If any group could be said to have powerful enemies these days, it is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), making a certain amount of paranoia on the part of the organization and its leaders understandable. It is therefore not surprising that it has just made it harder for jihadist hopefuls to join the group in an effort to weed out spies.
The extremist organization has issued new instructions to Western recruits seeking to join the terrorist group, including the need to obtain a glowing reference from at least one sheikh known to ISIS leadership, according to Islamist leaders in London. The British Islamists informed Asharq Al-Awsat that ISIS recruits will now need this “recommendation” to be allowed into the fold.
The new instructions include detailed advice on what ISIS recruits should wear and carry with them when travelling to Syria and Iraq as well as pointers on how best to avoid detection. The recruits are told to avoid bringing religious books, but should not forget to bring their own cigarettes with them.
“Your clothes should not identify your religion and you should remain silent and not talk too much. The only thing people should know about you is that you are a normal traveler . . . and you should not give any detailed information about yourself,” went the advice.
The latest directives follow ISIS fears that Western intelligence organizations are seeking to infiltrate the group. This is the first time that ISIS has explicitly called for new recruits to provide proof of identity and the new rules mean that ISIS recruits will need at least one affiliated sheikh or recruiter to vouch for them. The instructions add that it would be even better if potential recruits have more than one “recommendation,” the Islamist sources told Asharq Al-Awsat.
The British government has significantly ramped up its counterterrorism efforts over the past year but is still failing to stop home-grown jihadists from travelling to the battlefield—around 500 Brits are believed to have traveled to Syria to join extremist groups.
One British Islamist leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Britons who previously joined ISIS are the ones who are providing patronage for the new recruits to come and join due to the absence of local [British] sheikhs with ties to ISIS.”
The source also explicitly named the Sharia4Belgium group as one of the groups that is providing references for fighters wishing to join ISIS, adding that dozens of Western recruits have joined ISIS after being endorsed by the group.
Sharia4Belgium is currently on trial in Antwerp, accused of enlisting youths to send to Syria.
The new ISIS orders call on recruits not to tell family members and loved ones of their intentions to travel abroad and to avoid mosques and other religious services before travelling, adding that new recruits should not travel directly to their destination. However, the instructions say that recruits can inform their family members of their decision to join ISIS after they have reached their destination and completed “basic training.”
In April, British counter-terrorism police launch an unprecedented campaign to persuade Muslim women to inform on family members planning to travel to Syria to fight. Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police recently said that there have been 66 missing persons reported to police by family members concerned their relative may have traveled to Syria.
Dozens of suspected jihadists have been arrested in the UK in the past months, with many awaiting trial. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has said that there are “a number of offences under English law with which returning foreign fighters can be charged,” including treason.
As for ISIS recruits who do not have anyone to vouch for them, the new instructions warn that ISIS will run “security checks” to ensure that they are who they say they are. “For those who don’t have sponsorship, you should be patient with the brothers’ security checks, and some parties completely reject accepting recruits who do not have recommendations, while others accept but only after you pass strict tests. After you join the brothers, try and save some money as you could need it to marry,” the guidelines say.
One fighter who has traveled to Syria on more than one occasion, and wished to remain anonymous, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the recommendation need not be in writing. “It could be a telephone conversation from one known extremist figure or sheikh . . . with an ISIS security official,” he said.
“This recommendation is like a guarantee that will allow the recruit access to the heart of these extremist organizations—whether ISIS or Nusra Front—without wasting time on security checks,” he added.
These “security checks” could last anywhere between three months and one year, he said.
Another fighter, an Arab who identified himself only as “W.A.”, told Asharq Al-Awsat that he traveled into Syria via Antakya in Turkey. “There are small hotels in Antakya that host the new recruits, and you cross the border into Syria officially or illegally. There are well-known areas where the border is unsupervised and you can cross the barbed wire fence without being monitored. The Turkish authorities do not prevent Arab nationals from entering Syria, but they immediately arrest anybody with ties to ISIS, if they have prior intelligence.”
He added that he himself had recently warned an Egyptian national in Antakya that he was dressed too conservatively, advising him to tone down his Islamist appearance until he could enter Syria and join up with an extremist group there.