Jihadists: Who they are; why none came from Sri Lanka’s East

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Stories on Jihadists and violence perpetrated by them pops up in news almost every day now, allowing media to rake up money by helping the terminally timid to remain frightened, which is their preferred state. They also help the defence industry to keep producing gadgets, which are completely unsuitable for fighting low-intensity wars that we are faced with.

But, there is little objective discussion on what kind of person becomes a jihadist, how to identify them, do most of them have combat value (apart from blowing themselves up) and what to do when you identify one, especially in a country like Sri Lanka, where 36 have joined ISIS and from urban areas (and none from the East), as I had earlier predicted. So, in the coming weeks, I plan to write a series of articles on these and I will start what kind of person becomes jihadist.

How do we define one?

One of the main problems of this discussion is the definition of the terms. What exactly is a jihadist? Most of the wars we associate with jihadists are conducted in the Muslim world and are mainly Muslim on Muslim. According to the book, Islam calls for peace between believers, but you’d have a very hard time finding any period in the history of the Islamic world, when appeals like that made any difference to the armed men on the ground.

But, let’s be honest, really no one cares too much about these conflicts. What get a lot of attention are the travelling jihadists, especially those who have left the West to fight in Syria. And if they are Caucasian converts to Islam, they get more coverage than their brown-skinned second generation migrant Muslim brothers looking for “Istishad,” martyrdom. Too bad for 36 Sri Lankans who went to Syria, who are neither blond nor come from the West, because no one really cares, except for about a few thousand extremists on both sides in the country.

Therefore, I would like to limit my analysis to those who migrate to another country to fight for Islam. But, even after narrowing the search to migrant fighters, you find that “the typical jihadi” is very hard to profile, apart from that jihadists are young men. That should come as no surprise because violence is a young man’s game.

All these jihadists, where do they come from?

Once you get past that and look at stats, the profile of a jihadist changes from country to country. In Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, jihadists are mostly from successful families. In the West the recruits fall into two groups, a handful of are young men with a family connection to jihad, and dregs of society.

This also indicates that jihadists from countries with a Muslim majority come from higher classes than those from countries where Muslims are a minority. This is mainly because in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (countries which are defined by their Islamic identity) jihad is very close to the national cause. Thus, like aristocratic youth who joined the Dragoons in Tsarist Russia, a lot of young men from well-to-do families in countries defined by their Islamic identity join ISIS.

It is hard to say much about the 36 jihadists who left Sri Lanka for Syria, because apart from Abhu Shuraih Sailani, the 37-year-old karate master from Galewela, we don’t know much about the others except that they are from Kurunegala, Kandy, Kolonnawa and Dehiwala. What was striking about this revelation that almost all of our defence analysts were predicting that Sri Lankan jihadists, if and when we would have them, would come from the Eastern Province. This is despite the fact that Muslim men in the Eastern Province get a lot of flak from everyone; for the ‘analysts’ it’s a Islamic Fundamentalist hot bed. The Sinhalese don’t really care about the poor sods there and no Muslim woman from outside the Province wants to marry from anyone there.

However, none so far have been reported from there. A few weeks before it was revealed where Sri Lankan jihadists originated, I wrote a column stating that jihadists would come from more urbanized areas, where youth can be more exposed to radical Islamist propaganda via the internet and live boring mundane lives.

One other distinguished feature about jihadists is how ordinary they are. Before assuming the jihadist avatar most of these activists lived boring mundane lives. For example statements on our own Abhu Shuraih Sailan by those who knew him remember him for his ordinariness. What is different about Sailan is that he was around 36 when he joined ISIS, whereas many outsiders who join ISIS are in their teens or early 20s. So, my bet is that his decision to join the ISIS can also be related to a midlife crisis.

So, broadly speaking, jihadists are men who lived boring lives, before being radicalized at a certain point in their lives. While that is a huge spectrum, these activists can be identified, with relative ease, if the Governments invested on troop training, language and cultural skills, intelligence and building links with Muslim communities.

Courtesy : Ceylon Today

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