PORTSMOUTH, England: Royal Navy sailors used to swagger out of this great seaport at the zenith of the British Empire, manning the warships and trading vessels that made this nation 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 President Bashar Assad.
Numbers alone might be a deterrent: Four or 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 Islamic State 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 of the congregation has chosen war instead.
“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 bucket, with most of the Syria-bound jihadis coming from the metropolitan sprawls around London and Birmingham. But Portsmouth’s problems are being replicated in dozens of similar small cities throughout Britain.
It’s 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 in Portsmouth 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 war, 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 miles (kilometers) of her son, she said he could not break free and get to the border. British officials believe Islamic State commanders will not allow disillusioned fighters to leave — and it is clear they would face arrest upon returning to Britain.
Hassan was killed in October in fighting in the border city of Kobani. His family learned about his death when a photo of his body was posted on Twitter.
His family released a statement after his death characterizing Hassan as “a loving boy with a good heart wishing to help Syrians. … This is a tragedy and a lesson.”
To prevent others from going, police are reaching out to the Muslim community so that parents who notice changes in their children’s behavior will be willing to contact the authorities, said Chief Inspector Alison Heydari.
“We want people who identify problems to feel they can trust police and make referrals to us,” she said. There have been some referrals, she said, declining to provide details.
In the past, Britain has seen several notorious preachers with known terrorist links use local mosques to kindle interest in jihad. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Portsmouth. No authorities accuse leaders of the Jami Mosque of urging Muslims to embrace violence.
Instead, they blame incendiary material easily found online.
“There is a lot being done on the Internet,” Jones said. “I think there’s targeting being done, aimed at young Muslim men. I think social media is very powerful now.”
She said it was likely that the late Iftekar Jaman, the first Portsmouth man to travel to Syria for jihad, found the support he needed online and then recruited others from Portsmouth.
Security officials agree that British mosques have in the last decade played a declining role in radicalization. At the same time, a generation gap has opened — with younger, better-educated Muslims using the Internet to pick up and exchange information.
Haque said he knows many of the parents whose sons went to fight — and that they were shocked by their sons’ abrupt departures. The parents had no idea their sons were interested in jihad and in retrospect believe they got the idea from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other Internet-based forms of communication.
“None of the older generation knew anything about it,” Haque said. “No parents can have control over this. They don’t know what their children are up to.”