Since the beginning of the‘War on Terror’ Western governments have become very concerned with young Western Muslims (Muslims that are born in Western Europe, North America and Australia) travelling to conflict zones that involve Muslims. During the 2000s the fear was that these Muslims would engage in Jihad and fight Western forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Post the Iraq war, the concern seems not only to be about Western Muslims travelling aboard to wage Jihad, which is what we are witnessing in Syria, but also on ‘blowback’: Jihadists will return home and inspire others to embrace extremist ideas, or unleash a campaign of violence.
In this short article I argue three points. One, Western Muslims travelling abroad and engaging in Jihad is not new because it has been taking place for the past three decades. Two, Jihadi ideology has evolved to include sectarianism and therefore has made Jihad more expansive. Three, the threat posed by ‘blowback’ to Western countries is overstated. Instead, social media platforms will play an increasingly important role in making individuals amenable to extremist ideas and compelling them to act.
The motivations behind Muslims from the West volunteering to fight in Syria are similar to those of the foreign fighters during the 1980s Afghan and Soviet war. During the war Muslims from across the world, including Europe, came to the aid of the Afghan people (Kepel, 2003: 145-148). Like the present-day Western Muslims, they felt compelled to help their brethren, not only because they were fellow Muslims, or the war produced a humanitarian crisis, but because Jihadist ideologues, such as Abdullah Azzam, branded, advertised, popularized and sold the Afghan cause to the world(Kepel, 2003: 146-147 and Abdullah Azzam: 1987). For Muslims, the war was framed as fighting non-Muslim invaders, whereas for the West it was through geo-political interests. The current Syrian war is also framed in a similar way by its protagonists, but with the addition of sectarianism.
The Syrian cause has been popularized among Muslims by employing discourses that are similar to those used during the aforementioned Afghan war. They centre on evoking a sense of solidarity and responsibility among Sunni Muslims for their religious cohorts, by utilizing Islamic symbology, Islamic history and morality. Muslims volunteering to fight in Syria today are adhering to the criteria laid down by Abdullah Azzam for engaging in Jihad. According to him, Jihad was not fard kifaya (collective duty), which was the conventional wisdom at the time, but is fard ayn (individual duty) that all Muslims must perform. Azzam argued that all able-bodied Muslims must wage Jihad anywhere Muslims were being oppressed by an outside force. Primarily, Muslims closest to the battlefield are required to fight. However, if they are not victorious, other Muslims must join (Azzam 1987). Muslims physically unable to fight must help in other capacities, including raising money, building hospitals near battlefields and spreading the word about the glory of Jihad (Wiktorowicz 2002: 17).Furthermore, Muslims who wanted to participate in the Jihad need not get permission from any individual or from ‘impious’ leaders from Muslim countries. The reason for this, as Azzam noted, was that no person had the right to intervene, as Afghanistan was the first of many Muslim lands that needed to be re-conquered by Jihad.
The significance of the Afghan war was not only that Muslims from across the world travelled to Afghanistan, or that the Afghans were victorious and Arab–Western patrons succeeded in their goals. The relevance of the conflict is that it produced Al Qaeda and the ideology of ‘global Jihad’, which is central to why some Muslims from the West join Jihadi groups, have fought in conflicts for the last two decades, and are now fighting in Syria.
It is the globalization of Jihad that has produced what Roy (1999) has called ‘nomadic Jihad’, as well as its fighters that can be referred to as nomadic Jihadists: The fighters come from all corners of the world seeking the life of Jihad, like nomads they have become aterritorial and move from country to country in a ceaseless pursuit of the enemies of Islam on a planetary level, so that they can implement their belief in God’s will. The globalized Jihad now regarded civilians as legitimate targets because they:
support those that fight by paying taxes, providing allegiance to the government, and supporting the economy. Any truly innocent people caught in the attack are, as the West put it, collateral damage. Muslims killed in the process are martyrs that far surpasses any life they could imagined on earth’ (Wiktorowicz 2002: 20-21).
Over the last three decades the ideology of global Jihad has found an audience among Muslims in the West. Through its advocates, and events involving Muslim suffering, it has inspired Muslims to attack their home countries or travel abroad and wage Jihad: Muslims from the West over the last few decades have traveled to fight in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, Iraq, and Somalia. If we follow this trajectory, then it should not come as a surprise to anyone that Muslims from the West are finding their way to Syria as both fighters and volunteers for humanitarian work.
According to the media, the Syrian conflict has attracted as many, if not more, foreign fighters than the heydays of the 1980s Afghan and Soviet war. In Syria the group of choice for Western Jihadists to join, after having decided to adopt a nomadic Jihadi life, is ‘Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)’. They join knowing and accepting that Syria is just the first Muslim country that needs to be re-conquered, with the ultimate goal being the world, as a recent BBC article stated:
Of all the above groups, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) most openly expresses the ultimately global nature of its struggle, in which the end goal is world domination…. ISIS fighters and supporters make clear to me that a fight against the UK, for example, is destined for the far future, after an Islamic state is established in Iraq and Syria and then extended throughout the Muslim world as a caliphate (BBC, 24 December 2013).
However, unlike previous conflicts, at least to the author’s knowledge, it is the first time that Sunni Muslim women from the West have travelled to engage in Jihad, but it is not clear if they are fighting on the frontline or playing a supportive role in Syria (Channel 4, 3 July 2004).
Global Jihad: Expansion of Jihadi ideology and Jihadist motivations
Inevitably, the question that policy makers, media, and the public want answered is, what motivates these individuals to embrace the Jihadist ideology and become involved in the Syrian war? Is it Islam, is it the suffering of fellow Muslims, is it the images and videos uploaded on social media platforms, is it inter-Muslim hate, is it the emotional power of Islamic symbology and eschatology, is Syria easy to gain access to through Turkey, or is it that the risk of prosecution by home countries is reduced? In this short article and lacking sufficient ethnographic data, it is it impossible to provide an evidenced based explanation that accounts for all the possible motivations.
Speaking to British Muslims, including Islamists, it seems that the aforementioned are all possible motivations. Two seem to be most important, which are interdependent and held sway among the Muslims I interviewed, with the others playing facilitating roles. The first of these two interdependent motivators is the suffering of Sunni Muslims at the hands of the Alawite Shiite government and the second is sectarianism. Sectarianism as a motive for one to act, as well as an addition to the global Jihadi ideology, is recent. As Hegghammer (2013) notes, during the 1980s, the Iran and Iraq war did not result in Sunni Muslims from other Muslim countries travelling to Iraq to wage Jihad (Foreign Affairs, 10 December 2013). This suggests that over the intervening years something has changed in how inter-Muslim conflicts are framed.
In order to understand how sectarianism vis a vis violence started to play a prominent role in the ideology of global Jihad, we need to look at the 2003-2011 Iraq war and removal of Saddam Hussein from power by the USA and its allies. The war provided a pretext for nomadic Jihadists allied with Al Qaeda from across the Muslim world to wage Jihad and remove the invading armies from a Muslim country. After the removal of Saddam Hussein, it was always likely that sectarian tensions could rise if the situation was not carefully managed, given the country’s social and political history and regional political dynamics. The war resulted in the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds jostling for power, which resulted in Kurds securing a separate entity in northern Iraq, the Shia dominating the Iraqi government, while the Sunnis lost all the political power that they had enjoyed under Saddam Hussein:
Al Qaeda justified the sectarian violence by arguing that Shia battalions were attacking Sunnis, therefore it was a defensive measure[i]. In a document entitled The Markers of the Victorious Sect in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq), the authors distinguish ‘real’ Muslims from all the other doomed sects, thus providing the religious basis for expansive violence in Iraq. It states that:
The Shiite sect is apostate and an evil on earth … Genuine Muslims do not support non-Muslims over Muslims because such as action is a great impiety… Anyone who violates this by working for or siding with West, will put themselves outside the creed and become a apostate, and in Islam it is permissible to kill apostates, unless they repent… Jihad continues until Judgment Day, either with or without a Muslim leader. Jihad is not merely a defensive struggle against invaders, but an aggressive striving to reestablish the Islamic Caliphate and spread Islam to all humanity (Hafez, 2007: 126-128).
Additionally, Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was killed in 2006, stated that ‘Shiites were heretics and Shia blood is not sacrosanct and may be shed in the interest of the wider Muslim community’ (Hafez, 2007: 128). In a video clip dating back to 2005 and attributed to him, he stated that:
The al-Qaeda Organisation in the Land of Two Rivers (Iraq) is declaring all-out war on the Rafidha (a pejorative term for Shia), wherever they are in Iraq…. As for the government, servants of the crusaders headed by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, they have declared a war on Sunnis in Tal Afar…. He also urged Sunni Arabs to wake up from your slumber … The war to exterminate Sunnis will never end (Al Jazeera, 14 September 2005).
Osama Bin Laden, the former leader of Al Qaeda killed by American Special Forces in 2011, also released a tape in 2006 imploring Al Qaeda in Iraq to attack Shiites. In the tape he refers to Shiites as
rejectionists, traitors and agents of the Americans… Our Muslim people in Iraq need to learn that no truce should be accepted with the crusaders and the apostates… Bin Laden says, there shouldn’t be any half-solutions and there is no way out for them except by fighting and holding on to their jihad. Do not be fooled by the invitations to join political parties and taking part in the so-called political process (Naser, O. 2006).
From the above, we can see how sectarianism came to sit alongside the global Jihadi ideology and came to play a significant role in providing an understanding of the world and a pretext for violence.
Syria did not start off as a sectarian conflict, but from the outset it had the potential of becoming one, because of its social and political history, as well as the political and security concerns of regional powers. In an interesting twist, the Syrian war mimics the Iraqi, but in reverse: In Iraq the Sunnis were the minority but enjoyed more power then the Shia who were the majority, in Syria it is the opposite and the Shia enjoy the power the expense of the Sunnis.
If we look at the motivations stated by Western Jihadists for why they became involved in the Syrian conflict, we see that they were compelled by the suffering of their coreligionists, as well as being influenced by sectarianism, both of which are framed through in-group love and out-group hate. This combination is a very powerful motivating tool when it is framed to engender moral-outrage by exploiting events such as the Sarin attack on Damascus in August 2013 against a backdrop of historical sectarian tensions (BBC, 16 September 2013). As one British Jihadi named Abu Muhadjar explains:
There’s many reasons made me leave my life and come here. The first is religious reasons – due to the fact that it’s upon every single Muslim to protect Muslim lands and blood of Muslims if it’s been transgressed upon. Second is humanitarian reasons – alongside of my fighting I tend to do aid work as well (BBC, 15 October 2013).
What is interesting about the above and revealed through a nuanced read is that, not only does Abu Muhadjar see it as his religious duty to engage in Jihad and protect Muslims and Muslim lands but that he does not consider Shiite Muslims as Muslims, thus, according to Jihadi ideology, they are an enemy that needs to be fought and removed from Muslim lands. Additionally, an International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) report entitled Insight: European Foreign Fighters in Syria (April 2013) also claims that that the Jihadists are motivated by the horrific human suffering experienced by the Sunni Muslim population of Syria at the hands of Syrian government forces (ICSR, 2013). The power of this combination as a motivator is evidenced through the number of Western Jihadists involved in the conflict (ICSR, 2013).
Blowback and the West
Western governments are becoming ‘hot under the collar’ because of a process called ‘blowback’ (BBC, 30 November 2013). However, blowback is not new, as argued by Peter Bergen and Alec Reynolds in their article entitled ‘Blowback Revisited’ (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2005). For example, Egypt, Algeria, France and the UK all experienced blowback during the 1990s and 2000s. But blowback has only become a major concern for Western governments since and because of 9/11 and 7/7. The threat to Western countries is that ‘battle hardened’ Western Jihadists will return from conflict zones, having cultivated international networks with other like minded folk, and as one German terrorism expert noted:
German security official who spoke to NPR on the condition of not being identified says there’s concern about radicalized war veterans coming back to Germany with knowledge of weapons and explosives that could be used to carry out attacks there (NPR, 22 December 2013).
Adding to the worry for Western governments is the possibility of Western Jihadists engaging in ‘Jihad tours’. Meaning that, they may fight for a short period of time and then come home, recuperate, gain a lofty place in the psyche of some Muslims, inspire others through stories, videos and images and return to re-engage in the war. This tactic is common practice among conventional armies and is designed to reduce battle fatigue. The British government has sought to counter the threat posed returning Jihadists by planning to revoke their citizenship (it only applies to dual nationals). However, the Wall Street Journal has suggested:
Western officials believe members of these groups may also be faking their deaths so their biometric data is wiped clean from European databases and they can re-enter Europe undetected. ISIS takes these European passports and distributes them to other jihadists who look similar, allowing them to enter Europe for operations (Wall Street Journal, 4 December 2013). If this is evidenced to be taking place, then the British government will be forced to rethink how to tackle British Jihadists and the blowback.
However, could it be that the threat posed by blowback is exaggerated? Heggammer (2013) argues, most Jihadists leave without intending to return home because they want to become martyrs (American Political Science Review, 2013). A far bigger threat may be posed by material uploaded to social media platforms by Jihadists and ordinary users that detail horrific images and videos of Muslim suffering. From my preliminary research it seems social media platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are playing an important role in propagating the Syrian cause in order to engender moral-outrage and compel viewers to act (Spiegel Online International , 21 October 2013). For example, a recent video uploaded to a social media platform details a man with a British accent imploring Muslims to leave their ‘gangster lives behind and join the life of Jihad’ (BBC, 20 December 2013). Some of the images and videos portray the Syrian Jihad as being exciting, a cool and fun thing to do for young men who like the street-life, thus, mimicking the life style the MTV program called ‘Cribs’. They are embedded with sub-cultural references pertaining to sexuality, sexism, and hyper masculinity that are often used in misogynistic slapstick-comedy, thus giving them an inoffensive outlook, as well as removing the violent element from Jihad, and making them digestible for the general audience.
Additionally, by combining and employing the concepts ‘Jihad’ and ‘Pimp’ in the phrase ‘Pimp my ride, Jihadi style’ Jihadists are making Jihad sound and feel like a regular ‘urban activity’ (Vice, 5 December 2013). Both concepts are the antinomy of each other because of what they represent, but the unintended consequence of this conflation is that the latter concept strips away the sacredness of the former because of its ‘behaviors’ connotations, thus, reducing Jihad to an ‘urban and masculine lifestyle’. Although the platforms are new, the strategy is not: during the 1990s Bosnian war an audiotape entitled ‘In the Hearts of Green Birds’ circulated, detailing the biography of fallen Jihadists, and served a similar purpose (In the Heart of Green Birds. 1992).
Social media platforms have now gained such importance that they are in their own right becoming important battlegrounds for the war, sowing the seeds for some Muslims to undergo a process of self-indoctrination into extremist ideas. This may lead some to join Islamist groups, others may volunteer for humanitarian work and then possibly become amenable to extremist ideas because of their experiences, or even become a lone wolf.
Likely future outcomes
Western Muslims in the short and medium term will continue to travel to Syria and engage in Jihad, others will travel to carry out humanitarian work and may become amenable to extremist ideas because of what they have experienced. Some Jihadists after the conflict may remain, and others may come back. Those that come back will be battle hardened and most likely promote extremist ideas. These Jihadists may inspire others to either attack their home countries, or to travel abroad to engage in Jihad. Social media platforms will continue to play an important role in making some Muslims become more open to extremist ideas and possibly join Islamist groups or travel abroad to engage in Jihad or humanitarian work.
Although in this short paper I have limited myself to focus on Sunni Muslims from the West travelling to Syria and engaging in Jihad, it is equally important to ask if Shiite from Western countries are also making their way to Syria and fighting the Syrian regime.
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[i] Al Qaeda also attacked employees of the Iraqi government because it was allied with the Americans and the British (Hafez, 2007: 122).
[ii] Its is not clear if Shiite Muslims from the West have also travelled to Syria to either engage in humanitarian work or fight alongside government forces.