The Islamist revolts in Iraq and Syria have attracted a wide range of foreign fighters — some 2,000 from Western countries, including more than 100 from the United States. But what are those countries supposed to do when the fighters want to return home? As governments debate whether to block their homecoming, revoke their citizenship, or even help them reintegrate, the jihadists are publicly mulling their future, according to a review by SITE Intelligence Group. Foreign fighters within the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups are wondering: How long will we remain here? And what happens next?
A collection of online jihadists’ messages from May to October this year shows that foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria are aware that their decisions to leave home will likely be permanent. They also pressure each other, in the name of “steadfastness” (and with the implied threat that a departure would be tantamount to betrayal), to remain. “Dude!I don’t get parents that beg their kids to come back from Syria knowing they’ll face certain imprisonment! 4 a very long time!What the?” tweeted a user named “Dawlat Islam Citizen” on July 8. (Many tweets, including this one, have been taken down.)
That explains why, in response to an article about a jihadist fighter allegedly planning to return home, a pro-al-Qaeda fighter in Syria named “Abu Yehya Al Shami” sent these tweets on May 16:
Fighters are saying online that their home countries don’t want them, possibly as a way to pressure their comrades not to return. On June 9, “Abu Farris,” an Islamic State fighter from Britain, tweeted at Western governments that they are “just containing hundreds of fustrsted muslims that want to leave and MIGRATE,” and stated that they have “no intentions of returning.” In a June 26 tweet, user “Britani” even offered:
Revoke their passport so they can't return.Problem solved your happy and their happy so everyone's a winner or do you really want them2stay
— Britani (@Abuuthmaan1988) June 26, 2014
Some foreign fighters loudly characterize their lives abroad as joyous and fulfilling. They call Syria and Iraq their new homes — advancing the notion that the Islamic State and other jihadist groups have created (or will create) a legitimate state. Canadian Islamic State fighter “Abu Turaab” tweeted on Aug. 28:
Another one of the many blessing of Shaam [Syria]. You never miss home while you’re here. It’s as though you were never alive until you crossed over
“Muslim-Al-Britani,” a British native who claims to have entered Syria by foot from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, wrote last month:
User “Abu Abdullah,” a founding member of Rayat al-Tawheed, a media group of mostly British Islamic State fighters in Syria, has made similar statements. On Sept. 16, he tweeted, “For all those who ask if we ever plan to come back,” with a corresponding image:
Statements like those of Abu Abdullah and Abu Turaab can be understood as propaganda responses to a quiet but prevalent concern among fighters that the more battle-weary of their comrades may be considering leaving. Recent reports suggest cracks in the collective zeal that foreign jihadists wish to project. Western jihadist fighters and wives have contacted their home countries, allegedly professing that they wish to return. Countries such as Denmark have even offered deradicalization programs as a means for jihadist fighters to return to the country — a drastically different approach than the one in the United Kingdom, where officials have proposed to revoke jihadists’ British citizenship.
The worry of retention has been addressed by jihadist fighters, sometimes with empathy, other times with mockery and intimidation. The softer responses frame ambivalence about jihad as a necessary struggle of Islam. On Oct. 24, “Abu Dahda,” tweeted:
Hardships in Jihad r like no other, but then what wud u expect.It is the peak of this deen.The hardest trials come with the greatest rewards
— Abu Dahda (@AbuDahda) October 24, 2014
Staying in Jihad shows ur sincerity of will & conviction to make Allah's Word the highest, we ain't there just to register our names & flee
— AbuKhabbab alMisri ☝ (@Taimiyyah) October 19, 2014
The more aggressive of these messages cast leaving as a sign of weakness and even betrayal to Islam. On the Ask.fm account of “Khattab al-Muhajir,” a member of Rayat al-Tawheed and associate of Abu Dahda, a user asked if one would “be allowed to leave syria and go back to the uk.” Al-Muhajir responded with a joke about Nandos, a restaurant chain:
In the same vein, the jihadist account of “Life of a Mujahid” tweeted on Aug. 1, “When you leave Jihad, you shall be humiliated….” Other jihadists have framed leaving, or even keeping contact with one’s homeland, as a threat to the war:
Some jihadists express homesickness without any actual desire to leave. “Umm Anwar,” a British female jihadist living in Syria, wrote on Aug. 20, “someone pls make Hijrah [migration] from Scotland already and bring me Irn Bru,” referring to a popular European drink. Even Abu Abdullah Britani, despite his calls to see the fight through, sounded wistful about lost carbs:
But for those foreign jihadists in Syria not granted second chances, buzz phrases such as “sacrifice” and “steadfastness” are becoming parts of the recruitment scheme as jihadists shout calls for migration across social media — pulling down with them whomever they can.
Phil Cole, a SITE analyst, contributed to this story.