INTERNATIONAL borders arouse no fears in jihadi Islamists, nor do prison sentences; these are two conclusions of a new report, Milestones To Militancy, published by the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
The report, which analyses the biographies of 100 jihadists from across the Middle East and Africa, cites the case of Abu Khalid al-Suri. He was involved with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in the 1970s and early ’80s when it was repressed by the regime of President Hafez al-Assad. Al-Suri (meaning “the Syrian”) later fought with the Mujahidin against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. After 2011, when the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad began, al-Suri returned to Syria to fight with groups linked to al-Qaeda.
Global jihadists, therefore, radicalised by the experience of the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood members in 1982, are back in their home country for revenge, and to continue their campaign to bring down the rule of the secular Baath Party. As the authors of Milestones To Militancy say: “Too often, the international community has focused on the groups that make up this violent network. But it is individual journeys that have shaped this phenomenon.”
Personal relationships dating as far back as the 1970s “directly influence the brutality we see in Syria, Libya, and Somalia” carried out by Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafi groups.
Prison, the report says, provides a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists. Of the 100 individuals studied, 65 per cent spent time in prison, while only 25 per cent of those are known to have committed crimes or served sentences before becoming jihadists. In prison cells around the world, “future recruits were exposed to the ideology that later drew them to jihad.” Of the men profiled, about half had non-violent Islamist links before joining the jihadist movement.
While jihadists exploit to the full the latest developments in technology and social media to advance their cause, personal contact across international borders remains important. Milestones To Militancy points out that Abdullah Azzam (Palestinian), a founder of the Hamas movement in Gaza and later the chief ideologue in al-Qaeda, came into contact with Osama bin Laden (Saudi) and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri (Egyptian), as well as al-Suri and other prominent figures in the movement. Although Azzam was assassinated in Pakistan in 1989, his name is still associated with several groups advocating global jihad.
Given the important part played by personal contact in furthering the jihadist cause, it is not surprising that the authors of the report recommend that governments should place senior members of the movement “in separate units in prisons, isolating the current leaders and ideologues” from “more junior figures. This will help to prevent the establishment of ‘mentorship’ structures towards radicalisation.”
It is recommended, too, that the “claim to Islamic scholarship of many leading jihadi ideologues” should be challenged. The authors say, for example, that “neither Ayman al-Zawahiri nor Osama bin Laden were trained in Islamic jurisprudence. Despite this, Salafi-jihadi groups regularly claim to be true enforcers of Sharia.”
While such measures may be effective in the long term, for now the reality is that the jihadist movement is a global one, and, as the report correctly says, “tomorrow’s jihadi leaders are being shaped on the Syrian battlefield today.” They are also being shaped in other failed states such as Libya and Yemen, as well as in countries with high and rising youth unemployment, such as Saudi Arabia. Containing the jihadist movement is a global challenge.