A Quiet Wave Of European Muslims Sets Out For War In Syria

Authorities worry for the safety of the mostly young sign-ups, but also the risk that they return home radicalized -- and set on striking targets in Europe.

Regents Park Mosque
Regents Park Mosque
Jean-Pierre Stroobants

BRUSSELS – Counter-terrorist experts in Europe are growing alarmed at the number of European youths joining the ranks of Islamist combatants in Syria.

They say that these – mostly inexperienced – youths are taking huge risks by joining an extremely violent conflict. They are also worried about the security risk these young combatants could pose for European countries when they return after being indoctrinated and trained by al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria.

A recent report from the British Home Office estimated that between 70 and 100 British citizens had joined al-Nosra, one of the best organized, most radical and well armed combatant groups. Some of the youths have already joined the front lines in Syria.

The Netherlands believes that three of its citizens, who were most probably recruited in a mosque, were killed in combat. Belgium estimates that 50 to 80 Belgian combatants are already in Syria, including two youths who are believed to have been recruited by banned group Sharia4Belgium, whose leader Fouad Belkacem, is under house arrest.

The parents of Jeroen Bontinck, 18, and Brian de Mulder, 19, say that they didn’t know about their sons’ conversions to Salafism and their departure to Syria.

“What is most concerning is how these young people become radicalized within weeks,” says Erwin Bakker, a counter-terrorist expert from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. The report from the British Home Office speaks of these recruits as a “European problem.”

Aaron Zelin, a researcher from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a U.S. think tank, estimates that there are from 2000 to 5000 foreigners in Syria. Among them hundreds of Europeans, mostly from the Balkans, the UK, France, Germany and Spain, according to Gilles de Kerchove, a European Union counter-terrorism coordinator.

Used for propaganda

Their profiles are not identical. “There are ideologists, idealists, but also some who just want to show their support for a rebellion that – don’t forget – we support officially,” says Kerchove. It seems that the most active recruitment channels, however, are linked to the most extremist movements. “And if all the youths who go to Syria do not go there initially to become combatants, they risk being influenced by more extremist elements,” adds Kerchove.

Investigations of recruitment channels are just starting. “It is not certain that all recruits go through these channels, ” says Kerchove. In some cases, they just buy an airline tickets for Turkey online, and from there they make their way to Syria. Others take charter flights, in small groups of three and four, from Germany to Antalya. They have the number of a contact on the Turkey-Syria border, whom they call upon arrival.

The Belgian Interior Ministry, who is extremely worried about the situation, has created a taskforce comprising of various official agencies, to curb radicalization and its consequences. A difficult task, according to experts. The Syrian conflict is highly polarizing for disenfranchised youths looking for a fight or angry about perceived injustices.

The Belgian taskforce will probably not be able to prevent young Europeans from fighting in Syria, but it can be very useful when they return home, says Bakker. When they come back, they are often disappointed by their experience. Often when they arrive in Syria, they are treated badly by locals, who consider them as amateurs who are only useful for propaganda purposes. Jihadi groups are also wary of these youths, whom they perceive as potential spies. Most of these young people are given menial tasks, such as getting rid of dead bodies.

“Their frustration can reinforce, upon their return, their radicalism and their will to fight,” says a European expert. “If some need to be brought to justice, others just need help and support. In particular, they can serve as an example to those considering to follow in their footsteps.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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