Strange Comrades: Non-Jihadist Foreign Fighters in Iraq & Syria

Simon De Craemer
Wie 'foreign fighter' denkt, denkt 'jihadist'. Met dit onderzoek wordt die misconceptie bijgesteld: ook aan de andere kant van het conflict bevinden zich honderden vrijwilligers van uiteenlopende nationaliteiten. Bijna 400 anti-jihadistische vrijwilligers bij Koerdische milities werden geanalyseerd om een beeld te schetsen van een onderbelicht fenomeen. Ook de problematische aard van de ontwikkelingen en het non-beleid van verschillende overheden worden onderzocht.

“Zolang je in de juiste richting schiet, maalt niemand erom”: Westerse vrijwilligers tegen Islamitische Staat

Eind vorig jaar bevond Ryan Lock zich op onbekend terrein: de Brit was stiekem van West Sussex naar Syrië gereisd. De vleesvork die hij hanteerde in het traiteursbedrijfje van zijn vader had hij al enkele maanden ingewisseld voor een Kalasjnikov, en zijn uitvlucht – een plezierreisje naar Turkije – had hij op zijn Facebookpagina zelf al ontkracht. In plaats van zich aan te sluiten bij jihadi’s bevond Lock zich echter aan de ándere kant van het conflict: als lid van de Koerdische YPG was hij verwikkeld in een vuurgevecht met militanten van Islamitische Staat. De pogingen om IS terug te dringen bleken echter te falen, en Lock besefte dat hij omsingeld was. Hij was twintig jaar oud toen hij zichzelf door het hoofd schoot.

Zoals Lock zijn er honderden Westerse vrijwilligers: via sociale media vonden zij al sinds het begin van het conflict hun weg naar lokale milities. Het betreft voornamelijk Britse en Amerikaanse twintigers, maar er zijn 39 verschillende nationaliteiten bekend – van Argentijnen tot Australiërs en van Japanners tot Noren. Zestien van de 366 vrijwilligers in de database zijn vrouwen, 33 vrijwilligers zijn reeds gesneuveld. In tegenstelling tot Westerse jihadstrijders wordt het fenomeen echter amper onderzocht: vaak wordt het voorgesteld als een gerechtvaardigde opoffering vol actie en heroïsme, enthousiast aangemoedigd op sociale media. De realiteit is echter minder eenzijdig.

Niet enkel altruïsme

Net zoals bij jihadstrijders betreft het een heterogene groep: er zijn dansleerkrachten, portiers, studenten, acteurs en elektriciens. Ook hun beweegredenen lopen uiteen: een groot deel wil zich gewapend tegen IS verzetten, anderen zoeken louter het avontuur op. Voor één veteraan die zijn relatie op de klippen zag lopen en zijn job verloor, was de keuze glashelder: “ik kon kiezen tussen dakloos worden of naar Irak terugkeren.” Andere veteranen willen hun gesneuvelde kameraden wreken of hebben moeite met het burgerleven. Maar ook minder koosjere motivaties liggen aan de basis van het fenomeen.

Sommige vrijwilligers worden gezocht voor misdaden die reiken van verkrachting tot het afranselen van een politieagent. Daarnaast zijn er beschuldigingen van oorlogstoerisme en lijkenpikkerij. Veel vrijwilligers oogsten immers niet alleen likes met hun sociale media, maar ook donaties via PayPal en crowdfundingplatformen. Vrijwilligers die online het talrijkst gevolgd worden, sluiten deals met fabrikanten van vizieren, holsters, en andere tactische uitrusting. In ruil voor een materiële donatie krijgen de producenten shout-outs en foto’s van hun producten in een actieve conflictomgeving. Tot slot zijn er lucratieve boekendeals met titels als Fighting ISIS: How One Ordinary Brit Went to War, en betalen nieuwsmedia riante vergoedingen voor GoPro-filmpjes die al dan niet in scène gezet zijn.

Radicalisatie: niet alleen voor moslims

Het risico op radicalisatie, rekrutering en naschokken buiten het Midden-Oosten beperkt zich niet enkel tot het jihadisme. Onder de anti-IS vrijwilligers zijn er bijvoorbeeld leden van de Spaanse Reconstrucción Comunista, een verbannen Marxistisch-Leninistische partij wier leider een celstraf uitzit wegens het bezit van explosieven en rekrutering voor de Koerdische PKK.

Maar ook aan de rechterzijde van het politieke spectrum is er reden tot bezorgdheid. Sommige Westerse leden van Dwekh Nawsha, een bij uitstek christelijke militie, gebruiken ondanks lokaal protest kruisvaarderssymboliek die gedeeld wordt door aanhangers van de ‘counterjihad’, een internationale anti-Islamitische beweging die bijval kent in extreemrechtse kringen. Zulke narratieven kunnen als inspiratie dienen voor gewelddadige terroristische aanslagen zoals die van Anders Behring Breivik. Bovendien zijn sommige vrijwilligers bij de Dwekh Nawsha gekende extreemrechtse activisten. De oprichter van de grootste Zweedse neonazipartij bijvoorbeeld; hij stond eerder al terecht voor de diefstal van de Arbeit Macht Frei-toegangspoort van vernietigingskamp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Ook de ideologische leider van Pánzer, een Valenciaanse neonazi-bende, is lid van Dwekh Nawsha en werd eerder opgepakt in het bezit van allerhande wapentuig.

Ongeacht hun politieke kleur keren deze foreign fighters ongetwijfeld terug met een versterkt netwerk en een uitgediepte kennis van guerrillaoorlogvoering en explosieven.

Lokale reacties

De Syrische regering weigert anti-IS vrijwilligers te erkennen: Bashar al-Assad stelt dat “buitenlanders die zonder toestemming van de Syrische overheid komen er illegaal zijn, ongeacht of ze terroristen of anderen bestrijden”. IS zelf heeft naar verluidt aanzienlijke prijzen geplaatst op de hoofden van gewapende buitenlandse vrijwilligers.

De YPG in Syrië verwelkomt buitenlandse vrijwilligers met open armen, ondanks het feit dat ze tactisch weinig toegevoegde waarde betekenen. In plaats daarvan zouden zij echter het esprit de corps hooghouden en worden ze vaak trouwe activisten voor de Koerdische zaak. Omdat media in hun thuislanden enthousiast interviews afnemen, bieden internationale vrijwilligers de Koerden een aanzienlijke groei in mediablootstelling: Koerdische officieren verzoeken vrijwilligers expliciet om interviews te doen en het Koerdische standpunt over te brengen.

De situatie is echter heel anders voor wie zich wil aansluiten bij de Iraakse Peshmerga. De officiële houding van de lokale Koerdische overheid is dat de Peshmerga geen vreemdelingen accepteert omwille van juridische en diplomatieke redenen, maar in de realiteit is de beslissing sterk beïnvloed door de complexe Koerdische factiepolitiek. Ook de slechte ervaringen met de vrijwilligers spelen mee: de buitenlandse strijders bleken al snel een allegaartje van onvoorspelbare personages. “Sommigen hebben geen betrokkenheid bij het anti-IS offensief laten zien, terwijl anderen deelnamen aan belangrijke gevechten en zich bewezen hebben als goede soldaten”, aldus een Koerdische bevelhebber.

Non-beleid

In vergelijking met de aanpak van jihadistische strijders is een strategie rond anti-IS vrijwilligers quasi onbestaande. Ook op Europees niveau is er een gapende leegte omtrent de vrijwilligers. Tot op heden werd nog niet besloten om anti-IS strijders formeel op te volgen. Ook een gerechtelijke uitspraak over de legaliteit van het fenomeen ontbreekt. Een Amerikaan die betrokken was bij de opleiding van een lokale eenheid formuleerde het westerse beleid kortweg door te zeggen dat "[overheden] er niet om malen, zolang je maar in de juiste richting schiet”.  

Hoewel IS met rasse schreden territorium verliest, toont het onderzoek aan dat er een wettelijk kader nodig voor transnationaal gewapend activisme bij niet-terroristische groeperingen. Het conflict in Syrië en Irak is immers niet het eerste, noch het laatste, waarbij transnationale groepen succesvol verzet zullen organiseren – en met een al even internationaal divers antwoord geconfronteerd worden aan de andere kant van het slagveld.

 

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Universiteit of Hogeschool
Politieke wetenschappen - afstudeerrichting: internationale politiek
Publicatiejaar
2017
Promotor
Marlies Casier
Kernwoorden