Jihadi Tourism Against Assad

The tourism of global conflict is a market governments would prefer did not exist.


A Syrian rebel sniper in Khan al-Assal, Aleppo province. Credit: Wikipedia

Governments that have to face the consequences of such a market are the least keen of all.

The view here is that of a franchise that expands conflict and attracts customers keen to get the right ideological product. That current product, as it stands, is a promised ousting of Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

During the 1980s, jihad went global, a symptom of bungling Soviet strategy in Afghanistan and misguided funding from Pakistani and American sources to various mujahideen groups. The result was a radicalized troupe, men who could scant keep revolution where they found it.

The Soviet Union was, after all, a shape changing enemy, a Satan adaptable for the circumstances. For that reason, policy makers in Washington found themselves with hands bound as the throats of their citizens were about to be cut. They should have known, since they were funding the knives.

The concern with the Syrian conflict now is that various members of the global Muslim diaspora might start mucking in. In truth, they have been doing that since 2011, giving respective intelligence services a headache. In distant Australia, the domestic intelligence service ASIO has counted some 100 figures who they suspect are directly involved, with the number possibly being as high as 200. The number may well be higher than that – and the conduit here is Lebanon, a porous entity when it comes to infiltrating agents into Syria.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr was appraised of this on the weekend: “We are all aware of it and I probably can’t go further because I can’t comment on matters of security and intelligence but the relevant agencies are fully appraised of this.” The message of the moment, at least among Sunni Muslims in Australia, is that Assad in Syria needs to be overthrown. Little wonder then, that scores are heading over to fight the dirty fight.

The case is by no means confined to Australia

Muslims in other countries are also bringing forth recruits, some of which have slipped under the radar. Some 100 Britons have gone to Syria, with a similar number coming from The Netherlands. Le Figaro has given an estimate of 50-80 from France, while Der Spiegel has written about number of Germans doing the same. Danish papers, including The Copenhagen Post, have their own figure on Danish involvement: some 45 or so.

According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (Apr 2), between 140 to 600 Europeans have gone to fight in Syria since the conflict began in early 2011 “representing 7-11 per cent of the foreign fighter total.”

Even the United States has had its share, the most conspicuous case of this being the antics of veteran Eric G. Harroun, who was subsequently charged under US law for using, rather bizarrely, a weapon of mass destruction (that is, a Rocket Propelled Grenade), outside the United States. In what has become a worrying trend for the intelligence services of the West, Harroun found the hard approach of the al-Nusra front far more appealing than other members of the Syrian opposition.

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The consequences of such radicalization vary

Revolutionaries find it difficult getting out of their aggressive costumes once they leave the field of battle one country. Like an export trade that needs to be fed, they find another venue to nourish their appetites. Grievances are brought back and redistributed. “They have been taught to fight,” opines Peter Knoope, director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, “and some of them do not know how to stop.” Harroun, to take a case in point, had expressed a wish to fight Israel after leaving Syria.

In one of the rarer moments on Dutch television in February this year, Rob Bertholee, head of the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service suggested that it was “worrying because of the combat experience they acquire, the ideological convictions and the fact that they could become traumatized there.”

Governments have implemented various strategies. The United Kingdom has been running “Channel,” an anti-radicalization program set up in April 2007 to target youths at risk of involvement with extremist groups. While most of the set involved have been concerned with Islamic extremism, 10 per cent of cases have involved individuals from the far right. There are 500 individuals who have been said to be of immediate interest from a larger group of 2,500.

The concern however is whether such prevention strategies work. People will slip through, as the cases of Irfan Naseer, Irfan Khalid and Ashik Ali show. Touted as the Birmingham “would-be suicide bombers,” the three were convicted in February for planning an attack that would have involved eight to ten suicide bombs. In the words of the sentencing judge, “You were seeking to recruit a team of somewhere between six and eight suicide bombers to carry out a spectacular bombing campaign, one which would create anniversary along the lines of 7/7 or 9/11.”

UK Home Secretary Theresa May rallied the defenses, claiming that the strategy had proven to be effective, despite the occasional glitch. The terrorist threat had become “more diverse than before, dispersed across a wider geographical area, and often in countries without effective governance.” With the attractions posed for the faithful serving in foreign conflict against a demonic enemy, and the proper branding from leaders eager to sell a fight, conflict, like water, conflict will find a place.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures in law and politics at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.