Exclusive: two British men who have returned from the Syria conflict say they went to the Middle East on a humanitarian mission “against a brutal regime” – and insist they are not terrorists.
Think about the conflict in Syria today and the headlines dominated by the savage acts of so-called Islamic State or Isis,writes Assed Baig.
Now rewind to 2013. Back then all anyone could talk about were the thousands of civilians being slaughtered by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. As Syrians demanded their right to freedom and democracy, the government there was using chemical weapons to kill its people.
Meanwhile the government here was considering military action to stop the massacres. Parliament decided not to intervene, but it’s within this context that the two British men I’ve spoken to took it upon themselves to do, they say, what the government couldn’t, to defend the people of Syria. Now they’re back in the UK and living in fear of arrest.
Their mission was a “humanitarian” one, say Ibrahim and Musa, whose names have been changed due to their fear of the security services. They claim they were inspired by images of dying civilians being broadcast on their television screens. Ibrahim explains that he sees it as part of “British values, to stick up for the weak, against the oppressor”.
Channel 4 News could not independently verify the men’s stories. But their separate accounts seem to touch on common themes. Their experience of the conflict was very different to what they saw in movies and YouTube videos.
The men talk of ill-equipped and untrained fighters, very little action, and the dynamics of the conflict changing drastically with the rise of so-called Islamic State. Both men say they don’t approve of the group’s notorious practices, including mass executions and beheadings.
“These are mad men who have found a political ideology to cling on to to somehow justify their madness,” says Ibrahim. “The [Syrian] people have had enough.”
They returned to the UK disillusioned. Not with Britain, but with the revolution itself. Ibrahim fought with the Islamist group Ahrar Al-Sham. Musa did not wish to reveal which group he fought alongside, but says he is opposed to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
In fact both claim they are deeply suspicious of Isis’ motives. Despairing that Islamic State had split the opposition into warring factions, Ibrahim tells me: “These would be the last guys I’d ever give allegiance to”.
But the presence of Isis appears to have triggered a change in government policy toward Syria. Ministers no longer talk about providing “non-lethal” military support to opposition fighters. The focus is now stopping fighters returning and committing terrorist atrocities here.
Both men spoke to me before the attacks in Paris. However, in the wake of those events which left 17 people murdered, fighters returning from Syria are more than ever seen as a threat to the UK.
Both men say they have no ill intentions toward the UK, and Musa is pragmatic about the government’s proposed measures aimed at halting the return of dangerous extremists. “The security of the UK is very important,” he tells me. “I think it would be very difficult to have them back in the UK after explicitly saying that they oppose UK citizens, and that they will commit violent actions in the UK.”
But he says anyone who returns should be assessed individually and perhaps be put through a rehabilitation period.
When I asked Ibrahim if he was a threat to the UK, he scoffed: “Absolutely not, this is my country.” But he warns that the government’s plan to introduce temporary exclusion orders was flawed.
He told me: “If this government keeps saying, ‘You’re an enemy, you’re an enemy, you’re an enemy’, then there’s going to become a point when one of these guys says, ‘Fine, I’ll be your enemy.’ You’re forcing them into a corner.”