Fears are growing that a new generation of British jihadis may be cutting their teeth in Syria, reports Andrew Gilligan
They called it “blowback” – the British jihadis, allowed to travel to Afghanistan to fight the Russians, who then laid the seeds of a serious security threat to the UK. Could the same thing now be happening in Syria?
An investigation by The Sunday Telegraph has established that fundamentalist groups in the Syrian civil war are recruiting growing numbers of young people from Britain with no previous links to the country. MPs, community leaders and anti-extremism campaigners are deeply worried that a new generation is being radicalised in Syria, in the same way as British bombers and terror plotters of the past decade were schooled along the Afghan-Pakistan border. But the British security authorities appear to be taking little or no action.
One such young Londoner is understood to be Alshafie Elsheikh, 23, from White City in west London, who travelled to Syria this spring, according to Dr Salah al Bander, a former Liberal Democrat councillor and director of the Sudanese Diaspora and Islamism Project at the Sudan Civic Foundation. Mr Elsheikh is of Sudanese, not Syrian, ancestry – and told Dr al Bander that he knew of more than 20 others like him preparing to travel to the fight.
“He told me before he left that he was going to join the jihad brigades in Syria, describing it as a holy cause,” said Dr al Bander. “He said he was joining two other UK-based mujahideen, one of Somali origin and the other from Morocco. He said they weren’t trained in using firearms but had been preparing for the trip since last year by doing very advanced physical exercises. When I asked him about the numbers of his associates that were planning to go to Syria, he said that as far he knew there were 21 individuals ready to leave the UK very soon.”
Mr Elsheikh’s mother, Maha Elgizouli, said her son had left her a note saying he had “gone to fight for God”, but refused to speak further.
At least 30 young Britons who are not of Syrian origin have travelled to take part in the civil war, according to Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for Birmingam Perry Barr. “There are a lot of sheikhs [religious leaders and scholars] in the West Midlands who are involving young people in this activity,” he said. “They follow them into this, but we don’t seem to realise where it is leading.”
John Cantlie, a British photojournalist abducted last month by one such extremist group, said that between 10 and 15 of his captors had British accents. “It was clear that they had never seen a Kalashnikov before. They were thrilled to be in Syria,” wrote Mr Cantlie. “All their talk was of how to take out a tank, how to advance across open ground and how to clear a building. The camp was like an adventure course for disenchanted 20-year-olds.”