VICE News Exclusive: We talked to British nationals fighting with al Qaeda in northern Syria
Yesterday, Andrew Parker, the Director-General of the UK’s intelligence service MI5, announcedthat hundreds of British Muslims have traveled to Syria to take part in “terrorist tourism.” Today, we present exclusive video footage and interviews with British nationals fighting with al Qaeda in Syria. In the film, two young men with British accents echo the sentiments expressed by Lee Rigby’s killer Michael Adebolajo and declare jihad against the UK and United States.
“I say to the United States that your time will come,” says one of the men, who gives his age as 26, “and we will bleed you to death and, inshallah [God willing], shall raise a flag in the White House.”
The second jihadist calls on the British public to rise up against the government: “Like the guy in Woolwich, he explained that David Cameron would never walk on the street, and he’ll never get shot in the face, whereas you guys who are soldiers, or just normal folk, will take the blame for the crimes that are committed worldwide, by Britain itself, so we have to fight.”
The film also shines a light on the communication difficulties that arise when radicalized extremists from Britain, France, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Turkey, among other countries, get together to fight on the front line.
Al Qaeda’s Teenage Fan Club
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realized Syria had turned into Mad Max. We were driving through Manbij, a small tumbleweed kind of town in the dusty northern outskirts of Aleppo province on a Friday afternoon during Ramadan, about a month before the August 21 chemical-weapons attacks that finally forced the international spotlight onto Syria’s two-year civil war.
Manbij’s deserted streets radiated in the midday heat of the holy month. Shopkeepers had pulled the crinkled metal shutters down over their doorways. When you’re fasting in Syria in the summertime, the daytime is for sleeping.
Our driver stopped the car on a side road near the yellow-gray town square. “Look,” he said.
We peered through a scrim of dust at a set of vague shapes in front of us. The figures quickly sharpened into an oncoming pack of men on motorbikes, roaring up the road with horns beeping. As they approached, the drivers’ passengers stood up on their seats with their arms outstretched, brandishing the black flags of al Qaeda as they yelped into the sky.
I fumbled for my camera.
“Be careful,” said the driver. “They won’t be offended because you’re a journalist taking pictures. They’ll be offended because you’re a woman taking pictures.”
The gang circled the square on the shiny little two-strokes that the Syrians call “smurfs.”
From the passenger seat, my friend—a Syrian with a sharp sense of irony—looked back at me. “Well,” he said, “that’s freedom. You never could have had a motorbike gang under Bashar.”
How the Shutdown Confused al-Qaeda
While the government shutdown seems like an expected event to Americans, recent research indicates that in other parts of the world it appears irrational and incomprehensible. This became apparent over the past few days as foreign media outlets struggled to make sense of the shutdown and the elaborate congressional choreography leading to it.
Furthermore, an intercept of a conversation between two al-Qaeda operatives confirmed what some have suspected for a long time: American politics is a joke. It also revealed that even an organization known for suicide operations can be baffled by the self-destructive tendencies of the US political system. Below is a transcript of this revealing conversation between the two al-Qaeda members, referred to as A and B.
A: Al Salamu Alaykom, Brother B.
B: Al Salamu Alaykom. How are the preparation or the, er, party?
A: Not so good. I’m afraid the venue is closed down.
B: Closed down? That’s bad news. Did you move to the alternative venue?
A: It’s also closed down. In fact, they are all closed down.
B: What? This is incredible. How could this happen?
A: All government buildings are closed. Didn’t you hear about the shutdown?
B: The shutdown? Vaguely, yes, I thought it was a new American movie. They were talking about it on TV and they were using that voice they use for movies.
A: It’s not a movie! They are closing down government departments!
B: That’s incredible, why would they do that?
A: It seems we have overestimated how efficient their political system is. When they can’t agree they just shut down the whole thing and go home.
I Ate Ice Cream with a Member of al Qaeda in Syria
Al Qaeda has a bit of an image problem. Their reputation as the world’s most feared terrorist network can be traced back to precisely 8:46 AM EST on September 11, 2001. And it’s a reputation that they’ve since cemented by kidnapping and executing foreign journalists and aid workers, bombing public transport systems in Europe and involving themselves in several particularly nasty African civil wars. So, when I had the opportunity to interview one of their members in Syria recently, I was—needless to say—a little nervous.
Al Qaeda are fighting in Syria’s civil war under a handful of banners. The most well known is the homegrown Jabhat al-Nusra, the first jihadist group to emerge in the conflict and the one that the US Government made infamous (and, incidentally, rather popular with many young Syrian fighters) when they stuck it on their list of forbidden terrorist networks back in December 2012.
But in recent months Jabhat al-Nusra has tried to distance itself from al Qaeda, and increasingly it is being overshadowed by the new kids on the block—the Iraqi, al Qaeda-backed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a group that is both led by and almost exclusively made up of foreign Mujahideen fighters. ISIS established itself in Syria in April after a People’s Front of Judea-style spat between one Jabhat al-Nusra leader, who wanted to formally link the group to al Qaeda in Iraq, and another Jabhat al-Nusra leader, who didn’t.
What Does Canada’s Blocked Terrorist Attack Mean for the Country?
Just as the Boston terrorist saga was coming to an end, a new Canadian terrorist plot was thwarted. Yesterday the The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) revealed in a news conference they arrested two foreign citizens named Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser from the Montreal and Toronto areas respectively. It’s a good piece of press for the Mounties, who’ve had a banner couple of months with a damning missing women’s report and the Canadian-born terrorists who wound up participating in the Al-Qaeda attack on a gas plant in Algeria. Not to mention, the news comes exactly a week when their American counterparts, the FBI, failed to thwart their own home-grown terror attack in Boston.
According to the RCMP, Esseghaier and Jaser planned on derailing a passenger train and killing innocent civilians. Reuters was reporting they specifically targeted the VIA rail route linking Toronto and New York City (something bound to upset Mr. Obama). Apparently there wasn’t an imminent public threat, but the authorities monitoring them (since August 2012) might’ve been spooked in light of the Boston bombings. It’s also worth mentioning the operation to arrest these suspected-terrorists (literally called “Operation Smooth”), was done with the support of the FBI and Homeland Security.
It’s especially unsettling information for most security watchers who’ve been waxing poetic on the danger ofterrorists-in-our-midst for the better part of a decade following 9/11. Yet for even the casual observer, this Canadian flavored terrorist-takedown is not something that should be easily ignored. There are definite signs of concerns coming out of these arrests.
For one, this is the first instance of Al-Qaeda following through with supporting an actual planned attack on Canadian soil. While Bin Laden apparently named Canada as a target in papers recovered from his assassination, we’ve never been considered a prime objective for Islamic terrorists. The reason being—as some intelligence experts have told me in the past—terrorists have historically seen Canada as a home-base, a place to lay low or carry out covert funding efforts for global attacks.