THE two young men in the bus from Antakya, in south-eastern Turkey, to Reyhanli, nearer the border with Syria, sported long beards, calf-length trousers and toted small drawstring bags with their minimal belongings. They spoke in broken Arabic to the bus driver (local Turks usually have a smattering of the language) but to each other in a regional British accent.
They were just two out of hundreds of Muslims from Europe, setting off to Syria to join the battle. That was two years ago. Since then, several thousand may have signed up—and the rate may be increasing. What do they do when they get there? And what might they do when they go home?
The effect of the swelling influx is apparent as the Islamic State (IS), a brutal extremist group in Syria and Iraq that has attracted most foreign fighters, stakes a claim to a swathe of territory that is the size of Jordan and embraces a similar population—6m or so.
Boastful combatants post well-scripted videos to attract their foreign peers, promising heaven for those who leave their lives of Western decadence to become “martyrs”.
They tweet “selfies” holding the severed heads of their enemies after photos of the luxuries, such as Red Bull, an energy drink, that are available to the fighters. And they issue threats to the West while using emoticons—smiling faces, for instance, formed by punctuation marks—and internet acronyms such as LOL.
IS has consolidated its hold on Raqqa, a town in eastern Syria that it snatched from other rebels who had themselves taken it over in March last year. Raqqa has become the headquarters for jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
Fighters from as far afield as Afghanistan and Sweden have brought their wives and children to the town and moved into the houses of residents who have fled. “Milk”, says a European fighter in northern Syria when asked what he misses about home. “Here you have to get it straight from the cow”. Harder than buying it at Tesco.
But junk food is in ample supply, tweets a Swedish fighter, more happily. And there is a lot of time, sometimes days on end, for “chilling”, says the European fighter on Kik, a smartphone messaging app. That is when he makes “a normal-life day: washing clothes, cleaning the house, training, buying stuff”.
Thanks to satellite internet connections, the continuing flow of goods into the country and the relatively decent level of development compared with elsewhere in the region, Syria is a long way from the hardship of Afghanistan’s mountains. Last year, to attract others to come, jihadists tweeted pictures with the hashtag “FiveStarJihad”.
Yet Western fighters do not shy away from battle. Some have taken part in slaughtering those labelled kuffar (unbelievers), including Sunnis deemed too moderate as well as Shia Muslims, who are all deemed apostates. They help fight for dams, military bases and oilfields. They carry out suicide missions such as the bombing in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, perpetrated in February by Abdul Waheed Majid, a Briton.
Westerners are useful for other reasons, too. Hostages released from IS’s clutches say they were guarded by three English-speakers. Foreign jihadists can e-mail the families of hostages in their own language to ask for ransoms.
Western fighters often seem to jump at the chance to take part in a fight or help build a new Islamic state. The Soufan Group, a New York-based intelligence outfit, reckons that by the end of May as many as 12,000 fighters from 81 nations had joined the fray, among them some 3,000 from the West (see chart).
The number today is likely to be a lot higher. Since IS declared a caliphate on June 29th, recruitment has surged. Syria has drawn in fighters faster than in any past conflict, including the Afghan war in the 1980s or Iraq after the Americans invaded in 2003.
The beheading on or around August 19th of James Foley, an American journalist, by a hooded fighter with a London accent, has put a spotlight on Britain. In the 1990s London was a refuge for many extremists, including many Muslim ones.
Radical preachers were free to spout hate. Britain remains in many ways the centre of gravity for European jihadist networks, says Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. “The radical community in Britain is still exporting ideas and methods.”
While the overwhelming majority of foreign fighters in Syria are Arabs, Britons make up one of the biggest groups of Western fighters. But Belgians, Danes and others have a higher rate per person (see left-hand chart above). France, which has tighter laws against extremism, has also seen more of its citizens go off to wage jihad.
One reason for Britons’ prominence is that English is so widely understood, especially in the countries whose governments IS hopes to influence. The video depicting Mr Foley’s murder was titled “A message to America”. IS has published two issues of Dabiq, a glossy new magazine in English, named after an area of northern Syria.