A report on the Today Programme this morning spoke to young women in Luton thinking about travelling to Syria. So, are there more women travelling? What will they do when they get there? And is there anything that can be done to prevent them leaving? How does this challenge relate to the wider goals of prevention in relation to foreign fighters in Syria?
The war in Syria
It is now over three years since violence erupted in Syria. The statistics of the casualties are heart breaking. Over 146,000 people have lost their lives – someone dies every 10 minutes. The number of displaced children has more than tripled in the last year from 920,000 to 3 million – every 2 minutes, eight children in Syria are forced to flee their homes, raising concerns for this lost generation that struggles to find food, access to health care or psychological support and is going without schooling. Every minute, 3 Syrians become refugees abroad; 2.5 million have sought refuge outside the country, 1.5 million doing so in the last year alone.
These statistics are not just cold numbers; the growth of social media means that images and videos showing the horror of events on the ground are reaching bedrooms, living rooms and offices across the west. They are affecting us all, breaking our hearts on a daily basis as we see the lives of ordinary families being torn apart. A recent campaign video from Save the Children reminded us of what it would be like to have those horrors closer to home.
Syria as a radicalizing force
It is therefore not surprising that many of us are radicalized by what we see. I, for one, am left angry and heart broken, and wondering what I can do to help. We are frustrated that – yet again – our politicians and institutions are late to the table and full of grand gestures and platitudes rather than workable solutions. While the United Nations commissioned papers and the members of the Permanent Security Council wrangled over the wordings of resolutions, the people of Syria starve, face abuse, live in fear of death, and are forced to flee their homes.
The rise in western ‘foreign fighters’
Growing numbers of westerners are turning their anger into action. They are motivated by a range of things and do not necessarily go to Syria with the express aim of fighting on the side of terrorist groups, such as ISIS or al Nusra. A number of reasons emerge from those who have travelled; a desire to alleviate suffering; a duty to fight to assist Muslims who are oppressed; a desire for action and adventure; engagement in sectarian conflict; and underlying identity issues at home that leave them marginalized and powerless.
According to the ICSR, Western Europeans now represent almost one-fifth (18 per cent) of the so-called ‘foreign fighter’ population in Syria, with most recruits coming from France, the UK, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
A recent report by the Soufan Group stated that, on average, 6 per cent of foreign fighters from EU countries are converts, many are second or third generation immigrants and very few have prior connection with Syria.
The current mobilization is more significant than for every other instance of foreign fighter mobilization since the Afghanistant war in the 1980s. Although conflicts like Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan went on for much longer, none of those conflicts mobilised as many foreigners as Syria in the same period of time. Indeed, for a number of smaller countries – Denmark and Belgium, for example – the number of residents that have gone to fight in Syria may already exceed the combined total for all previous conflicts.
Women travelling to Syria
There have been growing concerns about the number of women travelling to Syria. Most recently, Zahra and Salma Halane, 16 year old twin girls from Manchester, who are believed to have travelled to Syria.
This appears to be part of a growing and significant trend; almost one-fifth (18 per cent) of those travelling to Syria from the EU are women and the ICSR says that it is monitoring 40 women who have travelled to Syria, including at least 8 who are British.
Most accounts of these women place them as supporting and facilitating the actions of male fighters, whether as wives and mothers – for instance many travel with their husbands, maintaining the home, delivering first aid, or as women wishing to conduct ‘sexual jihad’ of which there have been sporadic reports.
There is less evidence of them performing a combative role, although there are various images circulating online of just that. And we must assume that – now or at some point in the future – it is inevitable that some will perform this function, as women have in other similar conflicts around the world. This is a truth that challenges, not just our age old gender stereotypes, but in particular society’s view of Muslim women as submissive and subservient to men within their homes and communities, something that is rarely a reality for Muslims living in the west.
Prevention is better than cure
Today’s report hears from women who dismiss the role of community leaders in influencing their opinions. These are women who are active media consumers and take their cues from a variety of sources, as we all do these days; most news content is now shared and accessed via social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. And research from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) showed that Muslim media consumption habits are similar to non-Muslims, dispelling the myth of segregated consumption patterns.
This means that there is an opportunity to compete to reach young men and women angry about what they see happening in Syria before they make the decision to travel. There have been a handful of attempts to do this. A recent police campaign focused on informing those wishing to travel of the legal implications of doing so, the practical challenges of doing so safely, and offered alternatives for those wanting to make a difference. But the women featured in Today’s piece had not heard of the campaign, highlighting the challenge of getting your message to the right ears and ensuring they hear it. This does not mean we should see the campaign as a failure and give up; rather we should amplify and scale up.
There is also an urgent need to compete with violent extremists for the attention of our young people. Extensive social media analysis conducted by my team at ISD reveals that there is almost no counter-narrative activity occurring online. There is no shortage of talk at expensive international conferences about the need for counter-narratives, but there is very little action. Governments are on safe and familiar ground funding meetings, but struggle to get effective counter-messaging campaigns signed off by risk-averse Ministers.
There are notable exceptions. For example, Abdullah-X has been developed by a London-based community worker committed to pushing back on violent extremist messaging, one of whose most successful videos focuses on considerations for Muslims thinking about travelling to Syria. This 2-minute animation was watched by over 6,000 people in a 6-week pilot campaign, in which ISD was involved in its role as co-chair of the European Commission’s working group on Internet radicalization. At the time of writing, it had been seen over 10,000 times. The next installment is out this week.
Frustrated by the lack of action, my team at ISD has turned itself into a counter-narrative innovation hub, creating content, working with partners to disseminate it to the right audiences, and using social media analytics to understand what works so these lessons can be applied by us and our community-based partners. The Autumn will see ISD launch a major counter-narrative campaign in Canada based on short films telling the stories of individuals touched by violent extremism, and similar campaigns will follow in the UK, Germany and Hungary in 2015. We are also talent spotting creative messengers who will dock into our technology platform to benefit from the campaigns and analytics experience we have built up.
As it currently stands, extremists have won the war of content and ideas online; they are organized, professional and prolific. In contrast, we are patchy, amateurish and unsystematic. If we want those thinking of travelling to Syria to come across a range of competing views, we need to do something about this. And fast. As the young women told the BBC reporter, they do not listen to community leaders.
What to do with the people returning from Syria?
We have still not seen individuals return from Syria in large numbers, and there has only been one documented case of a returnee committing an attack in Europe; a French lone actor who attacked a Jewish centre in Belgium, killing three.
Studies of previous conflicts show that most western jihadists prefer foreign fighting, but a minority do return to commit attacks at home in the west, approximately one in nine. This is a small proportion of all foreign fighters, but means that being a foreign fighter is a high risk factor for becoming a domestic fighter. The presence of foreign fighters also increases the effectiveness of those attacks; the presence of a veteran increases by a factor of roughly 1.5 the probability that a plot will come to execution and it doubles the likelihood that the plot will kill people.
Even when those returning have not fought, there is the risk that the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will make them vulnerable to radicalization once they return home.
Law enforcement is an essential tool for those returning who have broken the law. It is right that they are arrested and brought to justice, where they have joined terrorist groups to fight or been involved in the facilitation of those networks and their activities. But used too bluntly, the law will act play into the hands of extremists and will also drive a wedge between the police and communities at a time at which that relationship is critical as an early warning and prevention mechanism to prevent young people from travelling to Syria.
Government must invest in targeted and practical interventions to support those returning who have not broken the law and do not pose an immediate threat, and so will not find themselves within the criminal justice system or under surveillance by the intelligence agencies. These individuals – more likely to be women or those involved in humanitarian relief who are vulnerable to PTSD – need a range of social and therapeutic services to deal with the psychological impacts of their experiences, which might otherwise leave them vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment. Germany’s Hayat programme is an example of how this can be delivered.
The challenge of foreign fighters is of course not new, but the scale and speed of recruitment into Syria is causing concern in countries across Europe. That there appear to be growing numbers of women joining should not be surprising. Less is known about what the women are doing when they arrive, with much focus to date on their role as supporters and facilitators. But we can only assume that they will make their way to the frontline, as they have in many previous conflict zones.
There have been limited attempts to date to prevent young people from leaving. There are notable exceptions, such as those outlined in this article, but we are very much on the back foot and need to act quickly and decisively if we are to stand any chance of making up lost ground. Government agencies need to build bridges with communities and communicate more often and more loudly on the dangers of travel and alternative responses. We also need to get serious about competing for the attention of young people online. As it stands now, the extremists have won the wars of content and ideas online. We need to stop talking and start doing in the realm of counter-narratives so that young people hear from competing views before they make up their minds.
Finally, we need to start planning now for what happens when people start to return from Syria. The numbers far outweigh what we have seen in previous conflicts, which means there is a very real danger of overwhelming our existing services. There is simply not the manpower to arrest our way out of the problem, and putting all returnees under surveillance would bring our intelligence agencies to their knees. We therefore need a range of alternative community-based solutions for those who pose the least risk, both to ensure they do not go on to be a security threat to society, but also to help them return to some semblance of normal life and become functioning members of society here in the UK.