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European Jihadists in Syria

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Joel Lewin

PoliticsSyria Dossier

Europeans are heading to Syria in ever greater numbers. The well documented brutality of Bashar al-Assad has become an international jihadi rallying point. It is estimated there are 500 Europeans fighting in Syria. But what kind of people are leaving the EU for Syria and why?

Get­ting to the bat­tle­field from Eu­rope is as easy as going on hol­i­day - a visa-free trip to Turkey fol­lowed by a drive to the bor­der and you’re in a war-zone. The trip costs less than 500 euros. Gov­ern­ments are con­cerned that re­turn­ing mil­i­tants, fur­ther rad­i­calised fight­ing along­side Al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ates, will have picked up skills on the bat­tle­field that will allow them to launch ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Eu­rope upon their re­turn. But rad­i­cal rhetoric aside, what re­ally stands out is the hum­ble, or­di­nary ori­gins of many of the Eu­ro­peans ji­hadists.


A con­tin­gent of five young Mus­lim friends from Portsmouth are cur­rently fight­ing in Syria. Amongst them is Ifthekar Jaman23, the son of a curry house owner. He set off for Syria in May, telling his fam­ily he was going for two weeks to dis­trib­ute aid. Now he is fight­ing along­side an al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate called ISIS- the Is­lamic State of Iraq and Sham (Syria). Jaman told BBC News­night, ‘This is the duty on me... all these peo­ple are suf­fer­ing. Mus­lims are being slaugh­tered.’ One of the other Portsmouth boys was a su­per­vi­sor in Primark.

Par­tic­u­larly strik­ing has been the British boys’ pres­ence on so­cial net­works. They are overtly try­ing to tempt other Brits to join the fight­ing. In one video Jaman says, ‘Any brother hop­ing to come, then come. Alone or with a group.’ A rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion ex­pert told the Tele­graph, ‘The three top travel items that ji­hadists are say­ing are needed for Syria are toi­let paper, a first aid kit and an iPad.’ An­other Brit fight­ing in Syria is record­ing his ex­pe­ri­ences on Tum­blr, telling tales of broth­erly love and bombs and fire­side heart to hears.

France: From Toulouse to Syria : A Tale of Two Broth­ers

As a one time colo­nial ruler of the coun­try, France’s bonds with Syria run deeper than most. The French gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates be­tween 200-400 French cit­i­zens have joined the fight­ing. An un­usu­ally high pro­por­tion of these are con­verts. One par­tic­u­lar tale of con­ver­sion and ‘ji­hadi tourism’ stands out.

Nico­las B., 30, comes from Toulouse’s trou­bled Izards es­tate. He had an un­set­tled up­bring­ing and his dis­il­lu­sion­ment with so­ci­ety was ac­cen­tu­ated by a con­vic­tion for deal­ing hashish. His fa­ther, Ger­ard B. told the BBC how Nico­las con­verted in 2010; ‘Nico­las was search­ing for work, for an iden­tity, per­haps that’s why they suc­ceeded.’ It’s a typ­i­cal tale of ex­trem­ists prey­ing on the dis­il­lu­sioned.

Nico­las changed his name to Abu Abd Al-Rah­man and set about con­vert­ing his fam­ily. In one video filmed in Syria, Nico­las re­joices about the con­ver­sion of his 24-year-old half-brother; ‘Jean-Daniel my brother has joined me in Islam. It’s a pre­sent from Allah.’

The broth­ers told friends and fam­ily they were going to Thai­land for a Thai box­ing course but in­stead they went to Turkey then across the bor­der to Syria. Their fa­ther told the BBC, ‘I raised my chil­dren on Nin­tendo and Coco Pops. To see them in Syria doing this is dis­tress­ing.’ Hav­ing fol­lowed his older brother in the name of jihad, Jean-Daniel was killed in a clash with Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces in Au­gust, a mere two years after he con­verted. Their fa­ther laments the harm­ful in­flu­ence of video games and brain­wash­ing by ex­trem­ists. ‘Those weren’t my sons who went to Syria,’ he says.

Ger­many: From the foot­ball field to the bat­tle­field

Burak Karan was work­ing his way up through the youth teams of the Ger­man na­tional foot­ball setup. The son of Turk­ish im­mi­grants, he played for Ger­many un­der-16s and 17s along­side play­ers who went on to be­come su­per­stars, like Tot­ten­ham’s Lewis Holtby, Real Madrid’s Sami Khedira and Schalke 04 play­ers Den­nis Aogo and Kevin Prince Boateng. He was a promis­ing player, al­ways good na­tured and gar­ru­lous.

His fu­ture looked bright, but at the ten­der age of twenty he sud­denly stopped play­ing so he could de­vote his life to rad­i­cal Islam. Whilst his friends were earn­ing mil­lions, scor­ing goals for club and coun­try, Burak was on the bat­tle­fields of Syria. His brother, Mustafa, told Ger­man tabloid daily, Bild, that Burak started rais­ing funds when the Syr­ian con­flict erupted in 2011 to buy med­ical sup­plies for vic­tims. Mustafa says that seven months ago he trav­elled to the Turkey-Syria bor­der with his wife and chil­dren to dis­trib­ute aid.

In early Oc­to­ber Burak was blown up in a gov­ern­ment air strike near the North­ern Syr­ian town of Asas. He was just 26. Con­sid­er­able am­bi­gu­ity sur­rounds his death. A video posted on 22 Oc­to­ber by an un­known Is­lamist group chal­lenges the benev­o­lent pic­ture painted by his brother. He is filmed hold­ing an as­sault rifle, whilst the text below reads, 'he stormed like a lion into in­fi­del ter­ri­tory and en­joyed the fight.’ He was re­port­edly rad­i­calised in an al-Qaeda train­ing camp in Waziris­tan, a rugged re­gion of Pak­istan. Ac­cord­ing to his sis­ter Zuhal, 'He spoke only of Jihad after that.' Kevin Prince Boateng paid homage to his old friend on Twit­ter, ‘RIP my brother Burak.K! I will never for­get our time, you were a true friend!’

This ar­ti­cle is part of Cafébabel's 2014 se­ries on Syria. The rest of the ar­ti­cles are cur­rently being trans­lated and will soon be avail­able in Eng­lish.

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