrar al-Sham fighting in Aleppo, the conflict has drawn in the Lebanon-based Palestinian Fatah al-Islam and the Palestinian Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Abdullah Azzam was Osama bin Laden's mentor during the 1980s. The Islamist Front for the Protection of the Syrian People or Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham is believed to be supported by elements of al-Qaida in-Iraq.
Jihadists flocking to foreign wars is nothing new, they did this in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya - where they were considered more of a liability than an asset. Most tend to be little more than inexperienced war tourists and danger seekers, but while their impact on the fighting is always marginal, it's the impact they have on the peace that is the real cause for concern.
FSA leaders have little choice but to accept the help of Islamist fighters and worry about the consequences later. The FSA claims to have around 40,000 men under arms fighting Syrian government forces numbering up to 200,000.
In the meantime the breakdown of civil law in the face of the fighting in Syria has led to the rise of religious law. In liberated areas in the cities of Aleppo, Dier al-Zour and Homs the rebels have been instigating Islamic courts, operating under Sharia law and issuing summary justice.
While the numbers of foreigners fighting in Syria are currently low, as the war drags more foreign jihadists will flock to the country. They will be harbouring a sense of grievance that the West stood by while innocent people were killed on Assad's orders. In the past this perception led to the rise of militant Islam and bloody attacks on the west.
The legacy of al-Qaida has already been brought home to the streets of New York, Madrid and London. The worry is that British Jihadists could return from Syria to wreak mindless havoc on the streets of Britain's cities.
HAVE YOUR SAY
07 September 2012
The "Free" Syrian Army is neither free, exclusively Syrian nor an army. For pity's sake, none of the multiple contenders for power in Syria are fighting for freedom, unless it's their own freedom to inflict their particular brand of self-interest or zealotry on everyone else. To blame this on "the failure of the international community to act" is crass. Weighing in on the side of some Islamist faction or other against Assad's government, as we backed the gun-toting rabble in Libya, would do nothing to help the ordinary people of Syria in the long run and certainly would not be in our own interests.
Stan - York
17 September 2012
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States and Britain supported islamist groups that were engaged in opposing the Russian forces, with the co-operation of the Pakistani ISI intelligence agency. This is historical fact.
In the post 9/11 political environment, the options are more limited. Clearly, the US government can't be seen to be directly supporting Islamist groups, particularly Al Qaeda.
What is the Russian policy on Islamism? They seem to have a two track approach, on the one hand brutally suppressing islamist movements in southern Russia while at the same time trying to buy off the Iranians with supplies of weapons and technology for their war against Israel and the West.
So the problem is twofold- how to defeat a Russian strategy which aims at splitting NATO over US support for Israel, while at the same time combating islamist extremism in Europe and the UK.
The most serious threat of islamist extremism comes from states, particularly Iran, which actively support and encourage islamist extremism and which provide weapons, training and other facilities for islamist terrorism. They are the main threat.
If the intelligence agencies have their people on the ground in Syria, it should be possible to differentiate between Islamist and non-islamist factions in the anti- Assad movement and to channel support to the latter.
When the Assad regime falls, as it will, there will be a power struggle between factions in the rebel movement. Obviously, it would be better if the non- islamist factions won.
Of greater importance than any of this is the need to preserve the integrity and effectiveness of the NATO alliance, and to effectively defend Europe from external threats, such as the growing missile threat from Iran, which the Russians are hoping will have the effect of driving a wedge between the US and the European NATO allies.
Given an aggressive and pro-active defence policy, I can see no reason why it should not be possible to deal with this and the problem of islamist extremism at the same time.
J. Southworth - University of Hull