A young British man has been killed along with an American woman and another Western national during a gun battle in Syria, the main destination for young Muslims from this country wishing to take part in jihad abroad.
The Assad regime claimed that 22-year-old Ali Almanasfi, from London, Nicole Lynn Mansfield, 33, from Michigan in the United States, and their companion – who is believed to be a Canadian – were killed fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist group which had pledged allegiance to al-Qa’ida.
Graphic photographs of bodies, in Idlib province, alongside the passports and driving licences of Mr Almanasfi and Ms Mansfield, along with a bullet-marked car and the black flag of al-Nusra, were shown on state-run television in Damascus.
It has, however, been the policy of the regime to describe all opposition groups as Islamist extremists and tie them to al-Nusra, which has been prescribed as a terrorist organisation by the Obama administration.
As police visited Mr Almanasfi’s home in Acton, west London, a family member said that he had been in Syria for four months and out of contact for a few weeks. He added: “We are sitting tight to hear, but it looks like it could be him.” Kusai Noah, the brother of Mr Alamasfi’s wife, Bushra, said that a missing person’s report was made with the police after Ali first went missing several months ago.
More than 100 British Muslims have taken part in the bloody uprising against Bashar al-Assad. Not all have been fighters; Issa Abdur Rahman, a 26-year-old graduate of London University’s Imperial College who died last Wednesday, was treating injured people at a clinic when the building was shelled by regime troops.
Abu Hajer, a commander with the Suqur Al-Sham brigade, said that Mr Almanasfi and Ms Mansfield were with his fighters when they were killed in an engagement with the Shabiha, a militia from the Alawite community from President Assad and the ruling elite are drawn.
He said: “We had engaged in several shoot-outs with Shabiha forces, we launched an attack against a government checkpoint and managed to kill several Shabiha. Another group of rebels came from Al-Akrad mountains to join us. They wanted to avoid the centre of Idlib and took a back route through the suburbs. They didn’t know there was a Syrian army checkpoint there; the army shot up the car and the British guy was killed.”
The complex and changeable nature of rebel organisations can, at times, make it difficult to demarcate different between different groups. Suqour al-Sham has been described as Islamist, but not necessarily extremist. Its leader, Ahmed Abu Issa, has stated in a sermon that Muslims are losing their honour because they are abandoning jihad. But he has also maintained that his vision after the downfall of Assad would be of Syria as a moderate Islamist state.
Mohammed Ali Razaq, a rebel fighter from the Binesh area, said last night: “We have had quite a few brothers who have joined us from other countries because they want to get rid of the cruel Assad. I have seen some of them become influenced by jihadists and they change. They also know that jihadists like Al-Nusra are the most effective groups so they are attracted.”
Ms Mansfield, who was raised a Baptist, converted to Islam five years ago. Her aunt, Monica Mansfield Speelman, said the FBI had informed the family of the death. “I am just devastated, evidently she was fighting with opposition forces.”
On Facebook, Ms Mansfield’s daughter, Triona Lynn, posted a memorial message saying: “I will never forget everything you taught me. I wish I could honour in some other way but I have no control what happens to you now. I will try to not give up on life even though I really want to. I just want to see your face, hear your voice, and touch your skin again. But I’ll stay strong. And you will never be forgotten.”
The Britons fighting in Syria are drawn from a variety of national backgrounds. Only a handful of those who have returned from the fighting there have been arrested and all for a specific offence: their alleged role in the kidnapping of a British freelance photographer, John Cantlie, in Idlib province last summer. Others who have been taking part in the armed struggle against the Assad regime are not deemed to be doing anything illegal.
Unlike Pakistan or Somalia, the rebels in Syria are being backed by the British government which is sending aid including communications equipment and body armour to them and has declared that military supplies may follow in the future.