March 8, 2014
For some westerners who follow the trail of would-be militants in Syria’s conflict, it is a gesture comparable to idealists of the late 1930s volunteering to fight General Franco in the Spanish civil war.
Others believe, in defiance of the outspoken condemnation of moderate Muslim leaders and political leaders, they act as “soldiers of Allah”. Their backgrounds may be in juvenile delinquency or promising academic study. All insist, often under the influence of figures they meet in mosques or online, that they are waging a just war against the brutality of Bashar Al Assad’s regime.
Muslim leaders are deeply concerned with the “manipulation” of impressionable people as young as 14-16, increasingly including girls. In the French Riviera town of Nice, the city council has created a crisis centre to coordinate the work of social services and community groups confronting the problem. Boubekeur Bekri, the imam of a Nice mosque and vice president of a regional Muslim council, tells of 15 local people, mostly in their teens and twenties, who have left for Syria. It is, he says, a “great tragedy causing untold anguish” to parents while also playing into the hands of France’s anti-immigration, anti-Islam far right. Young women, he adds, had been lured to Syria on the pretext of providing “support” or to care for war orphans. French media report four such cases in recent weeks, one a 15-year-old and another the mother of a baby, and a militant quoted by the French media says they are “not sent to the front line”. But Mr Bekri claims there is evidence that “support” can translate as sexual abuse, “in effect a form of slavery, nothing whatever to do with Islam”.
The Times of London reports that British women have gone to Syria to marry militants. It cites instances of two women from London and three from other locations in southern England, one a convert, who are “known to have married English-speaking rebels fighting in Syria”, with dozens more also there or are trying to go.
French president Francois Hollande has estimated the numbers heading to Syria from France as high as 700; even conservative figures suggest 200 French combatants are involved.
As reported in The National last month, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) based at King’s College, London, believes almost 9,000 foreigners are combatants in Syria. Most are from Arab countries – especially Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon – but the number of westerners has been steadily rising.
European and North American governments claim that by siding with extremist rebel elements as opposed to more moderate groups, notably the Free Syrian Army, they are actually allowing themselves to be drawn into terrorist activity.
They worry that this makes them potential threats to domestic security if ever they return to their countries of birth. What this analysis overlooks, according to Professor Mohamed Ali Adraoui, a French political and social scientist from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, is the single biggest spur to recruitment. “Quite simply, it’s Bashar Al Assad,” says Prof Adraoui, author of From the Gulf to the French Banlieue: Globalised Salafism, published last year. “The way his regime has acted is the main tool of propaganda, seen readily in images on the web especially social networks. When we have television and what can be found online via the jihadist network, people are well aware of what is going on in Syria.”
Francois Falletti, attorney general at the Paris appeal court, tells the news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur,“Our judicial inquiries are precisely to determine whether radicalised individuals have become involved in a terrorist organisation in Syria and, above all, whether they could pose a threat on their return to national security.”
Mr Adraoui is not so sure the authorities are right in that assessment. People willing to “fight for Islam against oppressors” and even die in that cause, he says, would not have the same motivation once back on home soil. He also points out that some western jurisdictions, supported by some French judges, accept the legitimacy of joining a foreign conflict unconnected to their own countries.
Even moderate Muslims point out that their own attempts to stop young people going astray are hindered by justified grievances about routine discrimination in their daily lives. There is ample evidence that many young sons, daughters and grandchildren of Maghreb immigrants to France, Belgium and the Netherlands, or from Asian families in the UK, feel alienated from society.
More than once, Western media has reported, French Muslims who prepare to travel overseas to engage in what they consider a common fight, explain their radicalisation in one simple phrase: “Made in France”.