European Islamist fighters go online to spread their message
Marseille // Disturbing social media messages from Britons who have enlisted with the Islamic State suggests foreign fighters are playing a full part in the brutality attributed to the extremist group in northern Iraq.
In what amounted, at face value, to an admission of intended involvement in war crimes, one Welsh volunteer spoke of plans to massacre Yazidi men and enslave their women and children.
Some 500 British Muslims are estimated by officials and observers to have gone to Syria or Iraq to join militant groups. Messages posted online, sometimes accompanied by graphic images of violence, including mass executions and beheadings, make it clear some are fighting with Islamic State.
One British militant who has been especially active on Twitter, Nasser Muthana, an outstanding student from Cardiff with previous ambitions to become a doctor, tweeted: “Kuffar [apostates] are afraid we will slaughter yazidis, our deen [religious path] is clear we will kill their men, take their women and children as slaves Insha Allah.”
The London-based Daily Mail said that later the same day he added: “We already took women as slaves so believe me when I say watch in upcoming days Insha Allah.”
Muthana was one of six Europeans featured in a report by The National, published on July 12, on the thousands of westerners lured to join both moderate and Islamist rebel groups fighting Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria, as well as the Sunni insurrection against Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.
Another, Muthana’s boyhood friend Reyaad Khan, tweeted in reference to US airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq: “Got over two thousands western brothers who would love to be the first to welcome them with our weapons.”
A British militant calling himself Abu Farris used a question-and-answer format on the Latvian-based ask.fm website to encourage young recruits. In response to one doubt-filled comment — “I have a bad feeling I can’t hack it” — he said: “Don’t be scared, 15-yr-olds hack it bro, so why can’t you?”
To a question asking if there were “jobs to be an executioner, like when you capture kuffar”, he replied: “Yep.”
Meanwhile, London’s Metropolitan Police are investigating reports that leaflets urging British Muslims to join the Islamic State were handed out in the city’s busiest shopping area, Oxford Street.
A Scotland Yard spokesman said: “We are assessing the content of the leaflets and the circumstances to establish whether any criminal offences have been committed.”
The reported distribution of the leaflets describing Islamic State actions as “the dawn of a new era”, and the use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media by recruiters and Islamist militants already in conflict zones, present a severe test to Britain’s vaunted commitment to free speech.
But the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist UK organisation founded by Maajid Nawaz, a former member of the revolutionary Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, opposes censorship as “not only ineffective and costly but potentially counter-productive”.
Although it is difficult to distinguish bravado from fact, the British and other European governments do not doubt their citizens are involved in the fighting.
British home office officials say they are working with the internet industry to remove pro-terrorist material.
But a report from the Quilliam Foundation, published in May, questions government reliance on censorship and filtering methods.
The authors, Ghaffa Hussain and Dr Erin Marie Saltman, say they found “the vast majority of radicalised individuals come into contact with extremist ideology through offline socialisation prior to being further indoctrinated online”.
They propose an alternative strategy including the development of counter-extremist content and promotion of online anti-terrorist initiatives.
Dr Saltman, a senior researcher with Quilliam, told The National initial radicalisation was more likely now to take place in student groups and other social contact rather than in mosques, which were earlier blamed for promoting Islamist militancy.
“Once out there [in conflicts], their mentality tends to change a lot,” she said. Any volunteer who failed to adopt the new mentality, seeing religious justification for whatever actions they took part in or witnessed, would quickly feel isolated, she added.
Among inducements Dr Saltman has encountered is a claim that young women in conflict zones make willing brides for foreign fighters. Potential volunteers are won over by the prospect of adventure, “five-star jihadism” and “cult” idolisation of the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, she said.
“Justification at a very basic level [for the methods used] relies on misinterpretation or warped interpretation of the Quran”, she said. “Once you have that basic root of religious justification, everything can be justified.”
In a speech last week, the French president Francois Hollande described Islamic State as “a bloodthirsty group that falsely claims to be adhering to Islam to loot, steal, rape, destroy, persecute and annihilate”.
European leaders are reluctant to become embroiled in another Middle Eastern war, but both France and Britain have followed the United States’ lead in providing military assistance to Kurdish and Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic state in northern iraq, and humanitarian aid to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who fled the militants’ advance.
In the Syrian conflict however, the problem for western governments is that they, too, wish to see Mr Al Assad driven from power.
In a foreword to the Quilliam report, the journalist and author Nick Cohen says: “At present we are in the absurd position where western governments condemn the Assad regime for its crimes against humanity, but arrest Muslims who travel to Syria to fight it. They do not bother to argue against jihadist groups, do not bother to explain to young men why they should not join them.
“The authorities believe their case is so obvious it does not need to be made, and succeed only in looking perfect hypocrites.”
Published: August 19, 2014 04:00 AM