'Summer camp jihadists' pose challenge to West

'Summer camp jihadists' pose challenge to West

A new type of recruit is volunteering to join terrorist groups. Not religious fanatics but young people brandishing iPads, who are bored with their lives in Western countries and go to the Middle East in their search for glory.

Chances are high that the English psychopath who beheaded American journalist James Foley and then posted the sickening video of his deed on the Internet will be identified.

Britain's intelligence services are putting all their resources into collecting every scrap of information about this outrage.

But apart from providing an instant feeling of gratification that justice would be done, the criminal's apprehension or, more likely, his death from a well-targeted missile fired by a drone, will do nothing to address Britain's and Europe's far bigger problem: the fact that thousands of Muslim extremists from Europe are not only volunteering to fight in the Middle East but also seem to relish the butchery that they unleash.

Dealing with this problem is, as British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledges, a "generational struggle".

The real question is whether European governments know what they need to do to stem this pathway to death and destruction.

The US State Department estimates that about 12,000 foreigners from at least 50 countries have gone to join the conflict in Syria since it began three years ago, teaming up with radical groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The flow of European volunteers to the various terrorist organisations in Syria and Iraq is by now so established that most analysts tend to forget just how unusual the phenomenon is.

The overwhelming majority of Europe's Muslim immigrants did not come from the Middle East but from places farther afield, such as North Africa, the Indian sub-continent or Turkey.

Their sons and daughters who are currently volunteering to fight have never been to the Middle East, and most of them don't speak a word of Arabic.

Yet, they are prepared to swop relatively comfortable and predictable lives in the West for the dustbowls of the Middle East, to kill or be killed for a cause, which only a few years ago, was seldom heard of, to fight under the banner of an extreme version of Islam that is considered outlandish even in the Middle East, never mind Europe.

The default explanation, that Europe's volunteers are just "misguided" youngsters who have fallen prey to extremist religious preachers, is wobbly on closer scrutiny; there is no conclusive evidence that those currently travelling to the Middle East are especially religious.

As French anthropologist Scott Atran has pointed out, "what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends".

Another summer camp

In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by the behavioural science unit of MI5, Britain's internal security service, was leaked to local media.

It said: "Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could... be regarded as religious novices."

British scholar Mehdi Hassan, who has been following the phenomenon, concurred.

He has said that some of Britain's recent volunteers to "jihad" got their first brush with the faith not from some extremist preachers but rather, by purchasing Islam For Dummies, a basic textbook for people who have only a passing interest in the religion. Today's generation of European Muslims absorbs the faith in bite-sizes.

Equally problematic is another popular reason offered - that the youngsters who now volunteer to fight in the Middle East do so because they resent the discrimination Islam faces around the world.

If that was the case, it would be difficult to explain why the bulk of the volunteers still comes from Asian and African countries, where Islam is the state religion.

What really attracts young European Muslims to the wars of the Middle East is partly the traditional desire to rebel against their parents' authority, a sense of adventure, the temptation to belong to a "heroic" circle of friends, juvenile macho trends and, ultimately, also pure fashion. ISIS currently offers a "street cool" that other Muslim organisations simply lack.

There is plenty of evidence that many of these youngsters view their volunteering for the wars in the Middle East as just a more arduous version of a European summer holiday camp - many questions posted on jihadi websites contain requests for practical advice with the "move" to the Middle East, such as whether they need to bring toilet paper, or whether Iraqi electricity plugs are suitable for their iPad chargers.

It is doubtful if many volunteers have any understanding of the wholesale nature of the bloodshed they encounter, or the crimes they are expected to perpetrate for the organisations they join. But, once on the ground, they blend into the group, and commit crimes they would have never contemplated at home.

"It is common to describe these young British radicals as 'brainwashed'", says Mr Shiraz Maher, an expert at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in King's College London, who rejects that term because it absolves people of personal responsibility for their actions.

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