As previous papers have outlined, the Islamic State poses a range of different threats to different people. One is a more or less conventional threat to the state structure in the Middle East. The other is an unconventional threat to countries further afield, including in the West, and particularly to their civilian populations.
This presentation is going to focus on the issue of the Islamic State’s foreign fighter manpower, which enables it to both challenge states in the Middle East and to threaten countries outside the region, particularly focusing on foreign volunteers from Europe.
To do this, I will look at (a) the number of people going to fight in Syria, and where they come from; (b) how the process of Western volunteers going to the Islamic State has evolved over time and (c) how the Islamic State has sought to guide their arrival in the region—and what long-term implications this will have.
Numbers of Foreign Fighters From Europe
As other presenters have indicated, the total number of foreign fighters who have joined jihadist groups in Syria, principally the Islamic State, including those who have died or returned, is somewhere around 20,000. The total number from Europe is more than 4,000. This is twice the number in December 2013, two years ago.
According to figures from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) in London and the Soufan Group, the largest number of fighters per capita in absolute terms is around 700 from France, followed by a few hundred from the UK and Germany (The Economist, August 30, 2014). In relative terms, the highest number is from Belgium. These high absolute and relative numbers from France and Belgium are worth bearing in mind given recent attacks in France—and the fact that these appeared to have been directed from Belgium.
After Belgium, it is also worth noting that Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands have high number of jihadists per capita. The number of foreign fighters from Denmark is particularly significant as the country obviously remains a high-priority target for jihadists due to the Muhammad cartoon controversy. Given the France and Belgium precedent, it is possible this high relative and absolute number of Danish foreign fighters will correlate into attacks there at some point.
Islamic State’s Shrinking Gateway
In terms of actually getting to the Islamic State, volunteers face a range of challenges, including leaving their home countries, transiting through Turkey and crossing into Syria. At present, the Islamic State is largely surrounded by hostile powers—the Kurds, the Iraq government, Bashar al-Assad’s forces—and also inhospitable desert areas. One result of the recent advances against the Islamic State, particularly by the Kurds, is that the area connecting the Islamic State to Turkey—its main access point to the outside world—has been really squeezed. At present, the connecting frontier between the Islamic State and Turkey is about 60 miles long. By comparison, the whole border with Syria and Turkey is around 550 miles long.
This means that these large numbers of jihadists are having to transit an increasingly narrow stretch of frontier, which has only two official crossing points. This is a challenge for the Islamic State as it is much tougher for them to get recruits in now. But, as has been emphasized in previous talks, the Islamic State is a learning organization, and they are adapting to this challenge.
To show how the environment for Islamic State recruits has changed, I am going to look at one of the most prominent British jihadists—Iftekar Jaman, the leader of the so-called Portsmouth Cluster of jihadists. Jaman travelled to join the Islamic State in March 2013, and his journey to Syria shows how difficult, ad hoc and dangerous the process was in early 2013—and how he himself made a big contribution to making the journey easier (New Statesman, November 6, 2014).
To give some background, Jaman was superficially well-integrated. His parents were first generation migrants from Bangladesh, and owned a successful restaurant. He worked in a number of jobs in retail and call-centers and got on well with colleagues. Unlike many other jihadists, he had no issues with criminality or drug use. But at the same time, he also became involved in Salafist preaching networks in Portsmouth in his teenage years.
In March 2013, when he was 23, he decided to join the jihad in Syria. His motivations are unclear. Publicly, he said he wanted to fight against the “oppression” of the al-Assad regime. However, he specifically wanted to join Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate. He also adopted a sectarian view of the conflict, with Shi’as oppressing Sunnis, and saw the West as just standing by. At a personal level, he also saw this decision as empowering; he produced pictures showing how he wanted to see himself in Syria, and the contrast with the slightly nerdy individual he was in previous pictures taken in the UK is clear to see.
After making this decision, Jaman flew to Turkey in May 2013, and took a bus to Reyhanli on the border. He did not, however, have any contacts or a clear plan. On the bus towards this border town, he approached the only bearded person on the bus and spoke to him. This man turned out to be a Sunni Arab from Aleppo in Syria. Jaman took a big risk and told him that he wanted to travel to Syria for jihad. The man was sympathetic; he took Jaman to the border and helped him cross. Then on the other side, he drove him to Aleppo and directly to Jabhat al-Nusra’s recruitment center.
However, because Jaman had traveled without any prior contacts, he was rejected by Jabhat al-Nusra as he had no one to vouch for him. They actually accused him of being a British spy and—to get rid of him—referred him to one of the less religious rebel groups nearby. He left the recruitment center very downhearted, actually crying. However, he then had another stroke of luck when he met an Algerian jihadist in a nearby coffee shop.
The Algerian tells him about another group called the Islamic State, then the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and that they are the real deal—and takes Jaman to see them. The Islamic State vetted him for a fortnight, and then accepted him. This account shows very clearly that in the early days of the Islamic State (in 2013), the journey was extremely risky. There was no channel or process for foreign fighters coming in, and the Islamic State did not prioritize getting European foreign fighters into its territory.
Social Media Outreach
However, a result of Jaman’s arrival, the Islamic State’s lack of outreach began to change in mid-2013. As soon as Jaman arrived, the Islamic State assessed his skills. They decided he was not much use on the battlefield, so they gave him a role in trying to reach out to other English-language speakers through the internet and encourage them to come to Syria. Over the next six months, he became one of the Islamic State’s social media stars. He did this through posting pictures of daily life in the caliphate. Some showed him posing with guns while others showed landscapes or even just cats. He also took part in online question and answer sessions with potential volunteers on open forums, reassuring them about not speaking Arabic among other concerns. Once he had established a connection with would-be recruits, he then engaged them in one-on-one private messaging conversations with them—providing both ideological radicalization, addressing their concerns and advising on the practical logistics on travel to Syria.
One of Jaman’s main achievements during this time was to encourage an entire network/friendship of five others from his hometown of Portsmouth to join him in Syria. The group included friends (and one of his cousins) and were mostly in their early 20s. They seem to have been attracted by the sense of adventure, comradeship and purpose that Jaman’s social media output had promised them.
Following advice from Jaman, they booked a package holiday at a resort in Antalya in Turkey and traveled as ordinary holiday makers to avoid attracting attention. A picture taken of them in October 2013 in Gatwick airport en route to Turkey shows them without beards and wearing casual clothes—nothing that would arouse suspicion.
After reaching Turkey, Jaman connected them with an Islamic State supporter in Turkey, who was able to help them over the border into Syria, where an Islamic State contact immediately met them and transported them to safety—probably to near Raqqa. As this demonstrates, Jaman had very quickly learned from his own difficult journey to Syria and was able to set up a network that would safely and effectively channel European volunteers into Syria.
The postscript to this is that Jaman was killed in December 2013—only six months after arriving in Syria—in a battle near Deir al-Zor. In addition, within a year, four of the five Portsmouth volunteers that Jaman brought over were also killed. The fifth returned home early and was convicted in the UK.
The second example is more recent. “Abu Rumaysah,” real name Siddhartha Dhar, was one of the leading followers of Anjem Choudary and was active in al-Muhajiroun. A Hindu who converted to Islam, he was born in India, but brought up in the UK. He traveled to Syria in November 2014. His story shows that by this point, travel to Syria had become much easier for someone with the right knowledge and connections.
He was detained by UK police on November 10, 2014, on suspicion of encouraging terrorism. He was released on bail and ordered to hand in his passport. Instead, two days later, he took a coach to Paris. He then, apparently, caught a flight to Turkey. Once in Turkey, he crossed the border, evidently without any difficulties. Once in the Islamic State, he was rapidly vetted by the jihadist organization and allowed to get onto social media on November 26. He immediately became active on Twitter, changing his photo to the Islamic State logo and taunting the British authorities on how easily he had traveled to Syria (Independent, November 26, 2014).
The remarkable thing about this story is that even with his heightened profile—and while being on the run—Abu Rumaysah was able to complete this journey to Syria, from London to Raqqa in two weeks. This shows how effective the Islamic State’s pipeline from Europe to Syria had become by mid-2014. It also shows that even after the death of Jaman, the system that he had helped to establish was able to continue functioning. Another interesting thing that Abu Rumaysah’s tweets show is that reaching the Islamic State is in itself perceived as a victory. And they are right; it is.
Hijra to the Islamic State
Travel to the Islamic State has become more complex again. Turkey has been actively tackling the foreign fighter situation since late 2014. For instance, the Turkish prime minister’s office has said that in 2014, Turkey had prevented 520 suspected militants from entering Syria. The Islamic State’s border with Turkey has also shrunk considerably. However, the Islamic State knows the flow of foreign recruits is vital to its operations. For instance, foreign fighters play a disproportionate role as suicide bombers. The flow of recruits is also vital to its self-image. One of its key messages is that the caliphate is drawing in true Muslims from across the world. If it stops attracting Muslims, then by its own measure, it is failing.
To manage help these people traveling to the caliphate, and to ensure as many people reach it as possible, the Islamic State has produced a guide “Hijrah to the Islamic State” (Guardian, February 25). This is a 50-page e-book in English that was published in February 2015, and it is the most comprehensive guide on how to enter Syria. The guide also provides pre-travel advice, such as listing items to pack. However, it also gives extensive advice on how recruits can prepare in order to avoid attracting the attention of the Turkish security forces. For instance, it advises buying a return ticket—as opposed to a one-way ticket to Turkey—so as not to attract attention. Another tip is for recruits to buy a tourist guidebook for Turkey: “Make sure you have a good knowledge of the tourist attractions in Turkey… This is important since if they question you, you can just brandish this in front of their noses and show them how serious of a tourist you are.”
The document also illuminates the Islamic State network in Turkey. For example, once in Turkey, the guide advises that recruits should buy a local Turkish sim card, call their IS contact and arrange a meeting place. Depending on their contact, they may meet the volunteer at an airport, even in Istanbul. Or, they may need to get a bus to southeastern Turkey, nearer to Syria, to meet their contact there. The guide also warns recruits that the contact may be clean-shaven or smoking. He will then take the volunteer to a safe-house near the Syrian border. The border crossing is then arranged by the contact—and this is usually done at dawn or at night—and there will be other jihadist contacts waiting on the Syrian side of the border. This is usually done an unofficial crossing point.
One surprising aspect of this document is that it seeks to play down the risks. For example, it says the “worst that can happen” if the Turkish police detain the volunteer, “All they can do is stop you, request you to produce identification (your passport, most probably), ask you a few questions, probably take you to a police station and ask you some more questions.”
This also is a common motif of Islamic State messaging. Its message is not that becoming a jihadist is dangerous or exciting—or all the things we associate with recruitment. Instead their message is that it is easy. The Islamic State’s message is that jihad is in reach of ordinary Muslims: one does not have to be a superhero to be a jihadist. And that is reflected in this document.
To conclude with a recent example, on November 18 of this year, two of the best known British al-Muhajiiroun members—Simon Keeler and Abu Izzadeen—were arrested in Hungary (Daily Mail, November 19). Both had been jailed previously, in 2008, for inciting terrorism abroad and terrorist fund-raising. They were also among the most prominent radicals in the UK, with multiple TV interviews and have given sermons. Also, they are both extremely committed to the core jihadist ideology (i.e., their belief in applying Shari’a law, on the supposed religious obligation to recreate the caliphate, etc.). Keeler and Izzadeen were apprehended while on a train to Romania, apparently heading to Turkey and then to the Islamic State. Both were under travel bans, meaning they could not leave the UK without permission. It is not clear how they got to Hungary.
There are a few points arising from this latest story: (a) Their arrests on a train in Hungary show that would-be jihadists are developing new routes—in this case, apparently travelling solely by land, and also taking an indirect route; (b) it also shows that if individuals believe that they have a religious duty to join the Islamic State, they are going to keep trying—even if they have been stopped before and know that they are recognizable figures. and (c) the other, more positive, message is that even if these individuals left the UK undetected—which is a problem—the European authorities are now communicating more effectively on these issues.
The good news is that Turkey is actively preventing foreign fighters entering from Syria—and this evident from the precautions that the Islamic State advises people to take. In addition, the remaining Islamic State-controlled border open between Syria and Turkey is just 60 miles long compared to an overall 550 miles. This is going to make a difference; resources can be focused on this smaller area, and that common border may shrink further in the next year or so.
The bad news is the Islamic State has responded previously to challenges to its “rat-run” into Syria and it will continue to find inventive solutions. In addition, what is clear is that the Islamic State has developed a complex physical network within Turkey and virtual communications channels from Syria into Europe. At present, this network is focused on sending recruits into Syria. However, once this network is in place, it will be very easy for the Islamic State to reverse the flow and send money, arms and recruits back into Europe. Indeed, the Paris attack suggests this has already started to happen.
The final point is that this flow of European recruits into Syria is a symptom of a problem and not a root cause. These jihadists are being made in the West. They are not being radicalized in Syria; they are seeing and reading about the Islamic State’s actions at home and deciding that this is something they want to be part of. They are radicals before they even set off to Syria. Ultimately, if we want to stop individuals travelling to Syria for jihad, we are going to have to look closer to home.
James Brandon is a political and security risk analyst.