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February 21, 2014

In Syria, Western Fundamentalists Are Tweeting From Amongst the Corpses

By / February 12, 2014 5:34 PM EST
          2.14_SelfieJihad
          Western fighters in Syria get into Twitter spats, pose with AK-47s, and provide on-the-ground opinions Muzaffar Salman/Reuters
             “Jihad is the best tourism,” a young Dutchman who calls himself Chechclear posted on his Tumblr. He was riding a camel, grinning, his face filtered into an Instagram haze. Chechclear is one of an estimated 1,700 Europeans fighting in Syria. He’s part of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which Al-Qaeda has just officially disowned, and seems to be having the time of his life. He documents his adventure for adoring fans across several social media platforms.

This is the reality of modern jihad, where the faithful chronicle their response to the cause in real time. But if Europeans like Chechclear are living out their Call of Duty fantasies, they do it at the expense of Syrian lives. In the territory it holds in Syria’s North, ISIS is imposing its harsh interpretation of sharia law with torture and beheadings. Its Western fighters are tweeting selfies in the ruins.

In Syria, the battle for territory waged on the ground is matched by a battle for meaning waged on the Internet. Whether they’re Kurds carving out an independent state, revolutionaries or TEDx organizers sympathetic to Assad, Syrians use Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to tell their stories. It’s contested ground, filled with both propaganda and truth. Posting can be deadly. Both the Assad regime and ISIS target citizen journalists for arrest. In the embattled Lebanese city of Tripoli, I interviewed an aid worker who, at the start of the revolution, smuggled memory cards over the border that contained footage of demonstrations. Once he was in Lebanon, he’d upload the footage to Facebook. Assad had blocked access to the Internet once. Activists were terrified he’d do it again.

Each Friday, the town of Kafranbel unfurls handpainted revolutionary banners. Written in English, full of pop culture and black wit, they are made to go viral – visual bombs forcing the Internet, and by extension, the world, to recognize that there are human beings dying inside of Syria. After George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, a Kafranbel banner read “Martin family! The Syrians are the best who know what it’s like to lose loved ones to immune criminals.” Later another banner portrayed ISIS as a Giger-esque alien. ISIS fighters shot and wounded Raed Fares, the activist behind the banners.

But while Syrians use social media to expose war crimes, Chechclear and his fellow Westerners often use it to show off. VICE.com journalist Aris Roussinos published photos of British jihadis posing with their guns aloft, like Rambo, silhouetted against the setting sun. The personal Facebook pages Roussinos discovered bragged about a “five-star jihad,” with swimming pool frolics, chocolate and weapons training in luxury villas.

Western jihadis in Syria get into Twitter spats, pose with AK-47s, and provide on-the-ground opinions to audiences in the hundreds or thousands. Their war is aspirational. They encourage young men, and sometimes young women accompanied by chaperones, to join them.

On Tumblr Ask pages, engineering students ask fighters if they may complete their degree before joining the fight in Syria (the fighter told the student the jihad needed him now), and girls wheedle to marry mujahideen. A British jihadi made macros of a bloody pistol, reading “YODO: You Only Die Once. Why Not Make It a Martyrdom?” Before he was booted off Instagram for posting pictures of corpses, Chechclear pouted for the camera like a fashion blogger, posting selfies of his luxuriant facial hair, with the hashtags #beardlife and #alphamale. Women wearing niqab, i.e., face veils, argued over the appropriateness of complimenting him in the comments.

Westerners who come to fight in Syria most frequently join ISIS, which draws its fighters from across the globe, from Pakistan to Chechnya to Tunis. Formed in April 2013, ISIS splintered off from the Al-Qaeda’s affiliate organization in Iraq. It does not primarily fight the Assad regime, but rather local Kurds, the Syrian-dominated Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army. This has led many to speculate that ISIS is tolerated by the regime.

Their methods are similar. In December, Amnesty International released a report on conditions in ISIS jails. Children as young as 8 were beaten with generator belts. Prisoners were tortured with electric shocks, and forced to guess the weights of freshly severed heads. Not satisfied with beheading people, ISIS even tweeted a picture of one of their jihadis chopping down a 150-year-old oak tree they accused villagers of worshipping. A Syrian civil society activist was lashed by a masked man who told him, “We don’t recognize anything called revolution. This is a revolution by kafirs [non-believers]. We are here to set up an Islamic state.”

In November, I interviewed Syrian refugees living in tents in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley. They told me that ISIS murdered their family members and forced the niqab on little girls. According to them, ISIS fighters would place their hand on cars, homes or even women, and say “Allahu Akbar” three times. With this pseudo-religious justification, their coveted “object” was theirs.

“I frankly despise every non-Syrian who comes to fight in Syria, whether they are on the regime side or on the opposition side. It’s our revolution against injustice by the regime. It’s not jihad.” Abdulkader Hariri, a 25-year-old English literature graduate in Raqqa, told me in an email. Meanwhile, Abu Qa’qaa’, an ISIS fighter, tweeted “all women in Raqqa now wear niqab. Progress from Allah!”

“KA,” a Syrian student in the United Kingdom, maintains close ties with relatives in Aleppo and Idlib. He is furious that anyone represents ISIS as part of the Syrian revolution. KA told me his uncle had opened an Internet cafe in his house to make some extra money. But members of ISIS took it over, sold his routers in Turkey and forced him from his home so they could use it as a base. According to KA’s relatives, Westerners often come to fight in Syria as “an adrenaline-filled holiday.”

“The common habit of Western citizens who never experienced real armed combat is to lurk around the Syrian-Turkish border and immediately cross back to Turkey as soon as anything escalates,” KA told me over email. “While they’re still in Syria, they just walk around the cities with Kalashnikovs to assert their dominance as they enjoy the privileges of being in a country with a huge power vacuum and a population of starving and desperate people.”

Despite the views of some Syrians, these Westerners do not see themselves as foreign invaders. They are Muslims, fulfilling their religious obligation to bring Islamic rule to a Muslim country. When they die, the relaxed lips of their corpses will be reimagined on Instagram as the smiles of martyrs seeing paradise.

@Glock19_, fighting in Syria, wrote in his Twitter bio “This Jihad doesnt belong 2 any group… So whats stoppin U?” In December, @Glock19_ complained that locals wouldn’t say hello to him and overcharged mujahideen at shops. Worse, some men prefered to stay with their families in refugee camps instead of taking up arms. “Never came here for these ungrateful syrians” he tweeted. “After the jihad finishes here, if I’m still alive I’ll go to another country and continue jihad. jihad never stops.”

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There’s no hope left’: the Syrian refugee camp that is becoming a township

    • The Guardian,             Tuesday 18 February 2014 16.44 GMT

Winter in Atmeh … the camp is still growing fast.

Winter in Atmeh … the camp is still growing fast. Photograph: Paris Match via Getty Images

This must be how the Palestinian camps began their slow transformation into towering townships. The Syrian families here are still living in canvas or plastic tents, but the little shops selling falafel and cola on the Atmeh camp’s “main street” are now breeze-block and corrugated-iron constructions. And now nobody dares talk about going home.

Atmeh camp, just inside Syria,   hugs the Turkish border fence. It is   December, and the population has risen in the six months since I was here in June, from 22,000 to almost 30,000. This new settlement is one of many – there are more than 6 million people displaced inside Syria, and more than 2 million in neighbouring states. The camp’s population dwindles and swells according to the vicissitudes of battle. When the regime reconquered (and obliterated) the Khaldiyeh quarter of Homs last July, an additional 50 to 60 families a day arrived.

Six months ago, when I last visited, I was able to travel deep into liberated Syria – as far as Kafranbel in the south of Idlib province – with nothing to fear from the Free Army fighters manning checkpoints. This time I don’t dare go as far as Atmeh village, sitting on the nearby hilltop, because it is occupied by al-Qaida franchise the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). Last June the camp’s residents referred derisively to the mainly foreign jihadists as “the spicy crew”. Now they are a real threat – abducting and often murdering revolutionary activists, Free Army fighters and journalists. This development contributes greatly to the gloom of the camp’s residents.

In the camp, the steaming vats of the Maram Foundation’s charity kitchen are cooking the same meal they were six months ago: lentil soup. Children wait with buckets in the red mud outside for lunch to be distributed. Also on the main street is a new clinic and one-room dentist (funded by the Syrian-American Medical Society). Dr Haytham grins as he complains about the conditions. The roof leaks, and the recent snowstorm has flooded his crowded space, destroying electrical equipment. As he serves us tea, a boy called Mahmoud, aged about five, walks in to observe us, his face marked by post-treatment leishmaniasis scars (a resurgent disease caused by the sand flies which prosper in uncollected rubbish). Mahmoud seems a pleasant child at first, but after a smiling photograph with one of our group his mood flips; he violently pinches the hand of the man he’d been cuddling up to and then takes to whipping his older sister with a cable. “Nobody can control him,” somebody remarks. “He doesn’t have a father.”

Dr Haytham in his one-room surgery.                 Dr Haytham in his one-room surgery. Photograph: Mohammad OjjehFatherless, husbandless, homeless … When I ask a man where he’d come from he changed the name of his town from Kafranboodeh to Kafr Mahdoomeh, “the Demolished Village”. I ask him why. “Because they haven’t left one house standing, nor any animals in the fields. What will we ever return to? The whole town’s gone.”

Everyone in this sector is from Kafranboodeh. There was a tent fire the previous night, leaving a nine-year-old girl badly burned. When I visited in the summer there were also tent fires, and a child was killed. Then, the fires had been caused by candles, for light; now they are caused by makeshift stoves around which people huddle for warmth.

The Levantine winter is bitterly cold. Two nights before we arrived a child froze to death in the sub-zero temperatures. A woman reminds me of this, and asks where the heaters are. When I tell her I haven’t come to deliver aid, she shrugs and smiles. “These conditions are forced upon us,” she says. “What can we do?” Some of the children at her side wear open-toed sandals in the mud. I shiver, meanwhile, in my boots and many layers.

Ahmad al-Shaikh, long-faced and bearded, is visiting from the nearby Bab al-Hawa camp. I saw that camp last time – a grim place where the tents are blue plastic and pitched on an undrained concrete surface. Now there are 3,200 tents, Ahmad tells me. He is wearing a secondhand jacket donated by a Kuwaiti, because he has left his home with only the clothes on his back. “It’s a disaster in Bab al-Hawa. It’d be a crime to put animals in such an environment. We’re drowning in flood water, sewage and rats.”

One of my companions is the Syrian-American photographer Mohamad Ojjeh. Last June, while I was delivering storytelling workshops in the tents of the Return School, he taught football skills and took a lot of pictures. He has printed and framed them since then, and the children and their mothers, when we find them, almost grab them in their excitement. They are thoughtful presents for people who no longer own even a mirror, whose children’s lives pass without the pictured landmarks of new school years or family parties.

Children with their framed pictures.                 Children with their framed pictures. Photograph: Mohammad OjjehSeveral times when we raise our cameras, people murmur through polite smiles: “We’re fed up of pictures, frankly.” They are almost ashamed of their earlier  naivety, because they once believed that having their misery photographed would translate into an international rescue effort.

“There’s no hope left,” says a woman from Hass who in June had been quietly optimistic. “Everyone’s helping Assad and no one will help us. I don’t know if my daughters will ever go home.”

Some of the younger children have been here for two years. Camp life is all they remember. One boy has tied together an old olive-oil container, some sticks and a sack to build a toy house – he calls it a tent. And who lives in the tent, I ask. “A mouse!”

Despite the refugees‘ sense of abandonment, their hospitality remains as overwhelming as ever. Every family we meet tries to make us drink tea. We eventually accept Ustaz Ahmad’s offer, and drink some glasses on a mat with his mother and about 20 lively children. Mayada (four years and one month old – she is very specific about it) recites the Qur’an for us.

Ahmad used to be headmaster of the Return School, where we worked (for the Karam Foundation’s Zeitouna programme) in June. Now (with ominous symbolism) the Return School has gone, replaced by the Wisdom School, where Ahmad teaches. It has breeze-block walls and corrugated iron roofing, but the sloping mud floor shifts when it rains. And of course there’s no heating. Ahmad, who last time was confident in the revolution’s imminent victory, tries to look on the bright side. “We do what we can for the kids. That way at least they’ll have benefited a little from this period, whether the regime falls or not.”

The boy who built a tent for a mouse.                 The boy who built a tent for a mouse. Photograph: Robin Yassin-KassabAs well as Wisdom, the Revolution House School is still going, and still the school with the Salafist curriculum offers its dubious benefits. But there are far too few places, and many  children don’t go to school at all. One such is Abdur-Rahman, 13 years old, whose education ended at the age of 11 and a half, when Assad’s bombs closed his school in rural Hama. Now he helps his mother and does odd jobs in the camp. “It’s all right,” he assures me with an old man’s resignation.   “My little brother goes to school. That’s enough.”

In some areas of Syria, Assad’s scorched-earth policy has had a military objective – to drive out communities that provide succour to opposition fighters. In others (such as the Homs region, where Assad’s men have burned the property registry), the strategy looks like a more permanent ethnic cleansing. The refugees know this, and they are bitter about it. After Assad they blame his Iranian and Russian backers, and the Arabs who haven’t done enough, and also the west, which is fixated on Islamist radicalism instead of on the regime that creates the conditions in which extremism flourishes.

In 1948, about three quarters of  a million Palestinians were driven  from their homes. In the following decades the ripples of this expulsion unsettled the entire region and plunged two countries into open war. That’s the grim precedent. Today’s Syrian exodus is unfolding on a much greater scale.

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