Alastair Jamieson, NBC News, August 22, 2014
The voice of an apparent British militant narrating the video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley has triggered renewed questions about why the U.K. is a breeding ground for jihadis.
At least 400 Britons are among the estimated 2,000 Europeans who are fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), according to Prime Minister David Cameron. And the ease with which Europeans can travel into Syria through Turkey has alarmed intelligence officials in the West.
On Thursday, NBC News reported that three militants with British accents had been dubbed “The Beatles” by hostages taken in Syria. A person close to several recent hostage negotiations said “The Beatles” were harsher than other guards. “Whenever the Beatles showed up, there was some kind of physical beating or torture,” the source added.
Britain has a “deeply entrenched problem,” according to the Quillam Foundation, an anti-extremist think tank. “London historically has had Islamist ideology being taught openly without being challenged and there are many people who have grown up knowing and believing that the only way to be Muslims is to create this Islamic state,” said Harris Rafiq, Quilliam’s head of outreach. “It’s not surprising that jihadis have been able to cherry-pick these people.”
The true number of British jihadis could be even higher. Khalid Mahmood, a U.K. parliament lawmaker from Birmingham, England, estimates that at least 1,500 Brits have been recruited by extremists fighting in Iraq and Syria over the last three years–more than double the number of Muslims currently serving in the U.K. military.
However, the numbers are inevitably higher in European nations with large Muslim populations. “When you look at the raw numbers, it’s not the best way to get a sense of how deep the problem is,” said Shiraz Maher, senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at London’s King’s College. “What we’ve done is to wade through the numbers of foreign fighters in relations to the Muslim population of those countries. When you do it like that, Belgium is actually way off the chart. But the Scandinavian countries feature very highly, and Britain as well.”
Britain’s problem with radicalized Muslims–described by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond as “a poison, a cancer”–is made acute chiefly because of its role as the biggest global ally of the United States in the tarnished invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the same time, English is gaining traction as the language of choice for recruitment videos and other online propaganda because it has greater viral potential on social media.
“It’s no coincidence that the [Foley beheading] video was in English,” said Ghaffar Hussain, managing director of Quillam. “If the West, particularly America, is where you are trying to get your message heard, it makes sense.”
Social media is a powerful tool, especially for recruiting young male Muslims, according to Hussain. “The violent messages appeal to the macho element and the sense of going to join a fight,” he said, citing the recent case of Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, a 25-year-old killed while fighting in Syria after quitting his job at a British branch of fashion chain Primark. “One minute you’re working as a shop assistant, next minute you’re on the front line with a gun. It’s an attractive idea for many.”
Last month, engineering student Abdul Raqib Amin also told how he had left Aberdeen, Scotland, to join ISIS. He described the journey to join the militants as one of the happiest moments of his life.
Wearing the Islamic veil, or burqa, is banned in public places in France, Belgium and parts of Switzerland. In contrast, England’s professional body for family attorneys recently began offering training courses in drafting wills that are compliant with Islamic Shariah law.
Some commentators argue that this tolerance has left Britain more exposed to the threat posed to its Muslim communities by radical Islam.
“In the U.K., with our proud tradition of freedom and not wanting to get involved in religious disputes, we have been bending over backwards to regard murderous ideologies as expressions of free speech,” said Anthony Glees, director of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies. “Islamist extremist ideologies have spread with relative ease under the cover of ‘free speech’ and ‘multiculturalism’.”
Glees added that Britain’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population was also particularly vulnerable to the allure of the jihadi message from Sunni ISIS.