Ruth Sherlock and Tom Whitehead, Telegraph (London), January 19, 2014
British people fighting in Syria are being trained as “jihadists” and then encouraged to return to the UK to launch attacks on home soil, an al-Qaeda defector and western security sources have told the Telegraph.
In a rare interview on Turkey’s border with Syria, the defector from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) said that recruits from Britain, Europe and the US were being indoctrinated in extremist anti-Western ideology, trained in how to make and detonate car bombs and suicide vests and sent home to start new terror cells.
He has provided the first confirmation from Syrian rebels that young British men are being indoctrinated in extremist anti-Western ideology.
Some of those intent on overthrowing the Syrian regime are being brainwashed by fanatics, the former member of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) warned.
His comments echo the concerns of the security services at a time when it is feared that up to 500 Britons are fighting in Syria and could return to emulate attacks such as the London bombings and 9/11.
Britain’s security and intelligence agencies believe the threat of would-be terrorists being directed back to the UK by al-Qaeda organisers in Syria is growing.
It is feared that as genuine opposition groups fade in the war-torn country, extremist and terror groups such as ISIS will have an increasing influence allowing them to target more foreign recruits for their cause. The threat from Syria is dominating the work of MI5 and the spy agency has had to allocate more and more resources to tackling the danger in the past six months, The Daily Telegraph understands.
In an interview with this newspaper, the defector, known as Murad, said of the foreign fighters he met in Syria: “They talked often about terrorist attacks. The foreigners were proud of 9/11 and the London bombings. The British, French and American mujahideen [holy warriors] in the room started talking about places that they wanted to bomb or explode themselves in Europe and the United States. Everyone named a target. The American said he dreamed of blowing up the White House.”
Tens of thousands of foreign fighters have joined the struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, including up to 500 from Britain. Of these, scores were already known to MI5 for their radical sympathies.
Some have gone to the country with genuine intentions to fight the regime but are then brainwashed by al-Qaeda and encouraged to return home and launch attacks there instead.
“This is a threat that is not going away and is likely to increase,” one senior Whitehall source said.
Last Friday, two 21-year-old men from Birmingham were charged with travelling to Syria to carry out acts of terrorism.
Two 15-year-old boys from France were reported last week to have left Toulouse to join the fighting in Syria. The possibility of French citizens returning from Syria as hardened jihadists was the “biggest threat that the country faces in the coming years,” Manuel Valls, the interior minister, said on Sunday.
France and Europe risk being “overwhelmed” by the phenomenon, he added. Mr Valls estimated that 700 French nationals have either travelled to Syria or returned to France–or are currently en route. Some 21 have been killed.
Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, estimated last week that up to 50 British fighters have already returned home.
Last month, Richard Walton, the head of Scotland Yard’s counter–terrorism command, said there were already indications that Britons were returning from Syria with orders to carry out attacks, with the Metropolitan Police carrying out a “huge number of operations” to protect the public.
He said: “I don’t think the public realises the seriousness of the problem. The penny hasn’t dropped. But Syria is a game – changer. We are seeing it every day. You have hundreds of people going to Syria, and if they don’t get killed they get radicalised.”
In his first public speech in October, Andrew Parker, the Director General of MI5, said: “For the future, there is good reason to be concerned about Syria. A growing proportion of our casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the UK who have travelled to fight there or who aspire to do so.”
ISIS, the group from which Murad defected, grew out of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq. It is now being attacked by other rebel groups, including Islamist ones, but ISIS still controls territory, particularly the area close to Syria’s border with Iraq.
Murad said that anti-Western sentiment was virulent and ISIS leaders had discussed attacking Western targets. “The meetings happened in secret,” he said. “But some of my European colleagues in ISIS told me that our emir was sending them to Europe to teach people jihad.”
Many of these foreign volunteers had come to Syria with genuine intentions, moved by images of children and women killed by the regime and hoping to defend their fellow Muslims. Young and impressionable, they had little understanding of al-Qaeda.
However, once they joined ISIS, they were subjected to daily indoctrination. Murad, a Syrian, did not give his age but appeared to be in his early twenties. Until two years ago, he had been at Aleppo University studying law, a subject that al-Qaeda abhors because it involves understanding secular law, not Sharia.
“The teachings by the older jihadists were very hardline,” he said. “I had to edit what I believed about Islam to accept them.”
Murad decided to join ISIS in Aleppo in August last year because he heard that the group was “serving Islam and protecting Muslims”. He spent time with ISIS units in their eastern stronghold of Raqqa, and in Jabal al-Akrad, a rebel-held area near the Mediterranean coast.
Every morning his group would wake at 5am to pray. After that they would study the Koran and then do two or three hours of military training. This included how to make and detonate car bombs and suicide vests.
”We all know how to do this now,” he said. “It is one of the first things they teach us, the simple training. There are different kinds of vests – one where the detonator is attached to a cord and is held the hand, and another that has five detonators on it. We had to wear them to battles. The principal purpose for this is not to let ourselves be kidnapped or arrested. It is very easy. I even taught my two brothers how to make a vest.”
But Murad disagreed with some of the “emir’s” orders that they should fight fellow Syrian rebels and treat them as “kafrs” or “unbelievers”.
“They started killing people from other Islamic groups and calling the rebel Free Syrian Army ‘kafr’. But I knew some of the people who they called ‘kafr’, and I knew these were good men who had fought the regime honestly under Islam,” said Murad.
He said the commanders would say the military base they were attacking belonged to the Syrian regime, when in fact it was held by other rebels. The final straw, said Murad, came when ISIS killed one of his friends: “Sultan Shami from Damascus defected from the military one and half years ago,” he said. “He became a media activist, and was one of the most wanted by the regime because his work against them was so good. But ISIS kidnapped him and then, ten days later, I found him dead in the basement of an ISIS base”.
Late one night, he escaped across the border to Turkey. “What is happening in Syria is not jihad. ISIS is not protecting Muslims it is killing them,” he said. “I want to tell all the mujahideen not come to Syria. This is not jihad; you will find yourself killing other Muslims.”
Murad did not reveal details of how foreign fighters were travelling between Europe and Syria.
The 300-mile Turkish border with Syria has proven to be porous throughout the Syrian civil war, with weapons, rebel fighters and jihadists being regularly smuggled across. These routes allow Western jihadists to enter the country without having their passport stamped, making it difficult for their country’s intelligence agency to identify that they have been to Syria.
As The Telegraph has previously revealed, al-Qaeda has a network of safe houses which operates in Turkey, through which foreign jihadists wanting to go to Syria–or back home–are funneled.