United Kingdom

Home-grown jehadis

Print edition : August 08, 2014

An image taken from a recruitment video for the ISIS which was uploaded to a social media website on June 19. Photo: REUTERS

Abu Muthana al-Yemeni from Britain (2nd from right) in this still image taken from undated video uploaded to a social media website on June 19. Photo: REUTERS

An ISIS fighter uses a mobile to film fellow fighters taking part in a military parade on the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30. Photo: REUTERS

Brainwashed by Islamist propaganda in Internet chat rooms and secret conclaves, hordes of British Muslim youths are tripping on jehadi safaris, volunteering to fight other Muslims in the numerous conflict zones of West Asia.

It is not often that parents choose to denounce their children publicly as evil, banish their photographs from family albums and wish never to see them again.

But this is exactly what the Muthanas have just done.

“We’ve binned their family photos. It’s a Muslim thing. You don’t keep the devil in the house,” Ahmad Muthana told a newspaper, speaking about his two young sons who fled their home in Cardiff, Wales, eight months ago to join jehadi groups in Syria, from where they slipped into Iraq. They were last reported to be fighting along with the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Nasser Muthana (20) and his brother Aseel (17) are among an estimated 500 Britons believed to be floating around the myriad Muslim conflict zones in West Asia. Some have died fighting, while another one blew himself up after recording a “martyrdom video”. And, if the police are to be believed, the “flow” of wannabe jehadis continues. A disturbing new trend relates to Muslim women, some of whom have been intercepted while attempting to leave the country.

“We have made arrests of teenage girls going to Syria. We don’t want to alarm the Muslim community that their girls are all going out to fight—they are very small numbers, but, nevertheless, we can’t deny that it is an issue and a concern,” the chief of Scotland Yard’s counter-terror unit, Commander Richard Walton, said.

Intelligence agencies have warned that British fighters might be used by their Al Qaeda puppet-masters to create terror in Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron has described them as “the most serious threat to Britain’s security that there is today”.

In an unprecedented move, more than 100 British imams drawn from across the Islamic theological divide issued an emotional appeal to Muslims not to be misled and brainwashed by Islamist propaganda. While urging them to “continue the generous and tireless effort to support all of those affected by the crisis in Syria and unfolding events in Iraq”, they told them to “do so from the United Kingdom in a safe and responsible way”.

A similar appeal came from the Muslim Council of Britain, which has been accused of not doing enough to condemn and check extremism within the community in the past. There is still a sense that the liberal Muslim response has been rather muted, given the scale of the atrocities being committed in the name of Islam.

“Why is there no Muslim Peace Movement campaigning for an end to violence in Muslim countries, where the victims are Muslims and the perpetrators are Muslims?’’ asked The Times columnist David Aaronovitch. He wondered why Muslims had not expressed “outrage” over, for example, the Sultan of Brunei’s adoption of “the most medieval form of sharia, or at the persecution of religious (including Muslim) minorities in ostensibly Muslim countries”.

Meanwhile, the long-running debate over the radicalisation of British Muslim youth has intensified in the wake of the growing popularity of the so-called “jehadi safaris”.

The issue of home-grown Muslim terrorism has dominated political and public discourse since the July 7, 2005, or “7/7”, London bombings (Britain’s equivalent of “9/11”), which were carried out by a group of men of Pakistani and North African origin. But many of the old assumptions are being revised, especially the widely held view that “alienation” from mainstream British society caused by a conflict of—and search for—an “authentic” cultural identity made young Muslims vulnerable to extremist influence. Once, they were seen as victims, caught up between conflicting pressures to conform to their immigrant parents’ ethnic cultural values on the one hand, and to integrate into the wider Western society on the other. Racism, and a sense that they were treated as outsiders despite having been born and brought up in Britain, fuelled resentment which extremist groups were able to tap into.

Increasingly, however, it seems that the “alienation” theory was too pat an explanation for a more complex and deeply complicated phenomenon. It might have been true of some cases but the cap did not fit everyone. In fact, some of the most high-profile, home-grown terrorists, such as Siddique Khan, who masterminded the 7/7 bombings, seemed far from alienated, according to those who knew them. Khan was popular as a “learning mentor” for newly arrived immigrants’ children, and was praised for his work on a host of education-related youth-outreach projects.

By all accounts, the new crop of potential suicide bombers are also well-adjusted “kids” who previously had shown no sign of alienation. Besides—and this is significant—unlike the 9/11 and 7/7 bombers, they are not fighting Western “infidels” or waging war on Western values. Instead, they are travelling halfway round the world to fight other Muslims. They are into a sectarian jehad involving rival Islamic sects though the pretext, of course, is that in the long term they want to establish Islamic rule (a caliphate) throughout the world.

But, coming back to what drew them to it, the profile of an average British Islamist or potential suicide bomber belies the stereotype of an alienated youth struggling with his/her cultural identity in a hostile society. Take the Muthana boys. Both were academically bright (one was studying for his A-levels and the other had done so well that he had admission offers from four universities) and well integrated into their environment, according to their family. They seemed like any other “normal” Cardiff boys.

“Both my sons have been influenced by outsiders, I don’t know by whom. Nasser is a calm boy, very bright and a high achiever who had been offered a place at four different universities to study medicine. He loved rugby, playing football and going camping with his friends. But he has been got at and has left his home and everyone who loves him,” said a devastated Ahmad Muthana, an electronics engineer, originally from Yemen.

The Muthana boys’ case is instructive because it is typical of how young Muslims get radicalised. Invariably, the parents are the last to know (at least that is what they claim), and it has become every British Muslim parent’s nightmare that they might wake up one morning to find that their son or daughter has disappeared.

The Muthanas first got to know about their sons’ whereabouts when they were shown an ISIS recruitment video featuring Nasser. It showed a group of young men sitting holding weapons and reciting jehadi slogans and passages from the Quran. Calling himself “Abu Muthana Al-Yemeni”, he was seen bragging about the group’s exploits and telling its leadership: “We’re your sharp arrows. Throw us at your enemies wherever they may be.”

The family was shocked. Recalling the moment when the police landed at his home with the video, Ahmad Muthana said: “They asked me if I had a computer and then showed it to me on the screen. I was shaking and in tears; my wife fainted and has still not recovered from what she saw. I believed it was my son in the video but I did not believe his words. I am fearful he was being fed those words.”

Another British jehadi fighting in Syria has been filmed saying that he would return home only when he is able to “raise the black flag of Islam” over Buckingham Palace. “There is nothing in Britain—it is just pure evil. If and when I come back to Britain it will be when this Khilafah—this Islamic State—comes to conquer Britain and I come to raise the black flag of Islam over Downing Street, over Buckingham Palace, over Tower Bridge and over Big Ben,” he says, speaking in a northern England accent.

The police have identified two types of people who are heading for jehad. “There are those engaged in violent extremism, who we know about…. Then there are those who are not known to us through extremism, who tend to be younger, and who clearly are being enticed out to fight the jehad. It’s the second category that we are most concerned about,” a senior counter-terror officer said.

There is a view that, wittingly or unwittingly, parents are not doing enough to protect their children from extremist influences and by the time they do it is too late. They are being urged to watch out for signs of any abrupt change in their children’s behaviour, such as a sudden burst of religiosity (growing beard, etc.) and try to find out what they are up to so as to prevent them from taking a wrong turn. The government has set up units to which they can turn for help; and in extreme cases inform the police.

Parents retort that it is easier said than done. It is simply not possible, they argue, to police grown-up children 24/7. They also don’t like the idea of acting as police informants in relation to their own family members.

A big problem is that in recent years the jehadi recruitment operation has become more subtle and covert. It has moved from mosques and other public places where it could be more easily policed to Internet chat rooms and secret conclaves. The Net is crawling with websites spewing jehadi propaganda videos aimed at brainwashing vulnerable young people. That is where most of the recruitment is done. Meanwhile, university campuses remain a hotbed of Islamist activity despite a government crackdown on radical groups.

There is a cruel irony in all of this. Once upon a time, newly arrived Muslim immigrants constantly worried that their children were becoming too Westernised and in danger of losing their Islamic identity. So they dragged them to mosques; imported semi-literate, and often deeply fundamentalist, preachers from back home to teach them the Quran; set up Muslim faith schools; and burnt The Satanic Verses. Today the same children are holding them hostage in the name of Islam.

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