EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Do Syria's foreign fighters pose a threat to Europe?

With fears in Europe about potential terrorism threats coming from Europeans fighting in Syria CagePrisoners talks to people on the ground who offer a different narrative

Pictured: Ibrahim al-Mazwagi from London was killed in battle against Syrian regime forces earlier this year


As the US-led war on terror begins to wind down with dates of foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan being set, to the opening up of Taliban offices in Qatar for negotations with the Taliban, the war in Syria has taken centre stage with a potential of being the new focus for draconian anti-terror measures being passed in Europe, even as it and the US consider arming 'moderare' rebels. This is not only because of the horrific nature of the conflict and numbers of casulaties but because of the Islamic nature of rebel forces in Syria.

With the potential for a new conflict begniing in Egypt after the military's ousting of President Morsi CagePrisoners' Moazzam Begg, who recently spent some time with US filmmaker Bilal Abdul Kareem in Syria, discusses the nature of the foreign fighters there and what their presence means for Syria and Europe.

 

 

Moazzam Begg Assalaamu alaikum. Can you lease introduce yourself to our readers

Bilal Abdul Kareem: Wa alaikum as-salaam. My name is Bilal Abdul Kareem originally from New York.  I am a documentary filmmaker and I specialize in Muslim affairs.  I’ve been in Syria for approximately one year.  It has been a long year but one that I think is well worth it.  I’ve met some extraordinary people and I really feel that more people need to know who these Islamic fighters are and what they want.  That doesn’t mean that my goal is for them to necessarily like them, but my goal is for them to know them and then they can decide for themselves. 

 

MB: What motivates a person with a relatively privileged western background to take up arms in a place like Syria?

BAK: There are two elements to this issue.  

The first reason is that these men see it as a religious obligation to struggle against oppression and to defend the blood of the innocent, in this case the Syrian people.

At the same time, they are working towards to assisting the local groups in establishing an Islamic state. Most people who hear the term “Islamic state” actually have very little understanding as to what an Islamic state entails and automatically equate it to harshness.  They draw a conclusion based upon something they saw on the news or heard someone say.  The reality is that the answer is significantly more complex than that.  While that is a topic unto itself, suffice it to say that there is a very long history of other faiths living together in harmony in an Islamic state. There is no one alive today who has lived in a complete, rather than experimental Islamic state and it seems people in power – in the west or otherwise – are not ready to give it a chance. Certainly people here want security, shelter, food, justice and prosperity. But before that they want freedom from decades of oppression. However, it’s not the freedom of the west they’re looking to. The Iraqi experience is alive next door and judging by what’s happening in neighbouring Egypt (and Algeria in the past) you can see why.

 

MB: Would it be right to say all foreign fighters have the similar aims?

BAK: Of course we cannot say that all of any large group of people have exactly the same goals.  However for the most part they are agreed upon the above mentioned points of protecting the Syrian people and establishing an Islamic state.  From my experience with them I have never heard them differentiate between helping Muslim Syrians while leaving Christian Syrians to fend for themselves. For them it is generally one and the same, if they need help then they are there to help.

 

MB: Is it not dangerous for untrained men to have unrestricted access to powerful ballistic weapons and ammunition in small or large groups?

BAK: Many of the “untrained” men you’ve mentioned are not as untrained as many people think.  Many of them have served in other armies in other countries.  Sure there are those who have no true previous advanced weaponry experience; however they are generally regulated under the leadership of those who do.


MB: What are your views on reports of the Syrian rebel Abu Sakkar who ate the heart of an enemy soldier?

BAK: It is interesting that I am asked this question a lot.  It is as if people want to make a case that this is a normal practice amongst Islamic fighters.  To that I would say the following two points:

The first is who ascribed this person to being from amongst the Islamic fighters?  There are non-religious fighters in different groups who even wouldn’t consider themselves fighting for the sake of Islam.  I watched the video myself and I don’t know how, or more importantly, why some individuals jumped to that conclusion.  It was kind of like the lead up to the second Gulf war, some people just naturally wanted to believe that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s even though no evidence supported it.

The second issue is that eating human flesh is not something I have seen any of the Islamic fighters do or even talk about doing. As everyone knows, observant Muslims will never consume alcohol or pork; blood is just as abhorrent if not more. Even the battle-hardened group that I was with was shocked by that action.  I think this issue has gotten more press than it deserved.  As with any conflict you are going to have people with all sorts of crazy ideas.  I see this action as a sick practice from a sick individual.


MB: There were claims recently that Islamic fighters, possibly foreigners, executed a 14-year old boy for insulting the Prophet. How do you see this?

BAK: The facts of this case need to be investigated deeper to find out exactly what happened. Additionally, it is important for rational minds to look at this incident, if it is true, as an isolated incident.  For example we read the newspapers and hear about a person who killed his wife or a family member in Birmingham or London.  Should we then assume that all British citizens or even most of them think that killing one’s wife or family is a good idea?  In Syria there is an Islamic court system set up to deal with issues like these in a thorough and just manner.  If this story is true, then I would ask the perpetrators why they circumvented the system set up to deal with this issue?  I can only assume that they felt the Islamic Legal system would not approve of their actions so they decided to take matters into their own hands.


MB: There have been calls by various western leaders and politicians to somehow ban re-entry of individuals who have taken part in jihad in Syria because of their support for and involvement in terrorism. What would you say to that?

BAK: The first issue that needs to be addressed is the part of your statement: “…because of their support and involvement in terrorism”.  What was their involvement in terrorism exactly?  Is it reasonable to assume that while no one else wanted to come and help the Syrians and since it was Muslim fighters who took up that banner that we should automatically assume that they have some link to terrorism and jail them?  Why do we not find the Syrian people calling these Islamic fighters terrorists?  They have the closest proximity to them and watch their actions on a daily basis and yet we see that the Syrian people are generally quite comfortable with their presence.  I’m sorry to say that I believe that if these mujahideen were a group of non-Muslims fighting and dying in Syria for the same cause they would be lauded as heroes.  Does their choice to be Muslims mean that they should be painted as villains by default?  I don’t know about others but I am not comfortable with that assessment at all.


MB: Even if these young men are not ideologically radicalised to carry out acts of violence against unarmed civilians in the streets of Europe, some have argued that they will be highly unstable and pose a security threat due to the severe trauma and PTSD they would have experienced. How would you respond?

BAK: If we say that they should be detained simply due to the fact that they “might” have PTSD and “could possibly” do something antisocial on the streets of London or Brussels then I would say: Ok.  Fair enough.  However that would mean that all British and European soldiers returning from any theatre of war should equally be jailed as well.  One’s faith or non-faith does not automatically make you immune to the effects of PTSD.  And since when did the people of a free society lock up those who put their lives on the line for a cause simple because they “might possibly” commit some unspecified crime at some unknown date?  Very strange.

 

MB: What are your feelings towards acts like the killing of the unarmed British soldier recently in Woolwich or the July 7th bombings in London?

BAK: I don’t think that there is any sane or rational person who would like to see a war between Muslims and the United Kingdom.  There really isn’t any benefit in either side for such an event to take place. Therefore, if the people of the UK are, as they have done, witnessing these types of events then they can do one of two things. They can:

a. Dismiss the perpetrators as terrorists, introduce new laws and measures that criminalize a section of their population and change the face of their country while living their lives hoping  - and knowing - that their personal lives will never be affected by these people.

Or

b. They can seriously ask themselves what brought on this behaviour.  How and why did it happen?  

I think that choice b is the mature and courageous route to go.  I also think it is the most likely choice to bring benefit to all parties concerned. These sorts of killing takes place in Muslim lands using UK citizens tax dollars all the time.  Most people want to just put a label of “fighting terrorists” on those events and feel that the means justify the ends.  However it is not reasonable to assume that all of the battles waged by the UK will always take place on foreign soil.  I’m sure the people of the UK would like that but such events prove it is not logical to assume so.


MB: There are several opposition-controlled areas where numerous armed groups operate. What sense of security – or threat – do ordinary Syrians get from foreign fighters?

BAK: Most of the Syrians are very positive regarding the presence of foreign fighters as they see them as those who have pure intentions towards their faith and sincerity when it comes to helping them.  They also get the sense that these foreign fighters, while fighting for a cause, do not have any real political ambitions.  Most Syrians aren’t feeling that fighters from Europe will be smiling on campaign posters in a few months looking for their votes.

As for a security standpoint, the areas controlled by foreign fighters are, for the most part, very secure.  The reason being that foreigners do not have any tribal ties or family obligations inside the country to complicate matters.  It is extremely unlikely that a foreigner will spend his money to buy a plane ticket and buy his own weapon simply to come to rob some poor Syrians of their grossly devalued currency at a checkpoint.  For this reason there is usually a sense of trust from the civilian side of the equation for the foreigners. 

 

MB: How have foreign fighters been received by the local population in your experience and what benefit, if any, have they brought?

BAK: Again as I mentioned earlier they are looked at in a very positive light.  They are not seen as being politically motivated by their actions and the general population seems to trust their motives and intentions.  Often you will find the locals refusing to charge foreigners for use of services or goods, inviting them to stay in their homes and having marriages between foreigners and Syrians. Mostly they see the foreigners as pious, brave, honest and principled and behave like this with them to show their appreciation. Of course, the foreign fighters are not angels and have made several mistakes but they too are subject to the law like everyone else. 

As for possible benefits they may have brought to the table I think it is obvious: the Syrian people by all accounts were being massacred by their own government.  Missile and aerial attacks were launched upon the civilian population from certain military bases.  Quite a few of the military operations that captured those bases had some form of foreign fighter presence in them.  These are the reasons most of the Syrians see foreigners in a positive light.


MB: Islamic shari’ah courts are in operation in some cities held by the rebels. What effects have they had on ordinary people encountering them for the first time?

BAK: Like any court if you win your case you will say it was a “good” court.  If you lose then you will say that it was a “bad” court.  However, having said that, I have witnessed all sorts of people having their disputes settled in a shari’ah court.  Muslims bring their issues to the shari’ah court but so do non-Muslims as well.  The important thing that I see in this whole process is that those involved feel that their case will be heard and they both have a chance to get their full rights.  This is what I’ve observed personally.


MB: What have been the effects of non-intervention by nations able to bring the conflict to an end?

BAK: One of the effects has been the rise of Islamic fighters.  They have filled a huge vacuum left by the international community.  In spite of all of the meetings and press statements made by the international community, Syrians were abandoned to die much like the Rwandans were in 1994.  It is unconscionable to leave people to suffer and when someone goes to help those people then people cry out that there must be some terrorist link in there somewhere so we’d best jail them now.  It’s simply amazing in my opinion.


MB: What has been the effect of intervention on the side of the Asad regime by foreign nations and fighters like Hezbollah?

BAK: Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict is an extremely dangerous affair for the Lebanese government.  If they allow Hezbollah to launch attacks on Syrian soil then they cannot cry “terrorism” if rebel fighters launch attacks on Lebanese territory.  It is best I believe if the international community pressures the Lebanese government to not allow it’s nationals to launch attacks in neighbouring Syria.  If they fail to do so then no one should listen to their cries of “terrorists” attacking Hezbollah bases inside of Lebanon in the future.


MB: How true are the claims that weapons are flowing in from Turkey for the Islamic groups backed by Saudi Arabi and Qatar? 

BAK: I hear this statement all the time.  I myself have been trying to find out who, if anyone, is receiving these “weapons”.  So far I haven’t found anyone.  The world believes that the Islamic groups are awash with advanced weaponry from the Gulf.  If they are I can tell you that I certainly haven’t seen it.  The advanced weapons in the hands of the Islamic groups are items taken from government forces. The biggest source of weapons for the rebels has been from captured war booty, but for some reason those opposed to arming the rebels fail to mention that.


MB: How are relations between foreign fighters and the various elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)?

BAK: Relations are good for the most part for two reasons:

One is that both the Islamic fighters and the FSA have a common enemy in Bashar and anyone who supports him.

The second reason is that more than half of the FSA identify strongly with their Islamic identity and would like to see an Islamic state. Various battalions of the secular FSA factions are even named after the companions of the Prophet, famous Islamic personalities, events or concepts. Many of them carry - and all of them respect - the black shahadah flag, which isn’t as some would have us believe exclusive to al-Qaeda. They have had enough of the leaders the Arab lands have seen year after year wherein they live in huge palaces and treat the citizens of their country like their property.They fight in the FSA as opposed to, for example Jabhat An-Nusra [al-Nusra Front] because many of them smoke, listen to music, and do other things that wouldn’t be looked favourably upon.  So while they are not yet ready to give up some things they have been doing for most of their lives it doesn’t mean that they will oppose Islamic forces militarily in the present or future.  I simply don’t see that happening.


MB: In your experience what has been the fate of prisoners captured by Islamic fighters and, the fate of Islamic fighters captured by the Asad regime?

BAK: Any prisoner captured by the Asad regime is tortured and killed.  This is known.  Even before the start of the uprising Syria was known as the torture capital of the Arab world.  Western countries would even render suspects to Syria for torture and the extraction of information.  The war hasn’t changed this policy.  Keep in mind that torture is not exclusive to rebels only.  There are countless stories wherein the sons of ordinary citizens were taken in the middle of the night by security services never to be seen again.  I documented the exact same type of abuse in Libya as well.  Dictators like Assad and Qaddafi were not accountable to anyone in their government so the disappearance of non-noteworthy citizens was not an issue that anyone deemed worthy of discussion in cabinet meetings.

As for enemy prisoners that fall into the hands of Islamic fighters some of them are held and some of them have been executed.  One difference is that these Islamic fighters for the most part are holed up in apartments, villas, and in some places tents.  While not making any excuses for them, they often do not have the facilities to house large numbers of prisoners.  It presents a serious moral dilemma.  How does a small number of fighters whose base of operations is a villa house 100-200 prisoners?


MB: What do you know about the prison system of the Asad regime – past and present – from locals you have met?

BAK: I have met locals who have been held in the notorious prisons at Tadmur, Sednaya, the military prisons and the infamous Palestine Branch. Some were imprisoned by Bashar al-Asad while others were imprisoned by his father. Some were held for as long as 20 years and were witness to the mass executions that took place following the Hama uprising in the 1980s. Others were imprisoned more recently and experienced the massacre of prisoners in Sednaya a few years ago by the Bashar regime. The experiences these men and women have endured has shaped who they are today and it is not surprising that many of the leaders of the leading Islamic groups are former prisoners.


MB: How aware is the local population about intelligence cooperation between western governments, like the USA who extraordinarily rendered several Syrian Islamic dissidents to the Asad regime?

BAK: Although ordinary people are less aware some former Islamic political prisoners know well about the cases of rendition carried out by the US to the Syrian regime, because they were imprisoned with them so they understand that there has been intelligence cooperation.

However I think I can say that there is a general mistrust for the US.  While I do think that the Syrian people are grateful for the aid they have received from the American government I don’t get the impression that they believe that this aid comes without strings attached.  A former White House security advisor once said to a Rwandan who pleaded for help for her country during the days of the massacre: “The United States doesn’t have friends, it has interests.  And there is no interest for America in Rwanda”.  Most Syrians do believe that America has an interest in Syria and they are cautious in terms of what that interest is.


MB: You have spent some time filming with westerners like the Briton Ibrahim al-Mazwagi who were recently killed in the fighting. What were they like and how did they die?

BAK: They were very interesting in the respect that these individuals left their lives behind to fight for a cause.  They realize that many of them will not survive the war and they are amazingly very comfortable with that dynamic.  Actually because of their religious beliefs they feel that if they were killed in battle it is the best way to attain paradise after this life.  So you find that they are quite fierce when going out against their enemy as many of them do not have a fear of dying.  It really is amazing to see and witness with your own eyes.

At the same time, as you can see from the interviews these men are funny, pious, brave, self-sacrificing, fun-loving, dedicated, passionate, Muslim and human. They laugh, they cry, they bleed, they get angry, they smile, they hope and they dream. You may find some of them working in the refugee camps, sweeping the streets, ferrying wounded - fighters and civilians, distributing food, working in hospitals, teaching in schools, repairing broken machinery, building bakeries, making homes, getting married and having families - all in their spare time.

However there is another side that has been overlooked as well.  There are several women who’ve come from all over the world to Syria who wanted to specifically marry an Islamic fighter so she can care for him and support him.  This is also something I didn’t expect to see.  These women see that the men are doing noble acts and they want to share in that.  Oddly most of these women are from the US, Canada, UK and other European countries.  There are very few women who’ve come to Syria from other Arab countries.


MB: Are there any tensions between the various factions that exist amongst the rebels and how do they resolve disputes?

BAK: Whenever you have humans you have disputes.  That’s known.  Even a husband and wife who love each other dispute.  Islamic fighters are no different in that there are disputes that arise between them.  It rarely leads to outright violence between them but certainly disputes happen. They usually end up solving matters by referring to whatever religious authority is present with their group.


MB: What sort of treatment can minorities like Christians, Druze, or Alawis expect from the fighters you have met?

BAK: It is true that the war has taken on a somewhat sectarian nature since the entry of Lebanese and Iranian forces on Asad’s side but the war was never about that. It was part of the greater revolutions in the Arab world to remove the dictators of the past. As for the minorities, last year I remember the Pope mentioning something to the effect that Islamic groups are forcing Christians out of the Middle East.  Because the Pope said it people took it as fact and didn’t question it.  I don’t know why he would make a statement like that.  I actually haven’t heard any commander of any Islamic forces state that should there be an Islamic state then the Christians would be forced to leave Syria or Lebanon or Palestine etc.  The only person I heard make that statement was the Pope. I have no real reason to believe that Christians would be treated unfairly in an Islamic ruled society.  After all, these fighters are making the ultimate sacrifice to liberate Syria knowing that there is a sizeable population of non Muslim residents within the country.  To say that they would die to protect these innocent people only to try and harm them at a later date doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.


MB: Why has it been unsafe for some journalists in areas held by Islamic groups?

BAK: Syria in general is a dangerous place, after all it is a war zone.  I don’t know if I can honestly say that it is more dangerous for journalists in Islamic held areas than in any other areas.  For example if a journalist from a television station wants to come and report from an area within government control like Damascus then they go to relevant authorities and identify themselves, ask permission, and then they may or may not be granted what they’ve asked for.  Based on that the journalist would get the permission and carry on with their work or they would be turned down and they’d go home.  However in rebel controlled areas too often journalists seek to come in and carry on their work not recognizing that there is an authority in these areas.  Therefore they place themselves at unnecessary risk by not taking the proper steps.  Any journalist who sneaks into a country or territory and tries to “get the story” and then run out before anyone notices is taking a huge risk.  I think journalists should get permission in rebel held areas just as they do in government controlled areas so there are no misunderstandings.  They will probably be allowed to enter as I was or they will be asked to leave.


MB: What, if anything, does the west have to fear from Islamic groups in Syria?

BAK: The west has an inherent fear of Islamic groups and what will happen to them should they come to power.  The best way I can answer this is to put a very normal example to you: If you try to understand and deal with a certain people in a good and reasonable way you may find that you have a partner in the opening of a new chapter of relations.  However if you try to overlook, dismiss, and oppress a people then when they come to power it is very possible that they will be hostile towards you.  This is normal and natural.  As for Syria, I have called upon the Obama administration and the American people to consider who these Islamic fighters are, what do they really want, and examine if their goals are so unreasonable.  I think that they would find that many of the stigmas attached to them are unfounded and baseless.  I myself grew up in an America that advertised that Russians were an unfeeling, unreasonable, and rowdy society through politics, movies etc.  This was because there was a cold war between Russia and America.  Therefore in the absence of any real media outlets from Russia Americans took much of that to be fact.  We were led to believe during the Carter and Reagan eras that Russians were a bunch of vodka drinking ruffians.  So when I met some Russians I was surprised that they didn’t drink alcohol and I did!  At that time I wasn’t Muslim.  They actually seemed pretty normal and reasonable too.  It was at that time I realized that you can’t believe everything you see on TV because some people have an agenda that you may not realize.  


MB: How do the Islamic groups that you know regard countries like the US and UK?

BAK: Honestly speaking they do not trust the US and UK governments.  The reasons I think are because they feel that the War on Terror was nothing more than the war on Islam in disguise.  Therefore very few of them trust the US and UK governments.  After having said that, there is a mature voice within their ranks that would like to explore all relevant options regarding Muslim dealings with the West.  Being from America and knowing Americans I personally don’t feel that what these mujahideen are seeking is a cause for alarm the way many people seem to think. However if there is going to be a change in relations it has to be met with sincere intentions as the window may not stay open forever and this is a unique chance to see if it is possible.


Interviewed by Moazzam Begg of Cageprisoners