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This Year’s Best-Seller: The Rough Guide for Jihadis?

September 6, 2014

British Jihadis

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . . (A Tale of Two Cities)

Charles Dickens could have written these lines for a bedraggled group of 30 disgruntled British jihadis stuck in Syria with nowhere to go. According to yesterday’s Independent newspaper they want to come home. They are apparently upset at not being able to fight the forces of President Assad, and instead having to direct their fire at rival rebel groups. Perhaps spending their weekends decapitating their fellow Muslims is beginning to get to them as well. Worst of all, they fear that their fratricidal activities will not qualify them for paradise.

They feel stuck between a rock and a hard place – the rock being the butchers of the Islamic State, and the hard place the prospect of several years in a British jail. They say that they’re prepared to undergo de-radicalisation programmes in the UK if they’re allowed to come home.

It’s hard for a middle-aged non-Muslim like me to grasp the mind-sets of these kids – because many of them are just kids – who go off to make war in foreign countries for a cause that most of the world, the vast majority of Muslims included, finds illogical and perverted.

Read their tweets and you can recognise the immaturity of any typical 18-to-20-year old. Wild excitement, enthusiasm and yes, idealism, though not yet tempered by the harsh realities of experience. For some of them that harsh reality seems to be bearing down.

So what if for these young idealists violent jihad is essentially a form of adventure, rather like the gap year rite of passage thousands of British school leavers go through when they head off to Thailand, India, the Antipodes and the Americas in search of new experiences, fun and, in some cases, to do some good in the countries they visit? Are these mamma’s boys from Luton, Blackburn and East London basically backpackers with attitude?

What really set me thinking about this was a story I saw in the Arab News, a Saudi English-language newspaper, about a young Saudi killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza. Sultan Farhan Al-Harbi had been sentenced to five years in jail for attempting to join the previous Sunni insurgency in Iraq. When he was released, he apparently went off to fight in a number of hot spots including Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria and finally Gaza, where he met his end. The paper reported that, like the Brits, he was disillusioned with the Islamic State. So he decided to try his luck at killing a few Israelis.

What seems odd to me is that he had apparently embarked on a kind of Jihadi’s Grand Tour. Why did he not stay in one place and see the struggle through?  Did he go off to the next place because the jihad experience in the previous location didn’t suit him? Or was it just a case of “been there, done that, got the shrapnel wound”? Perhaps he was on some self-appointed mission to unify all the groups into one coordinated fighting force?

We will probably never know. But there’s something about Sultan Al-Harbi’s wanderlust that sounds very consistent with the dilettante spirit of the backpacker.

Which leaves me in little doubt that lurking in the fetid armpits of the internet there’s probably someone right now working on a Rough Guide for Jihadis. It would sit nicely alongside Islam for Dummies, which seems to be quite popular with the British contingent of the Islamic State. Where you can get the best deodorants and knife-sharpeners in Somalia; where to get a hot meal in Raqqa; how to switch to a new twitter account so you can let your mates know who you’ve beheaded lately. Or perhaps whereabouts in Mosul you can pick-up a slave-wife, and whether it’s possible to download Bruce Willis movies via Netflix in Tripoli.

I do wonder whether those lads who make it out of the IS abattoir alive and end up back on the streets of England will not look back wistfully on their youthful exploits on the bloody plains of Syria in 40 years’ time, just as people of my age swap tales of the first Glastonbury, of Led Zeppelin at Shepton Mallet, and of running out of money in Casablanca, Kabul and Kathmandu.  Will the burnt-out jihadis of the future sit in their council houses or prison cells and tell themselves that “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” while thumbing nostalgically through the Rough Guide for Jihadis?

Or will they just feel like dupes? Some gap year.

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