There are an estimated four hundred British fighters currently fighting in Syria. The question as to how the Muthanas of this world join designated terrorist groups like ISIS is more complicated than the media would like you to think. The story of Aseel and Nasser Muthana illustrates this point well.
I met Aseel Muthana in January 2014 with a group of young men in a chicken shop in Brick Lane. I was investigating the death of ISIS fighter Iftekhar Jaman for a national broadcaster at the time. These young men had met through social media, they were united by their faith, their concern for Syria and support for ISIS. They were of different ethnicities; one was a newly married Afro-American convert, another was an Italian Frenchman living in Paris, another was a Bengali Brit and Aseel was of Yemeni descent.
Aseel a soft spoken young teen sporting a thobe and trainers had traveled all the way from Cardiff to meet his friends. Over chicken and chips he told me about his brother Nasser who was fighting in Syria with ISIS. It was clear that he had immense respect for his brother. Indeed in an interview I did for ITV News, his older brother Amin, said that he and his brother were close. And yet I never suspected that this seventeen year old would want to go over to Syria, "one was enough in the family" Aseel had said at the time.
According to Amin, "Aseel and Nasser felt guilty about what was happening in Syria". Other foreign fighters have had the same feeling. There is a sense that the dignity of Muslims is constantly being trampled on without a single word from the International community. These feelings have been propped up by a fatwa, an Islamic legal opinion, that states that jihad in Syria is obligatory on an individual and it means that one doesn't even need permission from one's parents to go.
According to Aseel, Nasser snuck away. The family didn't know where he was except that various family members had seen recurring dreams relating to Nasser. Dreams in the Islamic tradition are considered a small fraction of prophecy and they are taken seriously. The dream was interpreted by a Sheikh who said that it was a good omen. A few days later, Nasser called saying that he was safe and sound in Turkey.
Aseel told me that his brother didn't know how to get across to Syria and used a dud twitter account to contact fighters who would help him get across. Eventually one replied and got him over to an ISIS camp. Nasser may not have intended to join ISIS, but that is where he found himself. He was shown according to Arab-Muslim custom, three days hospitality, then offered the choice of either joining them or another brigade.
The decision whether to stay in a camp with other foreign fighters or to go in search of another brigade may not have been easy. He didn't know the lay of the land, ISIS could have appeared better equipped to deal with the needs of foreigners than other brigades. Other groups also had a higher entry threshold, for instance not everyone can join Nusra Front as some sources tell me, but also other brigades with their hard smoking Mujahideen may not have appealed to Nasser.
With ISIS, one takes Bey'a, oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, all you need as Nasser tweeted was some vetting for security reasons. But the oath of allegiance cannot just be severed without consequences. It is a sin to disobey the emir, and sin to these devout fighters means a lot. What the emir says goes.
All you need with doula is to know someone as a tazkiyah for security reasons and need to have your travel sorted into sham (1)— Abulmuthana AlYemeni (@AbulMuthanna) March 18, 2014
Nasser didn't have a large social media presence like Iftekhar Jaman. Thus his appearance in the Youtube video was a bit of a surprise. What it suggests is that his commanders wanted Nasser to appear at a time when the international community was discussing intervention in Iraq. This message was not only directed to Muslims in the West to join them but also a reminder to the international community; firstly that their actions in Iraq will have consequences and secondly, that ISIS aims to restore the past glories of Islamic civilization. This restoration of glory reverberates with young Muslims who are too aware of what is happening to Muslims in Iraq, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Burma. This is why there are similar videos of Arab fighters being scathing about the inaction of their rulers. In their minds ISIS represents affirmative action if you will. Muslims will sort out their own affairs dictated by none.
At that point in the camp perhaps Nasser's ideas may not have been crystallized. His father, Mr. Ahmed Muthana said "he was a regular Muslim, he was normal- normal person". There was no trace of extremism in his son. But then his father may not have known what went on beyond the tight-knit Yemeni community which has been around in Cardiff since the 19th century. He may not have been aware of the circles that his sons were moving in. Aseel and Nasser did not always frequent the local Yemeni mosque.
According to Aseel, contact with Nasser was intermittent. And his brother usually encouraged him to be fervent in his worship. After eight months Nasser believed that anyone could fight Assad, but that the far harder task was to establish the Islamic caliphate. Nasser had also participated in several battles, in one such battle his battalion captured two tanks as spoils of war, in another tweet he fought off a Nusra Front attack whilst being besieged in Deir Zour. In another tweet he shrugged off a suicide bomb attack: "The bomb destroyed a room all the brothers usually sleep in but that night they all decided to sleep in another room truly divine protection ".
One brother goes if your only fighting to get rid of bashar then even fsa do that but if your fighting to make Allahs word the highest (1)— Abulmuthana AlYemeni (@AbulMuthanna) November 8, 2013
Now Nasser's views sync in with ISIS. He is probably not intending to return to the UK and therefore has no problem in showing his face on the Youtube clip. For the likes of Nasser it is impermissible to live in a non-Muslim country and he would urge all Muslims to leave the UK. These ideas must have also influenced Nasser's younger brother.
الدبابات التي صيطر عليها مجاهدين الدولة بعدقتحام معسكر التناهج pic.twitter.com/1bH6rrKry0— ابوبكر الشامي (@bakrabo2020) January 3, 2014
A few days ago Jabha did 2 suicide bombs against my kateeba no one died alhamdulillah minor injuries karama from allah how we survived— Abulmuthana AlYemeni (@AbulMuthanna) May 29, 2014
Despite Aseel's family confiscating his travel documents for fear that he may try to leave, Aseel made it to Raqqa. In March 2014 Nasser tweeted that Aseel had arrived safe and sound and declared that if a seventeen year old could come to Syria, the rest of the Muslims could do the same.
Why or how a young Briton joins ISIS is difficult to explain and simplistic conclusions should be avoided. Nevertheless, I wonder if these Britons joining an organisation that has even been denounced by the likes of Al-Qaeda, realize that their presence reinforces the narrative that the Assad regime has been pushing all along: the Syrian government is fighting against terrorists. It will result in more innocent deaths as Assad will bomb Syrians with increasing impunity while the international community preoccupies itself with the threat of ISIS rather than a brutal tin-pot dictator they have worked with in the past. Better the devil you know.