Western fighters' in Middle East

EU member countries work towards a solution to rising number of foreign fighters of EU origin in Iraq and Syria

Western fighters' in Middle East

The issue of foreign fighters' participation with radical groups in the Middle East was brought to the agenda after the ISIL gained control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city in June.

Anadolu Agency reporters conducted an extensive study on official reports and statements, research from think-tanks and experts' opinions regarding the European citizens who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq.

According to the reports, out of the European fighters, most have come from France, Germany and Britain with 900 French citizens, 500 British and 400 Germans having participated in Syria in the fight against the Assad regime which has massacred thousands of people. In Iraq, European fighters have fought alongside the ISIL-led militants who have been responsible for the killing thousands of people.

The report of the American Soufan Group, which provides strategic security intelligence services to governments and multinational organizations, says that more than 2,500 fighters from western countries participated in the conflict with the ISIL.

According to the report, most of the volunteers are aged between 18 to 19 and go straight to the front lines without having any military training.

The reports reveal that fighters who went to Syria and Iraq from non-Muslim countries have converted to Islam after participation with groups.

The foreign fighters are taking part in these wars with the justification of fulfilling their duty in protecting their religion; helping the organization they empathize with and in protecting the people with whom they share the same religion.

The European police force, Europol, stated in a 2014 report that as long as the Syrian civil war continues, citizens from European Union member states will continue to fight there.

According to the report, the danger European countries faces will increase in time as the fighters return to their countries.

German intelligence monitoring those who returned

According to the official reports from Germany -- home to approximately five million Muslims -- one out of four who fought in Syria and Iraq have returned and more than half of those who came back are under 25-years-of-age.

Among those who went from Germany, 20 are said to have served in the army previously and have significant military expertise which constitutes an important asset for the ISIL.

The German intelligence is monitoring those who returned from the war and are trying to stop others who want to join the extremist groups on the front lines. 

Approximately 900 French citizens participated in the war in Iraq and Syria. The reports say 332 people went to Syria and only 100 returned. Almost two out of three foreign fighters are French and 20 per cent of the French fighters have converted to Islam later.

The French government is taking concrete steps against those who fought in these wars by strengthening existing laws.

Other European countries

According to official statements, around 500 British citizens went to war in the Middle East, but some experts dispute the number to be as much as 700.

The Belgian Interior Ministry says that 150 Belgians participated with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, and the Dutch intelligence service says that around 130 Dutch citizens participated in the conflicts, 30 of whom have returned to the Netherlands.

Christians, Jews and Muslims are among the 130 Austrians citizens who went to Syria and Iraq to fight and 20 were killed, according to official statements.

In addition, there are around 100 people who went to fight in the Middle East from Denmark, 11 of whom were killed. 

Around 50 came from Norway, with around 20 returning back to their country. 

Anti-ISIL operations in the Balkans

The issue of those who participated in those groups in Syria and Iraq has become a priority issue in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania, Serbia and Macedonia.

Kosovo’s authorities arrested 42 suspected militants last month who participated with the ISIL and the militant Al-Nusra group in Syria and Iraq. Kosovo’s police report that 16 Kosovo Albanians have been killed fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Separately, Bosnia and Herzegovina arrested 16 people for participating in "terrorist activities" and being members of extremist groups.

Each Balkan country is strengthening their anti-terrorism laws. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia are preparing a law criminalizing the participation of their citizens in foreign wars. A person who fights in Syria and Iraq will be sentenced for up to five years in prison in Macedonia, up to 10 years in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and up to 15 years in Kosovo.

Christian fighters

At least 30 European Christians have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight against the ISIL, according to a report by an international institution.

According to Agenfor Italia, an Italy-based NGO whose project work supports the European Convention on Human Rights, says the number of European Christian fighters who have volunteered to fight against rebel groups in the Middle East increases day by day.

The report also showed that Judi Mikhael -- a former Dutch policeman -- volunteered in the Syriac militia and died in 2001 in Iraq.

"Judi was in Iraq to train the local Christian fighting commands and had voluntarily departed from the Netherlands together with other friends from Switzerland, Germany and Sweden. He was a ‘martyr’ according to the Syriac organization in Europe."

A former sergeant in the Swiss Army, Johan Cosar, is now a military trainer for the "Sutoro" -- Assyrian Christian volunteers forces in Syria -- according to both the report and Swiss media.

Cosar, the 31 year-old Christian volunteer from Locarno in Switzerland, stated that he is serving under the armed Syrian Kurdish People's Defense Units (YPG) who have been active since 2011. He said that he was "ready to die for his country" and continues to protect the Christian community in the conflict region.

A donation of at least 165 thousand euro has been collected from Switzerland within the last two years, the Swiss media also claimed. Austrian-based newspaper Krone alleged that more than one thousand Christians still fight against the ISIL.

The Director of Agenfor Italia and Middle East expert, Sergio Bianchi believes that it is not an easy decision for European citizens to go to the Middle East and join extremist groups.

"These people believe that their communities are under threat and this is the major driving force for fighting against ISIL," Bianchi said.

Jewish foreign fighters

Thousands of the Jewish diaspora worldwide participate in conflicts in the Middle East contributing to the rising tide of foreign fighters in Gaza, Syria and Iraq.

Groups like the Lone Soldier Center founded in 2009 in Jerusalem, offers many attractive opportunities for those who want to participate in the Israeli Defense Forces, especially from abroad.

According to the Lone Soldier Center, 45 percent of the 5,700 Israeli Defense Forces within their structure are young Jews residing in various regions of the world and voluntarily fight for Israel.

Around 50 percent of the 'Lone Soldiers' are orphans or children from families with low incomes (with low economic backgrounds). Some experts say that these youngsters are forced to join the army after finding themselves excluded from their communities.

The costs of the 'Lone Soldiers' are met by the Israeli army, and a single soldier receives a salary of $250 per month.

These youngsters, most of them from the United States, France, Canada, U.K., Russia and Argentina, see this as a need to pay their spiritual debt to Israel.

Late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the first Israeli-born prime minister of the country, had thanked the 'Lone Soldiers' saying that they supported Israel when they needed them, especially in the 1948 Independence war referring to Israel. "This was the one which decided whether it would or would not be a Jewish State."

Foundations help people become volunteers

The non-profit, non-political organization, Sar-el, is one of the foundations in many countries that help people become volunteers for the Israeli Defense Force. It has a presence in the Netherlands, Canada, and Australia among others.

The organization was founded in 1982, and has helped 75,000 people to become volunteers for the Israeli Defense Force. The foundation says that its aims are to aid Israel through hands-on volunteer work and to build lasting relationships between Israelis, the Jewish diaspora and other friends of Israel.

The foundation says that the usual program runs for three weeks. "Occasionally one-week programs are available. Volunteers may stay in the program for a maximum of three months, if approved by Sar-El and provided they have a valid visa and valid insurance.

"Every healthy person can participate in these programs which are perfect for the adventurers among us who want to serve Israel," according to the foundation's literature.

'Lone Soldiers' took part in Israel’s attacks on Gaza

The 'Lone Soldiers' took part in the latest Israeli attacks on Gaza, in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed.

Max Steinberg, a soldier who came to Israel from the United States, died during an attack against Gaza. Among the 20,000 people who participated in the funeral of this soldier from California was also the current U.S Secretary of State John Kerry who said at the funeral speech that he was proud to be attending the funeral.

The Huffington Post said that hundreds of U.S and Canadian Jewish youngsters traveled from North America to Tel Aviv during the Gaza conflict in August. The paper published photographs of the youngsters on a plane with Israeli flags.

According to the New York-based organization, "Friends of Israeli Soldiers," which is dedicated to the wellbeing of the men and women serving in the Israeli Defense Forces and the families of those who fall, approximately 750 U.S. citizens are serving in the Israeli army.

"Western fighters partners in committed crimes"

Hanine Hassan, a Palestinian academic serving as researcher in Colombia University, said that volunteers who are non-Israeli citizens but with a Jewish background have participated on the front lines in the Israeli army conflicts after taking brief training. He said that two U.S citizens, one French citizen and one Russian have died during the Gaza attacks.

"The Western fighters who came to the region to strengthen the Israeli army are partners in the committed crimes," Hassan said, adding that they are also responsible for crimes like ethnic cleansing against Palestinians, mass killings and supporting these crimes.

Efforts to stop fighters

The European Union has ramped up its efforts to prevent a growing number of people from leaving Europe to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Interior ministers from eight EU countries, under the leadership of Belgium, have met six times until Sunday and prepared a four-pronged action plan to block foreign fighters from reaching Syria and Iraq. The EU ministers’ last meeting, to which Turkey and other regional countries were also invited, was held on July 7 in Italy.

Belgium, Italy, France, Germany, the U.K, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland have approved measures such as prevention, identification, determining place of travel, criminal sanctions and cooperation with third countries. The countries have expressed commitment to intensifying the sharing of information and intelligence with other countries, transferring date to the Schengen Information System (SIS) and to EU police agency Europol, and joint action in suspected cases.

The eight EU countries, which decided to bring the topic to the EU agenda, agreed on forming strategic communication teams, creating an EU passenger name record (EU PNR) application, and cooperating with service providers for a more effective oversight of the Internet, which is seen as an active element in fighter recruitment. EU interior ministers are expected to approve these measures at a meeting in October.

Cecilia Malmstrom, currently serving as European Commissioner for Home Affairs in the Barroso Commission, said her office would not prepare regulations on who gets to go to a warzone or whose passport will be confiscated, maintaining that these issues were under the authority of EU member states.

Upon a proposal of the EU Commission, member countries reviewed their strategy to fight radicalization and recruitment. In this context, they decided to create an information center and enhance cooperation with IT companies to combat radicalization over the Internet.

The prevention of foreign fighters in Syria was among the top agenda items in the meetings between EU and Turkish officials. On June 23, the 52nd Turkey-EU Association Council was held in Luxembourg where officials asked for increased cooperation regarding "foreign fighters." Former Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet, who manages EU meetings on foreign fighters, have repeatedly stressed that the 28-member bloc has very efficient ties with Turkey on this issue.

In its common position paper, the EU said it welcomes active dialogue with Turkey on the matter of foreign fighters, and said the existing cooperation would be further strengthened with Turkey passing relevant anti-terrorism legislation.

Muslim communities in Europe are concerned

The growing number of European Muslims joining the ranks of the militant ISIL group in Iraq and Syria has caused deep concerns among the Muslim community in Europe.

Some key opinion leaders of the Muslim community in Europe and civil society representatives spoke to The Anadolu Agency about the issue.

"People watch the incidents in Syria from television. They witness the cries of women and children for help. We have recently experienced this in Gaza. The feeling of injustice in the Middle East affects the youth in Europe negatively," according to Dr. Omer El-Hamdoon, president of the Muslim Association of Britain.

Founded in 1997, the association has been known for its participation in the protests opposing the Iraq war.

Stating that the association closely follows the news about the rising number of European citizens joining the ISIL, Hamdoon said: "These teenagers want to react against the war and injustice in the war-torn Muslim countries."

Hamdoon also said a part of the Muslim youth from Britain go to the Middle East to help people and humanitarian aid efforts, not to fight alongside the terrorist group.

"However, some other youths choose another way to help. They think about what they can do for their Muslim brothers and sisters, can't find any way, and decide to go and fight alongside the ISIL," he said.

He criticized the British media for targeting the Muslim community in England.

"It is true that the ISIL does propaganda via internet to attract the Muslim youth in England. However, the young who join them are not only "jobless" and "furious" people. They give an emotional reaction to the latest incidents in the Middle East."

'Discrimination against Muslims boosts the participation'

Bekir Yilmaz, head of Berlin Turkish Community, said the primary reason of the rising attendance to the groups like ISIL is the discrimination against the Muslim society in Germany, France and Britain.

"Due to the family and social problems as well as the discrimination against them, the youth in those countries are in search of a satisfying position in the world. When they attend the ISIL, they feel important and special," Yilmaz said.

He advised European families to pay more attention to their children. "We should teach our children the basic philosophy of the Islam which is 'killing one human being is equal to killing all humanity.'"

Ebubekir Ozture, head of the Contact Body for Muslims and Government in Netherlands, also pointed to the discrimination as the most important reason.

"We must get to the root of the problem and solve it entirely. It means that the families and the Islamic associations have a tremendous responsibility," he said.

Stressing that the problem cannot be solved only with legal measures, Ozture said the society should embrace those alienated youths.

President of Austria Islamic Community Fuat Sanac said all religions have some extremists sides. "However, the deeds of ISIL-led militants should not be appropriated for all Muslims. Jews and Christians also go abroad to fight."

He rejected the perception that many Muslims are supporting the ISIL. "It is just a negative propaganda against the Muslims," he said.


Güncelleme Tarihi: 07 Eylül 2014, 22:53

Muhammed Öylek