Identity, Equality, Unity
LONDON — Two years ago, a young man who now calls himself Abu Muhajir slipped into Syria with a few friends and $80,000, forsaking what he said was a job as a high school science teacher in North America to wage jihad.
In a conversation conducted by text message in recent weeks, he said he was raised in a religious family, studied at a madrasa on Sundays and had no non-Muslim friends growing up. And he suggested that Western governments could indeed have cause to be worried that the foreign jihadis in Syria might someday return home to carry out attacks.
“Attacks occurring on the soil of Middle Eastern countries,” he said. “We can only expect a response. Americans are still in Afghanistan.”
More than 70 Americans are thought by intelligence and counterterrorism officials to have traveled to Syria to fight the government of President Bashar al-Assad. One of them, still publicly unidentified, carried out a suicide bombing there on Sunday, making him the first United States citizen believed to have been involved in such an attack.
As many as 3,000 Westerners are believed to have gone to Syria to fight, prompting increasingly aggressive efforts by their home governments to keep them from leaving and to detain them on their return. In Britain, the Home Office has stripped at least 20 jihadis of their citizenship, and the police said that the number of “Syria-related arrests” totaled 40 from January to March of this year, compared with 25 for the whole of last year.
Just last week, Mashudur Choudhury, 31, of Portsmouth, was convicted of engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorist acts after he returned to Britain from Syria in late October. He is the first Briton to be convicted of fighting alongside Islamists in Syria.
The stories told by Abu Muhajir, 26, and other Westerners fighting in Syria provide some insight into their motivations and outlook as extremist groups with ties to Al Qaeda try to identify, recruit and train men from the United States and Europe to carry out attacks when they return home, according to senior United States intelligence and counterterrorism officials.
Abu Muhajir has identified himself on social media as American. He said his grandparents emigrated from Pakistan to North America, where he was raised. He would not directly say that he is an American citizen, but said that he is not Canadian and that he had gone back and forth to Syria several times without being stopped.
Abu Sumayyah, a British jihadi now fighting in Syria, says that growing up in Britain, he was a “bad Muslim.” He smoked, went clubbing, dated a string of women, took and sold drugs, went on binges for days and worried his mother.
He would fast only on special occasions, like the holy month of Ramadan, but he shunned Friday Prayer at the mosque. “I was only a Muslim by name,” he said in a Skype interview from Syria, using, like Abu Muhajir, his kunya, or Islamic nickname. “I was living like a non-Muslim; I was like a disbeliever.”
But by the time the war in Syria broke out three years ago, he said, he was a deeply devout man, a self-taught student of Islamic history. Now in his early 30s, he said he had been fighting in northern Syria for nearly a year. He left Britain quietly without telling his parents, taking just a few clothes and some cash; as a precaution, and as a break with the past, he threw away his British cellphone.
Experts and academics who track Western jihadis in Syria at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, a research institution partnered with King’s College, London, have independently identified both men as fighters in Syria, as has Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Brussels-based researcher who blogs about Western jihadis, with whom he is in regular contact.
Abu Sumayyah was initially reached through Twitter and agreed to be interviewed on the condition that his real name not be published. Abu Muhajir was interviewed on Kik, an instant messaging platform for smartphones popular among fighters. He would not divulge his real name. Although he identified himself on Ask.fm, a social media site, as “American ‘Jihadi’ or wtever they are calling it,” he said he sometimes says he is Canadian rather than American, to mislead people. He refused to be more specific. The researchers said they believed he is either American or Canadian.
Abu Sumayyah said he had no intention of bringing jihad back home. He plans to die in Syria, he said, and hopes for a rewarding afterlife. “It’s not something you can really think about, you know, by looking at it in a worldly view,” he said. “I’m looking at the hereafter because the reward is a lot.”
Abu Muhajir offered a darker view, suggesting that jihadis could do more to carry their fight to Western nations.
“I knew this war will be long,” he said. “Requires steadfastness.”
Both men said they were appalled by the West’s failure to halt the killing in Syria. They are also united in a wider goal, they said, to establish a caliphate ruled by Shariah law, even if that ideology is not shared by a majority of Muslims in Syria.
A total of 11,000 foreign fighters are estimated to be in Syria, including those from other Muslim nations as well as those from the West, said researchers at the Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence.
The British and the French are thought to make up the largest contingent of Westerners — 400 and 700 — among the fighters, according to government estimates. Several hundred Belgians, Dutch and Scandinavians are also thought to be fighting, according to official figures. A minority of fighters are from Eastern Europe, including Albania, Bosnia and Serbia, and also from Australia and Canada, according to the center. The estimate of 70 from the United States is up from about a dozen last July.
Most Westerners who go to Syria go to wage jihad, but even those who go for purely humanitarian reasons end up being radicalized, Mr. Van Ostaeyen said.
One of the most popular — and extreme — of the fighting groups among Westerners in Syria calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Part of its appeal comes from its extensive public outreach, experts say. The group is the most prolific on social media compared with other groups — it has several official Twitter accounts and its own media channels. Its fighters habitually post on Twitter about their activities in English and other Western languages, and even argue for days with other Twitter users who oppose the group’s ideology.
Many fighters share the belief that Islam is under attack by non-Muslims — a view they say is expressed in the Quran and popularized by the Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Abu Sumayyah and Abu Muhajir were teenagers interested in video games, sports and the start of college. But both men said they were deeply affected by the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. They came to question the Western world they lived in, and their role in it.
“I saw our brothers in Afghanistan, and I realized that there is something very wrong that is happening in society,” Abu Sumayyah said. “I saw this taking place in front of my eyes, so I had to do something about it, otherwise I would feel sinful.”
Both men said they were in rebel-controlled northern Syria.
Abu Muhajir trained as a sniper and guards the city of Shaykh Najjar, north of Aleppo. He usually holds the front line for three days, followed by three days of rest. He was fearless in the beginning, he said, but soon got a taste of war. “To be honest I didn’t used to get scared, only after I got an injury,” he wrote. “Shrapnel in the arm.”
He is an avid user of social media, to pass the time. People ask him for advice on going to Syria: how to get there, the cost of a gun, where to buy camouflage gear. He said he responded cautiously.
He has also received marriage proposals, which he declines. One woman asked whether electricity was working in Syria so she could bring a hair curler. “Advice to people who want to come is, Don’t bring your hair curlers,” he said.
Abu Sumayyah is a gunman who works shifts every two weeks, based in Raqqa, a stronghold of ISIS. On his days off, he studies military tactics and trains with other weapons.
Syria changed him, he said. “In Britain and in Europe we are living in a bubble, living in dreamland, that everything is O.K.”