Terrorism, an industry like any other, is being milked again and Syria is the latest business plan.

By Moazzam Begg


Al-Farooq title of Omar ibn al-Khattab, second caliph of Islam

Sultan Baybars: 13th century Mamluke leader who defeated Mongols.

Noor ad-Deen al-Zinki : 12th century Atabeg ruler who defeated crusaders

Sa’d ibn Mu’ath distinguished companion of the Prophet

Al Fajr al-Islam Dawn of Islam

Ahfaad al-Sahabah Descendants of the Companions of the Prophet

Ahbab al-Rasool Adorers of the Prophet

Jaish al-Islam Army of Islam

Harakatu Ahrar al-Sham al-Islami Islamic Movement of Free men of the Levant

Jaish al-Mujahideen Army of the Mujahedeen

Suqur al-Islam Falcons of Islam

Liwa al-Tawhid Brigade of Islamic monotheism

Al Jabha al-Islamiyyah Islamic Front

Jund al-Khilafah Army of the Caliphate

Jabhah al-Kurdiyyah al-Islamiyyah Kurdish Islamic Front

The above groups describe themselves as kataaib (battalions), alwiya (brigades) or harakaat (movements) that form part of the multitude of opposition groups fighting in Syria. Some of them are defined as ‘Islamists’ while others are from the more secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian National Council (SNC). The group names are clearly connected to Islamic personalities, history and ideas which serve as a clear indicator as to how the Syrian opposition views itself . Their tactics are often unconventional and include urban and guerrilla-style warfare. All of them believe their fight against the Asad regime is legitimate and often refer to themselves as mujahideen performing jihad against a tyrant and, when their fighters are killed they are buried as shuhada (Islamic martyrs).

Many of these groups incorporate foreign fighters and, although they are not part of Al-Qaeda and do not face proscription by the UK, USA or UN (thus far), almost all of them fight alongside and respect Syrian Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.  It may be an uncomfortable proposition but at some point, Britain and west is going to have to recognise them. So then, instead of trying to learn and engage why is this country bent on criminalising people going to Syria?


Tackling extremism 

This week, Sir Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police stated that there is “huge concern” about the terrorist threat posed to Britain from British Muslims who might have fought in Syria returning to the UK. But have those who are supposed to keep us safe, not only from crime but from state excesses, done their homework properly?

The received wisdom reads something like this: Muslims going to fight in Syria are probably already extremists but even if they’re not, they will be by the time they return radicalised and traumatised from what they have witnessed and experienced.  Viz, coupled with extremist ideological beliefs and operational experience they pose an existential threat to the national security of Britain.

Since the groups that attract foreign fighters in Syria have varying affiliations to Al-Qaeda and its beliefs, the reasoning continues, it is safe to assume that young men and women enlisted into the ranks of these organisations are all potential terrorists. Cue more work hours for Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) as well as much needed funding for the counter extremism/terrorism think tanks trawling through twitter feeds of teenage and twenty-something Britons “gassing” about jihad, to produce more reports to justify more funding.

It appears that terrorism is the only crime that doesn’t take motive into account. Despite British intelligence’s assessment that the likelihood of reprisal attacks in Britain significantly increased as a result of the invasion of Iraq our politicians flatly refused to acknowledge the link. Statements made by 7th July bombers as to the motive behind their actions were also dismissed. The same was true of Michael Adebolajo after the Woolwich murders. Both justified their actions by blaming British occupation of Muslim lands. British combat operations in Iraq ceased in 2009 and by 2011 they had all left; by the end of 2014 they will also be out of Afghanistan. Unless Britain invades another country it is logical to assess that the terrorism threat will also diminish. One thing that both Blair and Cameron governments wanted us to believe is that the threat doesn’t come from foreign and domestic treatment of Muslims but from latent and blatant Islamic belief systems.

We are constantly told that Britain’s Muslims are being radicalised by influences from Imams, internet and social media sites, books and even songs that promote jihad as a legitimate means to end foreign occupation or challenging tyrannical regimes. Measures are in place to criminalise even ideas whether at schools, universities, mosques, among friends or in the home. These measures regard the desire to help in Syria as a sign of radicalisation.

However, there is almost no reference to our media’s role in the ‘radicalisation’ process which serves up almost hourly reports of mass-killing, imprisonment, rape, torture, starvation, refugees crises and chemical attacks featured in ‘exclusives’ on television news, documentaries, tabloid and broadsheet front-pages and on-the-ground reports by journalists and citizens via their twitter feeds. There is no reference to the reason given by our intelligence services as to what creates or exasperates the probability of terrorism occurring on our streets – and what doesn’t. No reference to the motives of the “terrorists” themselves and what propelled them to go.


Syria’s British fighters, in their own words

For once, those in authority should take a meaningful look at the intended targets of their counterterror measures. In interviews, such as the one conducted last year by Sky News with a brigade of exclusively British fighters in Syria, they will find answers:

“I am not a part of Al-Qaeda and I’ve never been a part of Al-Qaeda…ever. I’m not a terrorist in anyway and…so yes, it bothers me…if people could see how much goodness we have in our hearts, how much mercy we have for people and how much, you know, we are driven by compassion to help other people they wouldn’t think that we were terrorists. This [terrorism] is a line that they have been fed, pushing that narrative about us.”

– British fighter “Mustafa”, Northern Syria. Brigade of exclusively British jihadists fighting in Syria, 17th December 2013

 “I don’t have any plan for waging jihad or any kind of fighting in the UK…we’ve just come for one purpose, to save the oppressed people of Syria from the evil of the terror of Bashar al-Asad, here…. When the conflict in Syria happened and there wasn’t anyone coming here to save people’s lives or even help them, but once people like me came and no one else did, somehow we got labelled as terrorists. I mean how did that happen?”

– British fighter, anonymous, Northern Syria. Brigade of exclusively British jihadists fighting in Syria, 17th December 2013

“I came to Syria for Syria only. I didn’t come to Syria to learn how to make bombs…that’s not the mentality many of these fighters have….A lot of people think ‘he left house because he’s radicalised, he left his house because he’s disturbed, he left his house because he’s emotional etc etc.’ These are standard things that the media try to tell the people. One of these things that they try and do is [say] whoever comes to Syria as a foreigner is by definition Al-Qaeda. In my case there is no such thing….Me being here in Syria does not mean per definition that I am part of Al-Qaeda.”

– Dutch former Royal Netherlands Army soldier “Yilmaz” training Syria’s foreign fighters, Northern Syria. 27th January, 2014.

There is much more evidence that challenges the government’s non-imperical narrative about these men but listening to the actual views of such people has never been a consideration. Could it be that the presence of so many British fighters in Syria actually exposes the British Government to embarrassment in the knowledge that is has done little to stop the carnage in Syria, facing condemnation for refusing refugees or criticism for inaction in the case of Dr. Abbas Khan?

It is not hard to understand why Muslims would want to go out to Syria to help. Scores of them go every month on humanitarian aid missions and face endless questioning at ports by British police under schedule 7 anti-terrorism powers. It is also understandable why people want to go out and fight for what they believe is a just cause, even if the wisdom of them doing so can be questioned. Asked why he’s fighting in Syria one Briton replied: “The death toll speaks for itself, that’s all I have to say.” 

Until quite recently, even Britain “understood” and was sending non-lethal aid to the FSA, which was getting along fine fighting alongside some Al-Qaeda affiliates. So if individuals are now being arrested for taking money to fighters in Syria shouldn’t the British Government be the first one in the dock?

Revocation of nationality and life imprisonment

It is widely accepted that foreign fighters, including Britons, have been battling and dying alongside Syria’s rebels since 2011 and their numbers have increased over the last year. What is not established with any veracity is the suggestion that there has been a single act of terrorism carried out on British – or European – soil connected to Britons returning from Syria. Not a single one.

The proof, as they say, is in the proverbial pudding. Between this year and last, 40 arrests were made in relation to Syria, 16 of them during this month alone. Yet, those arrests have almost exclusively been reported with the police admitting there was “no imminent threat to the public”.

No threats that is other than of life imprisonment for “extremists” who seek to obtain training for “terrorism purposes”. Such terms lack proper legal interpretation in this context especially since there is no discernable law that prevents Britons from fighting abroad. For example, British private military contractors have been employed to train and fight in Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia in recent years. It is also worth mentioning that several British Libyans went to fight with Islamic groups in Libya during the revolution; some of them were killed while others returned to resume normal lives without fear of prosecution. In fact, Britain even helped train some of the fighters and directly conducted bombing sorties in Libya.

When Scotland Yard’s counter terrorism head, Commander Richard Walton states, “if you travel to fight jihad, British law says that you are a terrorist,” it is unhelpful and displays rank ignorance of the law, the the language and history. Finding no better word to describe fighters than “baddies” exposes the police chief even further. If the term jihad is an action defined and prohibited by English law the police and lawmakers need to say exactly under which statute.

Indeterminate ‘links’ to ubiquitous manifestations of Al-Qaeda have been regurgitated to produce stale thirteen-year old information. Everything is terrorism and for those who fear losing their jobs and government funding, terrorism is everything. It is time to change the narrative.

When applied against potential terrorists from within the plethora of far-right organisations across Britain and Europe the narrative hasn’t even begun. Despite numerous cases of terrorism emanating from groups and individuals with extremist views, the most notorious of them being Norwegian Anders Breijivk, there are no visible initiatives to strip such persons of their nationality or passports to prevent them from travelling to attend for example, extremist gatherings, despite the very real threat of attacks on British soil.

On the contrary, over the last three years the Home Secretary has seen it “conducive to the public good” to strip 41 British citizens of their nationality – leaving them stranded abroad in 35 of those cases. Nearly all of those affected have been Muslims. The increase in this number occurred last year when the government began its initiative to prevent British citizens suspected of fighting in Syria (not a crime under UK law) who had the right to dual-citizenship –  even if they were born, raised and lived all their lives in the UK – from returning to their families.

The British criminal justice system has more laws to tackle terrorism today than at any other time in its history. Yet these discretionary measures are applied in an even more secretive manner than the ones in the Special Immigration and Appeals Commissions (SIAC) used to issue and Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPims) to restrict the movement of terrorism suspects.  Although at present citizenship removal cannot be applied to people who only have British nationality the Home Secretary is seeking the means to do so, even if the individual is rendered stateless. The destructive impact on any affected family would, ironically, potentially serve to create more hostility towards Britain than any amount of radicalisation caused in Syria. Just as during the first years of the War on Terror, the presumption is of innocence is abandoned and disproportionate punishments justified.

Deciphering Al Qaeda in Syria

Since last year, it also became illegal to belong to or support two groups in Syria listed as terrorist organisations: Jabhat al-Nusrah (JAN) and Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). JAN announced its allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri but refused to become part of ISIS. Linking to Al-Qaeda central was seen as an unwise move by some but JAN’s pledge to al-Zawahiri had more to do with fears of coming under the control of the more hard-line ISIS than anything else.

Al-Qaeda may have meant different things to the west over the past years, but is it necessarily always the same thing?  Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatadah, Sulaiman al-‘Ulwan and Ayman al-Zawahiri are arguably the most highly regarded scholars amongst Al-Qaeda and its supporters. The former three are in prison and the latter is the most wanted man in the world.  JAN, with Abu Mohammed al-Jolani as its leader, is the official representative of Al-Qaeda in Syria, according to al-Zawahiri. Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Iraq but ISIS, also led by al-Baghdadi in Syria is not, again according to al-Zawahiri. All of the said scholars have heavily chastised ISIS recently in various statements.

Over the last, month ISIS has been engaged in bitter infighting against groups like Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham and FSA in certain areas. It has also clashed with JAN although the latter has tried to remain aloof and mediate between factions, offering sanctuary to foreigners and their families. As a result, JAN’s credibility, which was already on the rise greatly increaded with many defectors from other groups entering its ranks.

Western nations do not recognise Al-Qaeda or its affiliates but many FSA groups and ‘moderate’ leaders not only recognise and respect JAN, they refused to condemn the latter when it was designated a terrorist organisation. In an interview after he was wounded founder of the FSA Riyad al-Asaad, said: “The Al Nusrah Front has proved that it is proficient in fighting and has treated the people very nicely…the majority of the people are looking with admiration toward the Al Nusrah Front,” while Ahmed Moaz al Khatib, the respected former head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition said: “The decision to blacklist one of the groups fighting the regime [Jabhat al-Nusrah] as a terrorist organization must be re-examined” .

ISIS in turn applauds the “fair position” taken by Riyad al-Asaad during infighting going so far as to say that “many from the ones in the FSA” often accused by Islamic groups as proponents of secular democracy are “better than ones fighting under the Islamic brigades”. Would such sentiments render the FSA and non-Al-Qaeda groups as terrorists in the eyes of the British Government too?

If that wasn’t confusing enough, US secretary of state John Kerry recently stated that America would be willing to speak to the largest coalition of Islamic opposition groups fighting forces in Syria, the Islamic Front, which includes Ahrar al-Sham. One of the leaders of Ahrar al-Sham is Abu Khalid al-Suri, an associate of mujahideen ideologue Mustafa Setmariam Nasser (aka Abu Musab al-Suri) who was arrested by Pakistani forces in 2005 and handed over to US authorities as part of the War on Terror. Through the US rendition programme Nasser ended up in Syrian Government custody. Both men remained imprisoned in Syria until the former was released in 2011 while the latter’s whereabouts remains a mystery. During the recent conflict with ISIS Abu Khalid al-Suri was tasked by al-Zawahiri to intercede and help put an end to the dispute.

So, depending on your point of view, the US could add Ahrar al-Sham to its list of proscribed Al-Qaeda affiliates or, as President Obama recently suggested: it could see a “distinction between the capacity and reach of [and Osama] bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.” It also seems clear that the new US policy in Syria includes fomenting division between the rebels in a bid to support “moderates” against “Islamists”. Whatever the case, Britain can be expected to follow America, regardless.

Stranded Britons

In the midst of this quagmire of infighting – which has seen over 1000 killed – and claims of who and what Al-Qaeda really means are British citizens. Certainly some of them are with JAN, some with ISIS, some with Ahrar and some with entirely independent groups. Many of these young men do not speak Arabic, few if any are in positions of power and, as the infighting continues, they face a stark choice: being stranded without nationality, along with wives and children in some cases and forced to choose sides more out of fear than loyalty or, arrest and possible life imprisonment if they manage to get home. It seems opting for the latter is one reason why so many arrests have occurred recently.

Most Britons in Syria, whatever their choice, would be inclined to avoid the infighting. This would suggest that rather than being extremists they are in fact the opposite and not attached to their groups to the bitter end. They shouldn’t be criminalised for this and allowed a way out.

There may have been some merit and reason to the argument around national security connected to British military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in this case the government and the police need to stop creating threats where they don’t exist.

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)