When British troops were first deployed into Afghanistan as part of “Operation Enduring Freedom”, their mission seemed straightforward enough. Defeat the Taliban & their Al Qaeda allies, & secure the country for a democratically elected government that would prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for extremist & terrorist groups ever again.
When the Taliban eventually regrouped & launched their counter offensive, there was a little surprise for the British troops. Nimrod surveillance aircrafts, flying over the Afghan countryside, were picking up Taliban electronic “chatter”, some of it in West Midlands & Yorkshire accents. One British commander was quoted as saying “we are fighting some of our own here”. It should never have come as a surprise though, either for the British troops on the ground in Afghanistan or the authorities back home. The involvement of British nationals in Afghanistan goes back as far as the early 1980′s following the Soviet invasion of the country. It is estimated that between 4000-7000 British nationals went to fight in Afghanistan alongside the assorted Mujahideen groups. The majority were trained in neighbouring Pakistan, often with the full knowledge & support of the Pakistani authorities as well as the West. The whole idea was to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Soviets without actually committing boots on the ground. The Mujahideen, flush with the latest Western weaponry, Pakistani logistical support & Arab money, managed to achieve that with honours. They then, of course, went on to fight amongst themselves & turn much of Kabul into rubble until the eventual Taliban takeover and the arrival in Afghanistan of a certain Osama bin Laden & the creation of Al Qaeda. But what happened to all those foreign fighters, particularly the British ones? The majority returned home, but some stayed behind, embracing Bin Laden’s cause with great enthusiasm. More were to follow in their footsteps after 2001 & Operation Enduring Freedom. Almost 11 years on from the start of Enduring Freedom, we can only hazard a guess as to how many still remain in Afghanistan or in the bordering areas of Pakistan, either actively engaged in armed combat or simply preparing for future missions.
Fast forward a decade. Another country, another calling for Jihad. This time it is Syria & once again we are witnessing the phenomena of the British Jihadi. The numbers are estimated to be anything between 500-700, but no one can say for sure. What remains true though, is that these young British men are going to Syria for the same reasons that their predecessors went to Afghanistan. They are joining the call for Jihad on behalf of the “Ummah” (The Islamic nation) and see it as their religious duty & obligation. What we also know for sure is that just like their brethren who fought in Afghanistan, they have absolutely no interest in a struggle for democracy. A facebook post by a British Jihadi was quite telling: ” We do not want to free Syria, we want to establish Sharia.” They are there because they want to help create an Islamic Caliphate, not just in Syria, but globally if possible, and they are prepared to die for that cause. Some already have. Many more are likely to. They also tend to join the most extreme of all Jihadi groups in Syria, known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq & Shaam). This situation has worried not just the UK authorities but the Syrian opposition as well. In a letter to the Times, General Abdullah al-Basheer, chief of staff of the supreme military council, the commanding body of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), which opposes the regime of President Assad, said the ‘majority’ of ISIS fighters were from the UK, with others from France, Germany and Belgium.
He said: ‘We, the Syrian people, now experience beheadings, crucifixions, beatings, murders, outdated methods of treating women, an obsolete approach to governing society. Many who participate in these activities are British.”
So what makes these mainly young men give up their (state funded) education, their careers & their reasonably comfortable existence in their country of birth, risk alienating their families & come under the radar of the security services, possibly for life, and all the implications thereof? What makes them turn their backs against their own country and vent their anger & hatred towards their fellow citizens?
There are no straightforward answers to this very complex & frankly quite disturbing issue. Social anthropologists, experts & pundits from a variety of areas, politicians & religious leaders all offer their own theories. The common thread in all these theories seems to be “alienation”. There are a large number of young men, & many young women, who feel alienated from the country of their birth & where in many cases their families have been settled now for three & four generations. And why is this so?? Again, the reasons given are many & varied. Racism seems to be the most common factor. Many of these young men & women may have experienced racism while growing up and that, combined with the fact that their way of life is not always compatible with the majority of the British populace because of their faith, can often make them feel isolated & cut off from the mainstream of society. This in turn leads to a “ghetto” mentality where they only find solace among their own and have a similar peer group to fall back on for support. However these alone cannot be valid reasons for people to take up arms in a foreign land. After all, there are young people from many non-Muslim communities who may have also suffered from racism & discrimination, but we do not hear of them turning against their own country in the same manner.
Following the 7th of July tube & bus bombings in 2005, I was given an assignment by a major Sunday newspaper. I was to visit the towns of Dewsbury & Beeston and talk to as many young Muslim men as I could, to gauge their mood & get their views on the people who had carried out the bombings. I spent about a week in that area. Some of the people I met had known the 7/7 bombers. Some were related to them. Although most people I spoke to did not approve of their actions, the majority were of the view that the British government had to share the blame for what had happened. I was also quite intrigued to hear comments such as “they (i.e. the British government) are attacking “our” lands, and that 7/7 was a reaction to that. This “them” and “us” mentality, from people who may not even have set foot in the lands they were referring to, came across to me as the most telling of all the conversations I had during the assignment. They were quite clearly of the belief that their loyalties, despite their whole lives having been spent on these shores and with all the commitments & obligations that entails, lay elsewhere & as far as they were concerned, to a much greater & nobler cause.
I find it extremely worrying that we have among our midst, a large number of people who have no sense of belonging to their own country and that some of them are prepared to go a step further and engage in acts of extreme violence. How have we, as a society, reached this point?
I do not profess to be an expert on these very complex issues. Far from it. But I do believe that the act of preparing good citizens starts at a very early age. From the time that children spend at home, right through to their nursery & primary years, on to high school & beyond. Having seen three of my own children go through the state schooling system, I can put hand on heart & say that I saw very little effort from their schools that would suggest that they were prepared to instill a sense of Britishness in these kids. History lessons were often about great victories of the past, fleeting mentions of the two great wars, very little mention of Britain’s colonial history & hardly, if ever, any mention of some of this country’s greatest achievements. It was almost as if the whole idea of Britain being a great country of which my children should be proud citizens of, was being sacrificed at the altar of political correctness and that the teachers were too scared or too embarrassed to talk about it. A lot of time & effort was spent on teaching children the virtues of multi culturalism. Nothing wrong with that per se`. I enjoyed watching them learn about Caribbean cooking & South Indian dancing. It would also have been very useful if they were all taught about the sacrifices that were made by soldiers from the British Commonwealth to keep Britain & the rest of the world free from the tyranny of fascism. It would have broken down many barriers and made the kids more appreciative of their shared heritage. A trip to the Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, where more than 3000 soldiers from the British Commonwealth are buried, including many Mulsim soldiers, would have been quite educational. My favourite riposte to a racist bonehead who told me that his grandad did not fight in the war so that people like me could come here & scrounge on benefits was to tell him that my grandad & dad both fought in the two great wars so that he could be free to spout his nasty views. I have also never quite understand why schools do not have the singing of the national anthem as part of the school assembly?? I am a staunch Republican myself & I strongly believe in an elected head of state, but I would personally have no issue in singing “God Save the Queen” should the occasion require. (very badly I must confess!) The national anthem is a very powerful symbol of national identity & hardly any of our school children grow up learning it. Similarly hardly any or our schools fly the Union flag. Is it any wonder therefore, that on the one hand both the anthem & the flag have been hijacked by the extremist right wing groups as if they have some sort of a God given right over patriotism, and on the other, for many of our children they have become alien symbols.
I am not for a moment suggesting that any of the above would be a solution to what I have already said is a very complex issue. However instilling a sense of patriotism & good citizenship at a micro level would definitely go a long way in countering some of the issues associated with alienation in the future.
I also have a major issue with the government trying to throw good money after bad. There have been several initiatives since the 7/7 tragedy to counter extremist influence. Organisations & individuals have been brought on board. Community leaders, many self appointed, have been drafted in as advisers. I have my doubts about the success of these initiatives. Until & unless a lot of hard work gets done at the grassroots level, the very serious & quite often deadly issue of extremism is not going to go away. A very desperate appeal by counter-terrorism bosses, asking mothers to inform on family members who want to travel to Syria, is at best laughable & at worst quite pathetic. It simply will not work. Indoctrination of these kids rarely, if ever, takes place at home. It happens within peer groups & study circles & increasingly it’s happening through the social media, where the use of some very emotive language alongisde some quite graphic images has already prepared a new batch of recruits, ready & willing to fight, kill & most probably die in the latest Jihadi frontline of Syria.
What has made Syria even more attractive for potential Jihadis is the ease of access. So long as they can find themselves a way to get to Turkey without coming under the radar of the security services, they are virtually there. The Turkish-Syrian border, remains open for anyone willing to pick up an AK47 on behalf of the many and varied Jihadi groups fighting inside Syria. The ISIS are of course one of the most powerful & by far the most extreme, but there are many others, & for volunteers from Britain there is plenty of choice. The fact that most choose to fight for ISIS is an indication of how powerfully attractive the ISIS message is for the British Jihadis. Small wonder then that General al-Basheer is so deeply concerned and has asked the UK authorities for help. The last thing the General, & the Syrian opposition need, is people from Europe hijacking through extremely violent means what is supposed to be a struggle for democracy for the Syrian people by the Syrian people.
I have heard many statements of late from our politicians & counter terrorism bosses about the need to curb the movements of those either already in Syria or planning to be there. Several people have been detained & prosecuted. No doubt many other prosecutions will follow.
Meanwhile, not before long, yet another British kid will become a casualty of the increasingly brutal war in Syria. He will be leaving behind a distraught family & a society that is unable & unwilling to comprehend the cause that he died for. His dream of establishing the rule of Sharia over Syria & the rest of the world would remain unfulfilled, but there will be many more who would be ready & willing to follow in his path. The big question is what would happen when many of those young men return home? I hope that the powers that be would find an answer to this question & fast.