“One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.” ~ George Orwell
If the members of the Britani Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys had read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, it did not show. Orwell’s memoir-cum-political-diary describes in detail the hardships of life as a volunteer soldier: that at least has not changed, no matter the rumours of a ‘5 star jihad’. In the decades since the Spanish Civil War, the horrors of battle have remained, and the monstrous evil of fascism has simply been replaced by the monstrous evil of religious fundamentalism.
The Spanish Civil War is perhaps the last great example of a large volunteer army in conflict. The International Brigades, volunteers organised by Comintern, fought at first to defend the weak Republican coalition of democrats, socialists and anarchists, and then to assert control over it for the USSR. On the other side, the ideological clash of extreme left and right drew in volunteers from Italy, Germany, and fascist organisations (including the Irish Brigade under former IRA Chief of Staff Eoin O’Duffy). In the end, the volunteer forces proved enthusiastic but underwhelming, hampered by a lack of training and the heavier armaments of regular forces.
Yet the ISIS’s propaganda machine has not needed to work too hard to convince the world of the danger posed by volunteer soldiers. ‘The Beetles’ – four vicious ISIS militants who got their monikers from their British accents – Nasser Muthana and Reyaad Khan from Cardiff, star in a recruiting video aimed at the West: these are the idealised volunteer soldiers which ISIS needs to fill headlines and glamorise the conflict.
Much as Orwell notes, the sort of people who are shouting about the wonders of the war tend to be those who are not on the front lines. Volunteers like Muthana or the ‘Beetles’ are useful not so much for their combat ability as for the publicity they generate. The images we are getting now increasingly show that ISIS, with cadres drawn from war-torn regions across the world, simply no longer needs inexperienced volunteers from relatively pampered backgrounds in Western countries.
The tales of returning Jihadis have often portrayed the same sort of mundane reality. Camp life is tough, with 10pm curfews and few modern amenities that we are accustomed to in the West– one French jihadi complained that his iPod was broken and that he wanted to return home. Another volunteer, a man from Kalyan, close to Mumbai, complained that rather than being put on the front lines or even being anywhere near the fighting, he spent his time scrubbing toilets.
Unlike the Spanish Civil War, jihadists in Iraq and Syria do not face a shortage of willing recruits. As they overrun border checkpoints and relentlessly erode state authority, experienced guerrillas from across the Islamic world have arrived to take part in this new Jihad. These are experienced veterans of conflicts, with a track record of being prepared to kill or die for their beliefs. In contrast, the volunteers are from a diverse range of backgrounds, many of them unsuited to combat: the average shop assistant probably hasn’t had much call to use a rifle. They have little to no training, no proven commitment to the cause, and there is no dearth of more skilled fighters on offer at present: in this situation, it’s hardly surprising that most civilian volunteers in ISIS are relegated to backroom duties.
The reasoning of volunteers seems to have varied from true ideological passion, through the misguided desire for greater street credibility in their local communities, to trying to force a marriage (as seems to have been the case for the Nawaz brothers). Finding that they’re unwanted unless they’re photogenic, and facing the possibility of death from enemy forces or even rival jihadis, it is not surprising that many have come back to the West. It seems that the majority of those who have returned home have not come to spread their beliefs, but because of the fear of being killed in fighting, or became disillusioned when the promised luxuries and glory were not to be found.
The position of these one-time jihadis is precarious. On the one hand, there is perhaps something to be said for using them as an example, putting off others from following their path by showing just how unglamorous the reality of warfare is. The more dangerous jihadis are likely to have joined the fighting and be actively engaged in combat – their influx is more probable after the war ends. Indeed, the question of the aftermath of this brutal conflict brings up a rather different issue: the return of well-trained radicals who have been tested by war and have shown their readiness to commit acts of incredible violence. That seems quite a different issue from those who were driven, whether by pride, youth, or any other reason, to join ISIS, but were not willing to remain with that group for long. If we can use them to demonstrate how unpleasant the realities of life within ISIS really is, we could at least hope to curb further volunteering.
On the other hand, as former jihadis, they have become politically toxic for any government to attempt to help. These are people who willingly left their homes, jobs, and families to join an organisation which actively encourages the beheadings of unarmed prisoners and the sexual abuse of girls and women. Western foreign policy towards the Arab World has often been questionable at best, but that doesn’t justify ISIS’s actions in anyway, nor the volunteers’ attempts to join this organisation. It is easy to bleat about forgiveness, but the volunteers don’t live in a hermetically-sealed word: they were certainly aware of the indiscriminate violence perpetrated by Islamic State, and were willing to support it.
These volunteers and failed jihadis will continue to return home so long as the war goes on – or at least until the tide of war turns against ISIS. Then, perhaps, the need for manpower will outweigh their current restrictions, and we will see the shop assistant’s on the front lines. Until, then, however, we need to find a way to deal with these radicalised volunteers which recognises the scope of the problems posed by ISIS and prevents more radicalised youth from following in their footsteps.