By: Waleed Abu al-Khair
The issue of foreign fighters who join extremist groups in Syria and Iraq figures prominently on the global agenda, especially in light of the recent spread of videos showing foreigners executing prisoners for the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL).
As many foreign countries, European ones in particular, seek to clamp down on the travel of their nationals to Syria and Iraq and to stiffen the penalties against those proven to have been involved with extremist groups in those countries, some foreign fighters have expressed deep regret over their travel abroad.
“We were pumped up with propaganda,” a foreign fighter, Abu Mohammed (not his real name) told the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London in August.
Abu Mohammed said that he, along with scores of other British fighters, wants to return to the UK. When he first travelled to Syria, he said, he was focused on fighting the regime. “But now it’s just Muslims fighting Muslims. We didn’t come here for this.”
Many of those fighters found they became “killing instruments in the hands of ISIL emirs and other hard-line terrorist groups such as al-Nusra Front (ANF)”, said Mazen Zaki, director of the new media department at Egypt’s Ibn al-Waleed Studies and Field Research Centre. “They found themselves fighting other armed factions in Syria and torturing and killing unarmed citizens, in particular Muslims, contrary to what was promoted during their recruitment, namely that they would be supporting and helping the Syrian people obtain their freedom.”
“They are being exploited to implement ISIL’s alleged state project and pushed to commit suicide for those aims, and this is done through various inducements including ample money, homes, wives, female slaves, high leadership positions and many other things that could entice youth,” Zaki told Al-Shorfa.
Not only did ISIL lie to youth and adults, he said, it lured children to the group, giving them weapons, “suggesting they have become men and filling their heads with false and distorted religious teachings in order to get them to carry out suicide operations”.
The group has set up several schools and training camps for children, he said, among them the “al-Zarqawi Cubs ” camp which graduates dozens of children every month to join ISIL’s ranks.
In addition, many European fighters bring their children with them to join the fight, he said.
To ISIL elements, anyone who fights in the group’s ranks is a “good Muslim”, while anyone who refuses to fight with the group, leaves it or disobeys it is labelled an “apostate”, said Sheikh Maaz Abdul Karim, a preacher at al-Omar Mosque in Aleppo, Syria, who moved to Cairo earlier this year.
“The term ‘apostate’ is heavily used by fighters in the group — starting with their emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — in the sense that the person [accused of being] an apostate is subject to being killed by them at any time,” he said, adding that this is ISIL’s own interpretation of sharia.
Fighting “apostates” is one of the key reasons ISIL promotes to recruit foreign fighters, Abdul Karim said. “[Foreign fighters] are brainwashed with nonsense about religion, […] and persuaded to carry out such operations, especially those who were recently converted to Islam by extremists.”
Many former foreign fighters have testified to their experience fighting alongside ISIL, saying they were unaware they were fighting the opposition forces in Syria, believing instead they were fighting the regime, due to their ignorance of the geography of the areas to which they were deployed, Abdul Karim said.
“Many left Syria after discovering the truth and realising they were killing people from their home country and other Muslims whose only crime was that they rejected ISIL’s existence,” he said.
‘THESE TERRORIST GROUPS HAVE GIVEN NOTHING TO SYRIA’
Military analyst Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Ahmed, who is retired from the Egyptian army, said that “ISIL has recently been tightening its monitoring of foreign fighters who are beginning to show signs of rebellion after all these lies were exposed, and is watching them very closely to detect any suspicious move indicating their intent to leave Syria, especially across the border with Turkey.”
After ISIL declared an area stretching from Iraq to Syria its ” Islamic caliphate “, the objectives on which the group was founded became clear, Ahmed said.
“These objectives have no connection whatsoever to the Syrian revolution or the slogans it erupted for — freedom and social justice,” he said.
“All ISIL’s goals now spill into filling its coffers and maintaining its financial resources, including the oil and agricultural lands it controls, as well as increasing the wealth of its emirs who live the lives of sultans in their areas of influence,” he added.
“These terrorist groups have given nothing to Syria, its people or the Syrian revolution but tragedy, death, destruction and displacement, and have slowed the momentum of the revolution, which has entered its fourth year without any solution on the near horizon,” he said.