BIRMINGHAM, Britain — Despite Syrian rebels’ insistence to the contrary, there is evidence to support Syrian government contentions that more foreign fighters are heading to Syria to fight a "holy war" against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
British photojournalist John Cantlie was crossing into Syria from Turkey with a guide and Dutch colleague two months ago when he was captured by jihadist fighters - some of them were fellow Britons.
According to Cantlie, they had stumbled across a camp full of armed opposition fighters. But they were not the Free Syrian Army. Cantlie realized he had found a training camp for "jihadist" foreign fighters.
“I knew within 10 seconds that we were in trouble," he said. "Within a minute… they were all speaking English, first of all. They were Chechen, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, British... I’d estimate between 10 to 15 of them were either British or of British origin… We talked with them a great deal, especially the British guys. One of them, an NHS [British National Health Service] doctor, kind of became our friend, he gave us intel [intelligence],” said Cantlie.
The group held the three men captive. Many of the British jihadists had distinct accents suggesting they were from the city of Birmingham, Cantlie said.
The city of a million people in central Britain has a large Muslim population. Among them - Syrian journalist Malik al-Abdeh, who confirmed John Cantlie’s account.
“I’m aware of around just under 10 young men from the Birmingham area going to Syria to fight with the Free Syrian Army, he said. "They are drawn to Syria out of partly humanitarian reasons, to help out their fellow brothers in Islam who are being killed and victimized in Syria, but also because they genuinely have a jihadist zeal. Before it was Afghanistan, it was Chechnya, Bosnia, and so on, so Syria is just one in a sort of tour of campaigns against those who are oppressing Muslims.”
The jihadists are not always welcomed by the Free Syrian Army, Abdeh added.
“They are wary of what they call the ‘Takfiri’ trend within the jihadist movement. The more extreme elements that don’t view the struggle in Syria as a struggle for democracy and freedom, but rather as a struggle to bring about an Islamic state.”
The Member of Parliament for Birmingham has raised concerns with the government about British nationals going to fight in Syria, warning that they could return as extremists.
Cantlie assumed he would be ransomed and likely killed. They tried to escape, but were shot and recaptured. Cantlie has the real Free Syrian Army to thank for his freedom.
“A week later, because our guide had raised the alarm, the Free Syrian Army - four of them - came in when the camp was very empty and rescued us,” he said.
Cantlie is planning to return to Syria to document the conflict.
He and other witnesses say Britons and other foreigners are heading there to fight 'jihad’ - coming from the streets of cities like Birmingham to the battlefields of Syria to join an increasingly complex opposition force.