1 Jul 2014

Jihad debate: the Dutch fighter and the British activist

In a live Channel 4 News debate, a jihadi trainer says he is “looking into Isis” but his main aim is ridding Syria of Assad, while a British aid worker warns “someone’s going to lash out” in the UK.

Yilmaz, a former Dutch soldier who trains and fights alongside foreign jihadis, and Tauqir Sharif – a British Muslim aid worker and activist – spoke to Channel 4 News live via Skype from northern Syria to explain the fight to overthrow President Assad and why the march of Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) is a different battle.

They were joined in the debate by Conservative MP Brooks Newmark and Sasha Havlicek from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Yilmaz, a 26-year-old who has been in Syria for two years, said: “The goal at the moment for me and for many of the fighters and groups that are around me, is still always getting rid of this tyrant al Assad, first and foremost.

“As soon as he’s gone we can establish Islamic courts and bring those who’ve committed any kinds of war crimes to justice. So the most important thing for me and the fighters in this region is to overthrow Assad.”

‘Lone wolf’

When asked if he was considering joining up with Isis fighters who have declared an Islamic caliphate “from Aleppo to Diyala” he said: “Basically, for me as a trainer, as a lone wolf, I need to investigate this whole Isis situation.

“I’m looking into it at the moment. It’s too early to make a decision. I can see that Isis just came out with a statement. For me, I’ve always said this, and for many, many foreign fighters, as long as Bashar al Assad is still doing what he’s doing – he’s still the main goal, he’s the main problem.

Yilmaz (left) trains rebel fighters, Tauqir Sharif (right) is an aid worker and activist from Britain

Yilmaz (left) trains rebel fighters, Tauqir Sharif (right) is an aid worker and activist from Britain

‘I’m a grown man’

Tauqir Sharif, a 27-year-old originally from Nottingham, is an aid worker and activist – but not a fighter. He drives an ambulance in Aleppo and has set up an orphanage with his wife.

He told Channel 4 News: “I’m a grown man at the end of the day. Many of the people who came here are grown men. We came here to help people who are oppressed. To try and say that people are coming here and instead of helping oppressed people are going to start killing them – it’s a lot of scaremongering to be honest.

Why is the word terrorism only being described for Muslims? Tauqir Sharif, aid worker and activist

“To be honest, I feel this rhetoric needs to be changed. Even when you guys introduced me, you said he’s in jihadi-controlled areas. There’s the Free Syrian Army here. There’s so many various different groups and if we’re going to turn around and say everyone’s being radicalised…”

‘Someone will lash out’

Responding to MP Brooks Newmarks, who said a lack of British support for “people on the ground” had “given space to Isis and allowed them to flourish,” Mr Sharif said: “So why are aid workers like myself being persecuted? Why are many charity organisations being investigated? Why is the word terrorism only being described for Muslims?”

Yilmaz added: “Right now, there are British fighters around me that just want to stay out of the internal problems. Some are doing aid work, others are saying ‘I’m laying down my weapon for the moment’, others are still working on the front line.”

Read more: What is a caliphate?

On coming back to the UK in the future, Mr Sharif said: “I would love to return home, but I feel that I would be sitting in a prison cell. Many people that I know have been arrested, and I would call on the British government and the British population as a whole to change their policies.

“All of the anti-terror legislation is ostracising a whole Muslim community and if you can continue to ostracise a Muslim community, eventually somebody is going to lash out. If you push someone so far against the wall, there is no other choice…”