The lure of the jihad and the danger to Europe
By Raffaello Pantucci, Special to CNN
Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen” (Hurst).
A growing number of young Europeans drawn to protect their abandoned Muslim brethren have taken up arms in Syria. It’s a dynamic that Europe has witnessed before.
In the 1990s, young Europeans were enticed by the idea of fighting jihad in Bosnia. Spurred on by radical preachers, young men and women were drawn to fight to protect their Muslim brethren merely a bus ride away.
Before the September 11 attack in 2001, the notion of fighting in a holy war was something far from most people’s minds and reserved for history books about the Crusades. Occasional appearances by fearsome looking radical preachers at rallies where people would shout about holy war were shown every so often on television, but that was the extent of public knowledge of the issue.
But there was more going on, mostly unseen to the average citizen in Europe. In the mid-1990s as Yugoslavia started to fall apart, stories emerged of middle-class Europeans being killed fighting and of Western forces finding groups of fighters with British accents among the Bosnian ranks.
In the UK, a specialized publishing company produced cassette tapes and videos commemorating some of these fallen individuals, venerating them as martyrs who had died defending their Muslim brothers. These inspired others to follow, and over time a pipeline established itself sending young men to fight for God’s cause.
The impact of this pipeline was only felt at home many years later. Omar Saeed Sheikh was a public school educated Briton who went to Bosnia and met individuals there who instead re-directed him to fight in Kashmir. Now he sits on death row in Pakistan, guilty of involvement in the death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl after moving through various anti-Western groups.
Andrew Rowe is another example. After being injured in Bosnia, he used his war wounds to recruit others before trying to go fight in Chechnya. He is to be released from jail soon, having been incarcerated for plotting unknown terror acts in the UK.
Omar Sharif, who ended up part of a pair who targeted a Tel Aviv bar in 2003 on behalf of Hamas, first tried his hand at jihad in Albania, where he connected with elements linked to the Kosovo Liberation Army.
In France, the impact was felt even earlier, with the violent Roubaix Gang, a close-knit group of converts and Algerians, forming out of the embers of units of Bosnian mujahedeen. In 1996 the group launched a series of violent robberies using heavy weaponry, as well as attempting to blow up a police station in Lille. The group also had links to Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian who years later tried to set off a bomb at the Los Angeles airport.
A similar narrative is starting to be played out in Syria, with stories emerging that young Westerners are among those fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. There are reports of British, French and German citizens dying fighting alongside the Syrian rebels.
There are similar stories from liberated photographers John Cantlie and Jeroen Oerlemans, who told London’s Sunday Times about being held by a group of predominantly British extremists at a camp in Syria. Cantlie characterized where he was held as a “camp that was like an adventure course for disenchanted 20-year-olds,” according to the Sunday Times.
The British citizens were seemingly of mixed ethnicities and spoke of a wider war after Syria “because when they learn that sharia is spreading into Syria, then we will be at war with America,” Cantlie told the Times.
In the UK we have only just started to see arrests linked to groups sending people to Syria. In France last week a network was disrupted that had been aiming to bring to justice those responsible for a grenade attack on a kosher deli. Its members were apparently planning to fight in Syria.
Other than incidents linked to the PKK with Syrian support in Turkey, we have not yet seen trouble emanate directly from Syria, though if history is anything to judge, eventually that will start to happen.
Supporting this narrative is the fact that the world continues to be divided over what to do about Syria, allowing rival sides to commit atrocities while the misery plays out live on television.
This is similar to events in Bosnia, where a slow-moving international response to the crisis allowed civilians to be butchered while prisoners were herded into miserable camps. Rival sides used the opportunity to fight proxy wars of their own: Then, as now, rival Gulf and Iranian factions support different sides of the regime.
Now the West is gently letting itself get drawn in, with ghosts of Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere hanging over the notion of involvement in a civil war with religious overtones. It is easy to see how a jihadist narrative can be woven from this messy chaos, supported by angry protests at home advancing a persuasive story that shows brutality being meted out on Muslims while the world watches and does nothing.
As if this trouble abroad was not enough, it remains abundantly clear that extremist ideas continue to find fertile ground in young western minds.
While tactics have been developed to help persuade some individuals to turn away from such ideas, figuring out how to make them stop being attractive remains difficult. Syria now provides those of the right inclination with a worthy field on which to learn the warrior’s trade.
Things in Syria have appeared to be coming to a head for quite a while. Some resolution needs to be found, before the perfect storm that helped incubate jihadist violence in Europe and elsewhere in the past finds a new permanent port in the chaos. Unless there is movement toward resolution soon, the problems we are storing up will come back and haunt us in the decade to come.