The article below appeared in today’s Guardian and is based on ICSR research about European nationals fighting in Syria.
Further findings will be featured on tonight’s BBC’s Newsnight programme (BBC2, 10.30pm GMT), which includes interviews with other British men who have joined the al-Qaeda linked group ISIS, and their families.
As part of ICSR’s commitment to understanding the consequences of the Syrian civil war, we will soon publish updated figures on the numbers and origins of European foreign fighters in Syria.
Briton killed fighting in Syrian civil war
By Shiv Malik and Haroon Siddique
theguardian.com, Wednesday 20 November 2013 16.09 GMT
A British Muslim has been killed fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, his family in London have said.
Mohammed el-Araj, who was in his early twenties, is only the second Briton to have been named and confirmed as dead while fighting in the raging civil war.
Araj, who spent 18 months in prison for violently protesting outside the Israeli embassy in London in 2009 , , was killed in Syria in mid-August.
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), a thinktank that has been tracking hundreds of foreign fighters going into Syria, said that news of his death had been associated with propaganda from two major al-Qaida-linked groups.
Araj from Labroke Grove, west London, was born on a British Airways flight and grew up in the UK, his family told the Guardian.
The family said that they had been informed of their son’s death by people in Syria. Araj’s father, Walid, said that he would issue a statement from the family through their solicitor later and that they would prefer to be left alone while grieving.
Senior ICSR research fellow Shiraz Maher said that this was only the second time a Briton had been confirmed killed in the Syria conflict. At least 200 UK-linked fighters are believed to be in Syria.
The ICSR thinktank, based at King’s College London, said that by monitoring password-protected forums, using special software to track open-source information and their own links with people in Syria they had managed to systemically track foreign fighters entering Syria for the last year.
Maher said that from the evidence they had gathered, Araj had appeared to have contact directly or indirectly with al-Qaida-linked groups.
“We’ve looked into the groups he was hanging around with and it could be one of three different groupings [that he was with],” said Maher, whose unit have been working with BBC 2’s Newsnight on an investigation into Syrian jihadists.
“We have seen the signs, or the propaganda of Jabhat al-Nusra in the background of some of the videos he has featured in. We’ve also seen the branding of Isis [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria].
“And then … in and around the area where we believe he was, which is around Aleppo and Idlib … there is an unaffiliated, independent jihadist group of foreigners … They provide a kind of auxiliary fighting force that groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis will call upon.”
Only one British fighter has previously been reported killed in the Syrian conflict, Ibrahim al-Mazwagi, a 21-year-old British-raised Libyan, whose father said he thought he had been doing charity work.
In November, the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, said the number of British militants who had gone to fight in the war was in the “low hundreds”.
Demonstrating the difficulty of verifying details of casualties in Syria, another British man Ali Almanasfi, 22, from Acton, west London, was reported killed in May after Syrian TV posted a picture of his passport alongside a bloodied body. But Almanasfi later contacted a friend to tell him he was alive, and reportedly said that he was fighting against the Assad regime.
Araj leaves behind three sisters and two parents. On 17 August, believed to be a day after Araj’s death, his sister Noor tweeted: “The love I had for him, no one will ever understand.”
Other tributes were paid to Ajra’s death on Sara el-Araj’s Facebook page around the same time.
The family, who are of Palestinian descent, said that a British companion of Araj’s had also been killed after being shown a photograph of the two together in Syria.
In 2010 Araj had his sentence cut from two years to 18 months in the courts following violent protests in London in 2009 after the bombardment of Gaza in 2009 by Israel. After the demonstration 78 protesters were charged, with Araj receiving one of the most stringent sentences upon conviction.
Maher said that it was worrying Araj had spent time in prison in the UK but the security services had then been unable to stop him travelling to fight in Syria.
“This blows the lid of the traditional idea that if you create a space for angry, quite radical protests in the UK, in London, it provides a channel through which angry young men can dissipate their energies, lest they be attracted into terrorism.
“This was very much the view that was dominant in parts of Whitehall and the police service,” he said.
The family said they had informed the Foreign Office of their son’s death. However the department said it had no record his death.
Commenting on general numbers, a government spokesperson said: “We are aware of 200 UK-linked individuals of concern who have travelled to Syria, but the true number is likely to be higher.”