UK citizens have been travelling to Syria and Iraq since the start of the uprisings against Assad. Since 2013 online recruitment has convinced thousands of western Europeans to make the journey.
Between late 2011 to December 2013, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) estimate that up to 11,000 individuals from 74 countries joined the opposition fighters in Syria against the Assad regime. Though the vast majority are from Arab nations, there was a steep rise in the number of western fighters recorded by the ICSR, based in Kings College London, between April and December 2013 – tripling from 600 to 1,900.
The total number of foreign fighters inside Syria and Iraq has now exceeded 20,000, according to ICSR.
A fifth of these fighters have travelled from western Europe, with France, the UK and Germany have producing the largest number, according to the research, though relative to population size, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden have been most heavily affected. Figures released at the start of the year reveal:
Estimates from this year put the number of British men and teenagers fighting for Isis at between 500-600. Their role on social media aside, they have proved devastatingly willing executioners.
Jihadi John, or Mohammed Emwazi, who grew up in north west London and attended a Church of England primary school, is the most infamous British fighter. He is understood to have fought with the Muhajireen, or Migrants Brigand, which many British fighters joined. Ibrahim al-Mazwagi, the first British fighter to die in the Syria conflict, also joined this brigade.
Through persuasive personal appeals, fighters who have made the journey have used social media to encourage others to do the same. In February this year, three teenage girls from Bethnal Green in east London flew to Istanbul to fly to Syria to join Isis, after making contact with Aqsa Mahmood, who left Syria to become a “jihadi bride” in 2013. It is understood the girls received financial and logistical help from an online network described by security services as “jihadi groomers”.
The international search continues today for a family of six missing from their home in Slough who police believe are attempting to make their way to Syria. Asif Malik and Sara Kiran, along with their four children aged between one and seven, were last seen boarding a ferry from Dover to Calais before travelling south through Europe by train.
Their disappearance comes just days after nine British nationals – three men, two woman and four children – from Rochdale were released without charge by police after being stopped by the Turkish authorities near Syria.
The Home Office says the number of UK citizens and westerners travelling to fight in foreign conflicts has reached alarming levels “unlike anything seen in recent years”. The journey appears to be relatively straightforward – a flight to Istanbul, followed by a bus route to the porous border more than 500 miles long.
Abu Rumaysah, a radical Islamist from Walthamstow, north-east London, said his easy trip showed “what a shoddy security system Britain must have to allow me to breeze through Europe to the Islamic State”. The 31-year-old British-Indian from a Hindu family claims to have fled with his wife and four children into Syria while on police bail in November last year.
— Abu Ahmad (@abu_ahmad1403) April 20, 2015
The government has been attempting to disrupt the plans of those they think may be attempting to travel to join the Islamic State group by seizing their passports through the exercising of royal prerogative, however this has only been done in a fraction of times. On 17 March, the home affairs committee said:
“Given that the estimates of foreign fighters are in the low hundreds, we are surprised that it has only been used 14 times since April 2013 and recommend that, in all appropriate circumstances where there is evidence, the power is utilised as an exceptional preventative and temporary measure.”
The conflict in Iraq and Syria is now, according to the figures, the largest mobilisation of foreign fighters in a Muslim country since the Second World War.
Isis have now managed to attract more foreign fighters than the Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s, when up to 20,000 foreigners fought and defeated what was at the time one of the world’s super powers – the Soviet Union.