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British naval city rocked by Muslims joining IS

Updated: 2014-11-05 07:59
By Associated Press in Portsmouth, England (China Daily)

British sailors used to swagger out of this great naval port at the zenith of the British Empire, manning the warships that protected merchant ships and kept the shipping lanes of the world open to the trade that made Great Britain rich and powerful. Today a handful of young men are again leaving to go to war - but this time they have sworn allegiance to foreign terrorists.

It is a sign of the times that Portsmouth, with its tradition of naval glory, finds itself trying to persuade young British Muslims not to follow six locals who traveled to Syria to join forces with Islamic State extremists battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Numbers alone might be a deterrent: Four of the six are dead, one is in jail, and only one is still believed active on the battlefield. But police, political leaders and Islamic community activists believe those facts alone may not convince angry young men that joining the IS group - which has declared Britain an enemy - will destroy their lives.

The front of the mosque most of the young men attended before departing for Syria is decorated with an elaborate mosaic that says: "Peace Is Better." Syed Haque, chairman of the Jami Mosque's advisory council, is mystified that some members of the congregation have chosen war instead.

National threat

"All those boys went, they were university students, they were working," he said. "There was nothing in their faces showing they were miserable or had problems at home or weren't being looked after by their family."

"Everybody is talking about this now: How come we didn't know anything about it? Now that we know, what can we do? If those boys went, there could be other people thinking of doing it. How do we prevent that?"

Nationwide, British officials estimate that some 600 Britons have traveled to Syria to join the fighting. There have been official warnings that some have already come back to plot terrorist attacks inside Britain. The national threat level has been raised to "severe", indicating an attack is considered highly likely.

Police officers have been warned to be vigilant about their own safety. A fighter who returned from Syria was part of one British group accused of plotting a terror attack against police, and recent attacks in Canada and the United States against soldiers and police have made Britain wary.

Officials say the Portsmouth fighters, all of Bangladeshi origin, are just a drop in the ocean, with most of the Syria-bound jihadis coming from the metropolitan areas such as London and Birmingham. But Portsmouth's problems are being replicated in dozens of similar small cities throughout Britain.

It has been known for months that four young Portsmouth men left together - they were photographed on CCTV traveling through the airport headed for Syria. But the recent deaths of two of the men, and the arrest of a third on terrorist charges after he returned to Britain, have unnerved the city.

"This has really rocked the Muslim community here to its core," said Donna Jones, leader of the city council. "They didn't see the signs coming."

The group that has traveled to Syria has included those from families well-off and poor, she said. They ranged in age from 19 to 31.

Jones believes the urge to travel to Syria began with people feeling sympathy for Syrian civilians trapped in the civil conflict, then evolved into something more sinister.

The mother of 19-year-old Muhammad Mehdi Hassan had told British reporters that he wanted to come home. She said she went to the Turkish border to help him get out of Syria. Although she made it to within a few kilometers of her son, she said he could not break free and get to the border.

British officials believe IS commanders will not allow disillusioned fighters to leave - and it is clear they would face arrest upon returning to Britain.

 British naval city rocked by Muslims joining IS

Syed Haque, Bangladeshi community leader, stands in front of a mosque decorated with an elaborate mosaic that says "Peace Is Better", in Portsmouth, England. Alastair Grant / Associated Press

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