The use of social media by foreign fighters is currently being analysed by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College London. They have recently published their first report; the #Greenbirds study (named for the title given to martyred fighters). I would recommend anyone with an interest in Syrian foreign fighters take a look at their report; it’s a really interesting dataset.
What I would like to focus on in this blog is the release of two videos from British foreign fighters – or, rather, English-speaking jihadists associated with terror groups in Syria. Both videos attempted to encourage individuals to leave their family, friends and homes behind to travel to Syria and join up with terror groups against the Syrian establishment.
The first video was released in November 2013. In it, Western jihadists boasted about the experiences that they had had in Syria. They boasted about the experiences they had in fighting running battles against government troops, the respect that they generated amongst their peers and the luxurious living arrangements that they had been provided with. The phrase “five-star jihad” was used throughout the video, emphasising that the harsh reality of war was far removed from the experiences of fighting in Syria. Alongside this video, there have been images posted to social media showing the large and luxurious houses that foreign fighters have been living in, luxury vehicles which have been provided for their use, delicious Western-inspired food made for them and the weapons they have been given. All in all, these productions create a narrative of having every whim catered for. Fighters, rather than having to leave their lives behind to sacrifice for their ideology and beliefs, are instead given the opportunity to retain a proportion of their comfortable life, while still engaging in romantic notions of jihad.
Unsurprisingly, things weren’t quite as they had been advertised.
Where they had been promised luxury countryside villas, the foreign fighters were expected to sleep in ditches, under corrugated iron roofs or in a hall with fifty other fighters. Rather than given luxury vehicles to cruise to the jihad with, they were shoved into the back of vans and driven into the heat of firefights. Whatever food they could scavenge, cook themselves or steal was their daily meal. More recently, rather than having a brotherhood of Jihad, members of various rebel groups have been expected to turn their weapons on one another as squabbles over resources and territory have exploded in violence between jihadists. All in all, the five star jihad turned out to be no more than an advertising campaign designed to pull foreign fighters into Syria where their passports can be removed, their ability to leave can be reduced and their presence can be exploited for the goals of the group they have ended up in.
Think about it. You arrive in Syria, pumped up on adrenaline after having illegally crossed the border. You are met by militants flying the black flag of extreme Islam. After convincing them that you are keen to join the jihad – and aren’t undercover MI6 agents, you are blindfolded, your identity documents are taken from you and you are bundled into the back of a van and driven across bumpy roads at speed for several hours. Your hosts promise you that the blindfolds will be removed soon and that you’re only being treated this way to protect the location of the camp that you’re going to. You accept this explanation, thinking it’s the same that you would do if you were running the show. Eventually, you arrive at a camp. There are a few tents blowing in the wind and a few individuals sat around an open fire, making dinner. You’re slightly confused, because there are no palaces and you haven’t been given your AK-47 yet. When does the jihad start? Your guide laughs and tells you that you’re at a training camp – you didn’t expect to just run straight into battle without any training, did you? No, of course not, you think. You smile, the training camp will teach you what you need to know and then you’ll join the jihad and enjoy the luxury it has to offer. The training camp is just something you have to endure. You endure the camp and are bussed out to greater Syria, your AK-47 in hand. Finally, you think, it starts!
But it doesn’t start. You are fed horrible food – and some days, no food at all. You’re expected to sleep wherever you can find shelter and when the government forces rally against you, there is very little you can do. You are receiving the full jihad experience – but there’s nothing five star about it. Eventually, you decide to say something to your leader. You were told there would be time off; that you would have something to enjoy. Where is it? He laughs at you, and tells you to get back to work. You want to go home, but they have your travel documents. You’re trapped in Syria.
The above passages don’t even touch on the horrors or difficulties of actually fighting in Syria. Having to kill or be killed, shooting prisoners, beheading ideological opponents and torturing others are commonplace in modern-day Syria – and foreign fighters have been complicit in all of the above.
The problem of the lack of luxury and mis-sold terrorism package holidays has caused such a morale crisis amongst foreign fighters that the PR department responsible for the five-star jihad video had to release a new one. This one isn’t quite as glamorous as the first. It takes a much more realistic view of life as a jihadist in Syria; showing the homes in which current foreign fighters are living (cramped, dirty and not particularly enticing) and discussing the tasks that foreign fighters have been expected to complete – one such anecdote discussing an instance in which a foreign fighter was told to take out a tank by himself. The video itself admitted that five-star jihad doesn’t exist, stating:
Quote from foreign fighter recruitement video
This change in public relations narrative indicates that those in charge of recruitment are no longer as concerned with attracting high numbers of recruits (though this may have been dictated by the countries around Syria making their borders much harder to cross for foreign nationals). Instead, there appears to be a move towards attracting individuals who are better aware of the experiences that they are likely to receive when they travel into Syria and join up with terror groups. Whether this makes them less likely to want to leave after a few weeks, revolt against their conditions or realise what a mistake they’ve made has yet to be seen.