Western Islamists Scare the Hell Out of Syrian Refugees
They just risked death to escape from extremists
by KEVIN KNODELL
During his campaign, U.S. president-elect Donald Trump talked up the threat of Syrian refugees turning out to be terrorists in disguise. On top of that, the Republican candidate called for complete ban on Muslims entering the United States “until we can figure out what’s going on.”
As the world faces the largest refugee crisis in human history, many Americans and Europeans look at the outside world with fear. But many of those fleeing Syria are just as afraid of hard-line Islamists.
After risking death to escape from extremists, refugees arrived in their new homes only to find the same sort of radicals already recruiting Muslims. After getting caught in the crossfire across the political spectrum, many refugees worry if there’s any realistic way to get away from radical ideologies.
In October 2016, Syrian refugee Hani Salam told Reuters he went to a Mosque in the city of Cologne. He found the congregation was full of beards and clothes that reminded him of Jaish Al Islam, the Islamist militant group that took over his hometown near Damascus and drove him to flee.
“Good Muslims grow beards, not moustaches,” one of the Mosque-goers allegedly told Salam, in apparent disapproval for the refugee’s facial hair. “Everything about this mosque made me feel uneasy,” Salam said.
There are good reasons for Salam’s concerns. Short on sources of funding, some Arab mosques in Germany have turned to wealthy Saudi financiers who in turn want to advance strict Salafist interpretations of Islam.
“The message is clear and is directed at us Muslims: ‘Don’t you dare interpret your religion. Take the Koran word for word.’ It’s a problem,” Abed Al Hafian explained to Reuters about going to a Mosque in Berlin. He stressed that he’d never heard these sorts of messages back in Syria before the conflict.
Many Syrian refugees reluctantly attended Arab mosques in Germany out of a desire to worship in their own language. A large number of German mosques serve members of Turkish community in their native tongue.
In spite of the language problem, many Syrians are now opting to join the Turkish congregations. The new arrivals say these mosques don’t try to control them or promote radicalism.
At the same time, German law enforcement and intelligence agencies are watching Salafist mosques that might target refugees for recruitment. This added scrutiny provokes other fears among refugees and their hosts.
In October 2016, three Syrians subdued fellow refugee Jaber Al Bakr when they learned he was a terror suspect and turned him over to German police offices. “I was so angry at him,” one of the refugees told a local TV station. “I won’t accept such a thing — especially here in Germany, the country that opened its door to us.”
Al Bakr committed suicide while in custody in the city of Leipzig. We don’t know whether foreign terrorists pushed Al Bakr to act. His friends and relatives in Germany accused ultra-conservative imams in Berlin of brainwashing him.
In July 2016, another Syrian refugee, Mohammed Daleel blew himself up at a music festival in Ansbach. The bomber only succeeded in killing himself, but the attack did injure another 15 people. Though Daleel left behind a video declaring his allegiance to Islamic State, it’s not clear what, if any connection he had to the terrorist group.
Of course, Islamic State does see a benefits from feeding Western fears of refugees as it plays well into their stated strategy of “destroying the gray zone.” But these displaced persons aren’t actually the most attractive terrorist recruits for terror networks.
Terrorist screeds repeatedly denounce them as apostates — not true Muslims — and cowards for fleeing. Instead, in Europe, Islamic State appears to focus resources on recruiting western citizens with ties to crime.
Compared to refugees, westerners with European passports draw less attention and can move around with ease. And planning attacks is easier if you already know your way around a specific city or region.
Those with ties to the criminal underworld in theory already have the skills and connections to get funds, gather supplies and evade authorities. BuzzFeed journalist Mitch Prothero interviewed several European criminal investigators about their hunt for elusive Islamic State cells.
Prothero found these police officers were less concerned with refugees than with career criminals. Unlike recent arrivals, these individuals could already navigate the regional black markets, acquire weapons from Eastern European gun runners and were more comfortable with violence.
These gangsters regularly defy stereotypes about Islamist radicals. They’re the sorts of Muslims who go to nightclubs, drink alcohol, use drugs and very much enjoy pursuing forbidden sexual pleasures outside of marriage.
Many of these would-be terrorists rationalize their vices under the notion that martyrdom will give them a clean slate. They typically absorb radical ideas through internet propaganda or from friends rather than through their local mosques.
For some, that leads them to Syria — moving against the wave of refugees trying to flee. Many of these western jihadists have actually helped fuel the refugee crisis.
It’s ironic that many refugees have fled their countries only to run into the same kinds of people that drove them out. In October 2016, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College London released a report detailing this “gangster jihad” in Europe.
The study “challenges long-held assumptions about radicalization, recruitment, and how to counter terrorism,” the researchers wrote in a statement. “Criminal and terrorist groups have come to recruit from the same pool of people, creating (often unintended) synergies.”
But in the United States, Islamist extremist groups have approached recruitment much differently. In part, that’s because American Muslims have had a very different experience than European Muslims.
Despite post 9/11 anxieties, Muslims in the United States have in general integrated much more seamlessly into American society than in Europe. It helps that on average American Muslims tend to have reasonably high levels of education and live comfortably middle class lives.
That’s not to say that there aren’t radical elements. Rather than focusing on criminals as in Europe, in the United States terror recruiters seem to focus on socially isolated loners and misfits — but ones with clean criminal records.
Al Qaeda and Islamic State have argue that any recruits can take advantage of America’s tradition of legal gun ownership. American jihadists don’t need to rely on the black market arms networks their European counterparts rely on.
Much like in Europe, in the United States, recruiters tend to use social media and internet propaganda to influence potential followers. Islamic terrorist groups have repeatedly sought out American-born and other English-speaking spokesmen to speak directly to prospective American audiences.
Perhaps the most influential of these was Anwar Al Awlaki, who rose to become a high-ranking member of Al Qaeda’s branch’s in Yemen. The New Mexico-native actively corresponded with future bombers and gunmen, including Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan.
In 2011, the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency killed Awlaki in a drone strike. Al Qaeda and other groups continued to share his English-language rants and sermons.
Even in death, Awlaki has a central figure in the radicalization of western jihadists, perhaps most notably Orlando shooter Omar Mateen. After learning of Mateen’s fascination with the radical cleric in 2014, Florida entrepreneur Mohamed Malik alerted the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
With no evidence that Mateen was planning an actual terrorist attack, agents abandoned their investigation. Two years later, the security guard killed nearly 50 people in the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
Awlaki’s propaganda came up again during an investigation into a group of Somali American youths who tried to sign up with Islamic State in Syria convicted this year. Abdirizak Warsame, the leader of the cell, told authorities he began watching the English-language videos because he couldn’t understand the sermons at his own mosque where Imam’s spoke their native language.
Warsame, now in Federal Custody, told CBS news in October that his parents would never have approved of his deep dive into Awlaki’s world had they known what he was doing on his computer.
That’s why many Muslims, both in the West and in predominantly Muslim countries, advocate “counter-messaging” as a central focus of anti-extremism efforts.
Maajid Nawaz, a controversial former British Islamist, radio personality and head of the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam, has stressed that while military and law enforcement have a role to play there’s a need for community efforts that promote pluralism and reject extremist ideology.
Nawaz has been critical of what he sees as a cabal of European Islamists who have driven a wedge through communities and spread pro-jihadist propaganda. In particular he feuded frequently with Anjem Chaudry.
It was a deeply bitter — and personal — feud. In the 1990s, the two had spent time together as radical comrades. In September 2016, a British court found Chaundry guilty of supporting Islamic State.
In addition, Nawaz courted controversy for criticizing fellow British liberals for not taking a stronger stance against Islamists. He’s accused several of political correctness and challenged the common refrain that “terrorism has nothing to do with Islam” as a way of shutting down conversations.
That notion, he argued was akin to saying “Christianity had nothing to do with the Crusades.” In turn, Nawaz has recruited other former radicals who he believes understand the draw of the ideology and can work to counter it — and perhaps draw some of those already radicalized back from the brink.
In the United States, Somali immigrant Mohamed Amin is becoming a different sort of voice in counter-extremism. The meek Gas Station manager in Minnesota fled violence in Somalia during the 1990s.
Though he might seem an unlikely leader, Amin invested his own money into producing an online cartoon series called Average Mohamed. It’s aimed at children in their early to mid-teens to stop radicalism from taking hold.
Some commenters see the cartoons as painfully simple. Others have praised the animated shorts for their simplicity and argue that it’s successfully reaching younger American Muslims — particularly in Minnesota’s growing Somali community.
Still, wherever they live, anti-extremist Muslim activists face unique challenges. They’re often critical of literalist interpretations of their faith and sometimes run afoul of more conservative Muslims. In particular, jihadists view them as apostates who need to die.
On the other hand, Western politicians and activists from the extreme right and left of the political spectrum often vilify them as either “closet jihadists” or anti-Islamic radicals. For instance, the Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a report that named Nawaz — a practicing Muslim — as an “anti-Muslim extremist.”
The public advocacy group’s case included the fact that he once tweeted a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in solidarity with free speech campaigners. “Many Muslims” consider that blasphemous, the review explained.
Nawaz criticized the arguments as similar to the intellectual arguments of hard-line Islamists. “I’m the one who’s a Muslim in this!” he told The Atlantic. “I’m listed there with people such as Pam Geller? It’s unbelievable.”
Many Muslims and anti-extremism experts came to Nawaz’s defense. Even several of Nawaz’s harshest critics condemned the report and called on the Southern Poverty Law Center to reconsider. However, the organization stood firm and insisted it would neither retract the report nor apologize to Nawaz.
Regardless, for refugees fleeing tyrants and extremists to start new lives, running into the same ideologies they fled from is a worrying omen. What’s clear is that whether in the digital or real world walls and bans won’t keep out dangerous ideas.