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Al-Qaeda in Syria Recruiting Foreign Fighters Online
By Waleed Abu al-Khair

Shortly after the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Abdul Hakim Mawwas, an Australian of Lebanese descent, began to follow the daily news and activity of the opposition.

He went first to international news agencies, news websites and satellite television stations, then moved to Facebook when pages linked to Syrian revolution co-ordination committees began to emerge.

"These pages were disseminating the news with objectivity," Mawwas, 32, told Al-Shorfa via Skype. "Most of them were calling for peaceful [action] and later began calling on the Free Syrian Army to protect civilians."

"My cousin shared my interest, which increased after he corresponded with the people in charge of those pages," he said.

Over time, however, some of those pages began urging readers to engage in "jihad" in Syria, Mawwas said, adding that some of the sites belonged to al-Qaeda-linked groups such as the "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant", Jabhat al-Nusra and others.

Extremist groups are increasingly relying on social networking sites to entice potential recruits into traveling to Syria and joining their ranks, experts say. The target audience of these groups are young men aged 18 to 25, who heavily use these sites and can be easily manipulated.

"My cousin and I used to spend long hours discussing those pages and their real motives, especially after those in charge of them began asking for financial support and conducting fundraisers for the rebels, then began talking about 'jihad' and the necessity to participate in it as a sacred religious duty," he said.

"While I took a firm stand against these ideas, my cousin fell in the trap and answered their call, leaving unexpectedly to Lebanon about seven months ago," he said. "There has been no news of him for the past few months."

His cousin was deaf to his parents' attempts to dissuade him from going and he kept repeating slogans al-Qaeda uses to brainwash the youth, Mawwas said.

'Thousands' of foreign fighters in Syria

Al-Qaeda-linked groups have recruited foreign fighters to join their cause in Syria by contacting fighters directly, issuing fatwas sanctioning "jihad" and promoting their ideology via online forums and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, experts told Al-Shorfa.

The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College, London, last week estimated that between late 2011 and this month, as many as 11,000 foreigners went to Syria to fight alongside the opposition.

Around 80% of these fighters are Arabs and Europeans, with most coming from Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Lebanon and Libya, the report said.

In April, the centre estimated that around 600 Western Europeans, most from France, Belgium and Britain, had travelled to Syria to fight since March 2011, and tripled this figure in its latest estimate.

"Facebook pages play a significant role in manipulating the minds of the youth, as 'jihad' has become the subject of debate for many of them," Mawwas said.

As with his cousin, those drawn to the sites are in danger of becoming "completely brainwashed, with all their thinking and behaviour changed", he said. Recruiters target the young

There are two types of social networking accounts associated with jihadists fighting in Syria, said Mazen Zaki, director of the new media division at Ibn al-Waleed Studies and Field Research Centre in Egypt.

"The first type of account is managed by online crews of these jihadist groups whose task is to publish the group's news and calls for fighting and 'jihad', with a focus on communication with immigrant and Western youth," he said.

"The second type includes jihadists' personal accounts, especially foreign jihadists who were recruited to fight, to which they regularly post their pictures and communicate with their friends to entice them to join," Zaki said.

Jihadist and terrorist groups have taken notice of the effectiveness of social media and are using it to promote their ideas and recruit young people, he said.

In the past, these groups published their ideas in newsletters they distributed via e-mail, then moved to online forums, YouTube and video clips, Zaki said.

Now they are using Twitter and Facebook and other applications currently in vogue, he said, adding that "the target audience is young people aged 18 to 25".

Battle images and photos of individual jihadists often are posted to these sites because "photos have a great impact on viewers", Zaki said.

Jihadists are exploiting social media

Jihadist groups are exploiting social media to spread their misguided ideas due to its popularity among the young, said Sheikh Abdul Zahir Shehata, a lecturer at Al-Azhar faculty of sharia and law.

These groups attract young people to fight in Syria "by using religion and promoting 'jihad duty' by means of politicised fatwas that have no basis in the truth", he said.

"The responsibility here lies with both parents and clerics to educate and explain what is really happening on the ground in Syria, raise political awareness and explain the truth about these extremist groups, which exploit religion in the worst of ways," Shehata told Al-Shorfa.

"A huge responsibility also lies with the governments of all countries to raise awareness among young people and to monitor and inquire into the destinations of young travellers and the reasons for their travel to hotspots such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon," he said.

Some Arab countries have started to prosecute those caught recruiting youth to fight in armed conflicts.

Last week, a criminal court in Riyadh sentenced two men to three-year prison terms, four-year travel bans and 70 lashes after convicting them of "planning to travel to areas witnessing armed conflict in order to fight, co-ordinating efforts to convince young people to fight", and of possessing information, pictures and videos of al-Qaeda leaders.

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