European Muslims Join Terror Groups to Fight in Syria

Monday, 09 Dec 2013 05:02 PM

By Okke Ornstein

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Jolanda de Neijs posted a dramatic message on Facebook and appeared sobbing on Dutch television last month to voice concerns that her 18-year-old son Robbin van Dolderan had been recruited by jihadists.

"All available information indicates that he has been recruited for a mission to Syria," she wrote about the saga that has become a major story in the Netherlands.

Shortly afterward, her worst fears were confirmed. The cellphone of van Dolderan had been located in Turkey and it was believed that he crossed the border into Syria to join one of the extremist Islamic jihadi groups fighting in the two-year-old civil war.

Van Dolderan is just one of more than 1,000 young men from all over Europe who have joined the ranks of various al-Qaida-affiliated groups in Syria, with Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands being the principal European suppliers of jihad fighters.

"He was very upset about the images of the children hit by the nerve-gas attack," de Neijs said. "It bothered him that nobody seemed to come to the rescue."

The two biggest terror groups operating in Syria are the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, but there are dozens of smaller jihadi groups as well with most of them featured on the list of designated terrorist organizations.

When civil war in Syria broke out and the secular rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were unable to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad, these jihadi groups saw an opportunity to step in. Their stated goal is to overthrow the Assad regime and make Syria part of an Islamic caliphate, ruled by fundamentalist Sharia law. The groups are known for their brutal tactics, which include torture, public killings, kidnappings, and suicide-bomb attacks.

Al-Nusra counts between 7,000 and 15,000 fighters, and ISIS between 10,000 and 12,000. As has been the case with similar groups in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are many foreigners among those fighters from countries including Pakistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, and Tunisia.

The difference in Syria is that an unprecedented number of Europeans have joined the Islamic forces. Conservative estimates by various European intelligence services are between 1,100 and 1,700.

The real number is likely much higher. After Jolanda de Neijs appeared on television, more parents from the same Dutch town came forward saying their sons had gone to Syria, raising the number from one to 15 in that town alone.

A recent study by the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment put the number of Dutch jihad fighters at 50, but Dutch authorities say the number is at least 100 to 150.

Most of these young men were Muslims already and have gone through a process known as radicalization. But others, like van Dolderan, converted to Islam only a few years ago. Recording rap songs under his artist name RBN and being an avid soccer player, van Dolderan wasn't a fundamentalist, but that rapidly changed.

Radicalization can take place within just weeks and, before parents or friends know it, the young men are on their way to Syria.

In Vilvoorde, a suburb of Brussels, mothers are sleeping next to the front door to prevent their sons from sneaking out in the middle of the night to join the jihad, the mayor said recently.

Parents often claim that al-Qaida recruiters have lured their sons into joining the armed struggle. Although intelligence services and the police have arrested some of these suspected recruiters and are keeping others under close surveillance, there is no evidence that a vast network of terrorist recruiting agents is enlisting young adults for the jihad in Syria. Instead, there appear to be loosely organized networks to facilitate travel to Syria for the new recruits.

Dutch broadcaster EO obtained a copy of travel instructions for new jihadis, telling them to fly to Turkey from a German airport and then travel overland to the border with Syria. The document listed several names and phone numbers, including some belonging to jihad fighters who had previously joined al-Nusra.

Once in Syria, the recruits receive weapons, clothing, and about six weeks of military and religious training before they are allowed to participate in actual fighting, they said in interviews.

The most recent opinion poll on the subject, held in the Netherlands in May, found that 73 percent of the Muslim population sees jihad fighters as heroes who are in Syria protecting Muslims and fighting the brutal Assad regime. About 50 percent of the overall population sees them as warriors for justice and not so much as extremist Islamic fighters.

The jihad fighters themselves contribute to this perception through interviews, websites, and social media, where they deny that people are being recruited.

"We have no use for people who come here against their will," said a fighter who goes by the name Yilmaz, a former soldier who served in the Netherlands military and joined one of the fundamentalist jihad groups in Syria about a year ago. He doesn't want to say which group.

Yilmaz was wounded during a battle and is currently recovering, giving him plenty of time to connect to the outside world through a variety of social media. His Twitter and Instagram accounts were recently suspended, but he has started a Tumblr blog where he posts photos, videos, and quotes related to the struggle, and he maintains a page at Ask.fm where anyone can ask him questions.

For more private conversations he can be contacted on his smartphone through a chat application. These activities have turned him into something of a media phenomenon and his activities are an example of what is being called the "pop-jihad."

Ten years ago, terrorist organizations would communicate through obscure Internet forums and private chat groups. That has radically changed, and the Syrian jihad is being broadcast through social media sites like Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, and blogs on Wordpress.com.

It is even possible to buy al-Qaida flags, banners, and head scarves through Facebook and have them either sent by mail or made available for pickup at an improvised store. And a group of Dutch jihad fighters published an e-book, "De Banier" (The Banner), earlier this year explaining their activities.

"The da'wah (proselytizing or preaching) is being practiced in the streets, in the schools, and more than anywhere on the Internet. The jihad is proudly being propagated," the newspaper de Volkskrant said, quoting worried Dutch intelligence officials.

The latest da'wah fad emerged when the free Metro newspaper left empty space on its front page for readers to leave a message for the next reader who'd pick up the paper. Through Facebook, Muslims were encouraged to write something about Islam on the paper, take a picture of it, and post it on the "Happylines Da'wah" page.

"ISIS is coming. Even if they want us to die, we wish them life," one message reads.

"Media is half of jihad," said Yilmaz on Ask.fm.

And indeed, Facebook pages like "Shaam al-Ghareeba" keep their readers updated with regular sermons on the necessity of jihad, often referring to the teachings of the late al-Qaida scholar Anwar al-Awlaki. There is a constant stream of videos from Syria which either glorify the accomplishments of the jihadi groups or show in gruesome detail the atrocities committed by the forces of Assad, usually against children.

One recent video showed a German member of ISIS talking on camera, praising the activities of the brutal organization and urging viewers to come to Syria. When he finished talking, music started and the video showed a huge explosion in Kirkuk, northern Iraq, presumably the result of an ISIS suicide attack.

A regular feature is also the glorification of death by posting pictures of fighters killed in battle who have "received martyrdom," with captions pointing out happy smiles on the dead faces.

It's impossible not to notice the difference between these online efforts and what the mainstream media present. While Jolanda de Neijs cried on national television about her son Robbin who has joined the terrorists, he was praised and welcomed as a hero by the pop-jihad.

"I would like to meet this young man, God willing. He has a bigger heart than most Muslims from Islamic families," wrote Yilmaz on his Ask.fm page.

On the jihadi news site "The True Religion," Ibn Mohammad wrote de Neijs an open letter telling her to stop crying and be proud of her son.

With the Syrian jihad acquiring underground cult status, it has also turned into an "open source insurgency" — a phrase first coined by former U.S. Air Force pilot and counterterrorism expert John Robb, who authored the book "Brave New War."

The term is inspired by the open software movement in which people with different backgrounds collaborate on a common goal that is then shared freely. Robb names three elements that define this type of insurgency.

First is a "plausible promise," a cause that people rally behind because it seems attainable. The Syrian jihadi groups have indeed accomplished some remarkable military victories against Assad's forces.

Second is to adopt "open-source behavior," in other words, collaboration between different groups for the common cause. In Syria, dozens of jihadi groups form loose coalitions and when the need arises, even cooperate with the secular rebel forces that have support from the West.

Third is the necessity to obtain critical mass, or enough influx of new members to sustain the fight. In Syria, the jihadis enjoy considerable support among the population. In Europe, the various groups have successfully built a network that can sustain itself and are working to re-brand terrorist groups as a clandestine hipster cult.

In a cafeteria in a dreary suburb of Delft, a mid-sized Dutch town where a dozen young men have left for Syria, an older Turkish man told Newsmax, "At least they are doing something to protect the people. The international community has let the Muslims in Syria down."

These are widespread sentiments among the European Muslim community, as is the complaint that media attention focuses on the new jihad stars instead of on the situation on the ground in Syria.

Dutch fighter Yilmaz told Newsmax in a private chat that he had been approached by many media organizations begging for an interview. On his Q&A page he added, "Strange all this attention, front pages and people stalking me — writing articles about me as if they know me. What happened to the thousands and thousands of people killed here? ... This is a joke."

However, when this journalist asked him for an interview as well, he replied: "Money talks." Yilmaz proceeded to ask for 10,000 euro (about $13,000), "and some chocolate."

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