How are British jihadists travelling to Syria and Iraq?

Jihadists

Budget flights and 'distressingly porous' borders are enabling Britons to fight in the Middle East

LAST UPDATED AT 13:29 ON Thu 21 Aug 2014

The murder of US journalist James Foley at the hands of a suspected British jihadist has raised questions about how aspiring fighters are making the journey from the UK to Iraq and Syria.

Foley's executioner is believed to be one of around 500 British-born militants who have travelled to Syria to fight. Half are thought to have returned and dozens have died.

So how are they getting there?

"With Turkey only a budget flight away, it is cheaper for jihadists to get there and cross to Syria to fight than it is to get to Afghanistan or Somalia," says the BBC. The 600-mile border between Turkey and Syria is "distressingly porous", says The Times, enabling jihadists to cross from Turkey into its war-torn neighbour and onto Iraq.

How can British jihadists afford to travel?

Some Britons have the resources to travel under their own steam, but there are also organised jihadist networks transporting young men out to conflict zones to join the fight. "These kids don't have the means to buy a plane ticket," says Salah al Bander, who runs the Sudanese Diaspora and Islamism Project. "There is a kind of railroad between British and Western cities and linking points in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to bring these individuals inside Syria to go and join specific organisations." Sham aid agencies also operate in the region, funnelling funds and fighters in and out of Syria, according to intelligence agencies.

Where do they claim they are going?

Some British jihadists have claimed they are going abroad for a holiday or to carry out humanitarian work. The father of two young men who left Cardiff to fight in Syria believed his eldest son had gone to a seminar in Shrewsbury last November. Police later revealed that he had crossed the border from Turkey into Syria after taking a train to Gatwick via Coventry and a flight to Istanbul, reports the Daily Telegraph. Months later, his younger son pretended he was staying at a friend's house but actually travelled to Cyprus to sail to Syria.

Is it illegal to travel to Syria and Iraq?

No, travel itself is not illegal, but the Crown Prosecution Service has warned that British citizens who leave the country to fight in Syria or Iraq can be prosecuted and sentenced to life in prison. In January alone, 16 people were arrested on suspicion of terror offences after travelling between Syria and the UK, compared to 24 in the whole of 2013.

Are British jihadists travelling with the intent to join extremists?

Many Western jihadists are reportedly travelling to Syria to join more moderate opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime, but then fall in with well-funded "fixers" and recruiters for Islamic State or al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, says The Times. Following Islamic State's push into northern Iraq in June, British extremists in the Middle East stepped up a social media campaign to encourage others to follow them to Iraq and Syria. They offered advice for the journey: travel light, bring a smart phone for internet access and leave religious books at home to avoid suspicion at the airport.

Jason Burke in The Guardian says it is often the prospect of "combat, adventure, camaraderie, a perception of injustice, even the fanatical certainty itself" that draws in the recruits from the West. But, once in, it is very difficult to leave, with the physical and psychological costs of quitting high, says Burke. "The environment of a group such as Islamic State, created around a cult of extreme violence and a worldview that dehumanises all outside the organisation, can quickly turn an individual from a misguided insurgent into a pitiless terrorist killer, more than happy to execute a defenceless hostage with a knife, on camera."

  · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.