London, United Kingdom – British volunteers delivering aid and ambulances to Syria face the double danger of being attacked by regime forces and arrested on suspicion of terrorism on their return home because of irresponsible comments by public officials linking them to jihadist groups, representatives of Muslim charities have warned.Convoys largely funded by donations from Muslim communities in the UK have been departing regularly for Syria since the conflict began in 2011. The vehicles, driven by volunteers, are usually ambulances loaded with medical supplies, food packs and other aid, which are donated to hospitals in the rebel-held north.
But charities running the convoys are coming under increased scrutiny amid widely reported claims that Britons intent on fighting have used them as cover to travel to Syria, and that some have attended “terrorist training camps” with a view to carrying out attacks in the UK.
Last month the Times newspaper reported that some small charities were fronts for extremist groups in Syria, citing unnamed British officials. The Charity Commission, which regulates British charities, also issued guidance warning that convoys “may be abused for non-charitable purposes and facilitating travel for British foreign fighters”.
Those concerns have been further heightened by reports that a British man, Abdul Wahid Majeed, alleged to have carried out a suicide attack on a prison in Aleppo, had travelled there as a convoy volunteer. Several hundred Britons are estimated to be currently fighting in Syria.
Risk of arrest
Officials including the UK’s chief terrorism prosecutor and the head of counter-terrorism policing have warned that Britons going to Syria now face being questioned and possibly arrested on their return, with dozens already held since the beginning of the year.
Those include Moazzam Begg, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee and human rights activist who travelled to Syria last year, who is due in court on Friday on charges of providing terrorist training and funding terrorism overseas.
“I understand the desire of people to want to help… But travelling out puts them at direct risk and indeed may mean they come into contact with extremist organisations linked to al-Qaeda and they may be radicalised and brutalised by the experiences they see. People should not travel to Syria,” James Brokenshire, the British security minister, said this week.
But Jahangir Mohammed, a spokesman for the charity Human Aid, said exaggerated reports about the number of Britons going to Syria to fight and their association with humanitarian organisations, were putting volunteers in additional danger by legitimising the Syrian government’s claim that the country’s civil war was fuelled by terrorists and foreign fighters seeking to destabilise the region.
“Every Muslim organisation or Muslim who goes to Syria is being viewed through the lens of terrorism,” Mohammed told Al Jazeera. “When the government says British Muslims are going there for these reasons [to fight or attend terrorist training camps] it may send the message that it is legitimate to attack these people. These comments are extremely irresponsible and they put charity workers at risk.”
Human Aid, which has focused on providing medical aid inside Syria, last year organised a convoy in memory of Abbas Khan, a 32-year-old doctor from London who died in a regime prison after being captured in Aleppo.
Mohammed said questions over the motives and integrity of volunteers failed to acknowledge the long history of humanitarian work in Muslim communities and the requirement of Muslims to fulfil charitable religious obligations.
“We’ve got thousands of Muslim doctors who give up their time and risk their lives, and in war situations a doctor is more important in saving life than a fighter. If you are a non-Muslim aid worker or doctor you are seen as a hero, but if you are a Muslim unfortunately your intentions are not seen as noble.”
Mohammed said convoy participants were regularly stopped and questioned under counter-terrorism powers on their departure from and return to the UK. Representatives of several charities told Al Jazeera their volunteers had also been visited at home by counter-terrorism officers.
“It can be quite a scary process,” Mohammed said. “Some have claimed they have been intimidated and threatened. It’s not a nice experience and it’s sending a message that Muslims shouldn’t go there.”
‘It’s not as easy as before’
Some charities are reluctantly heeding that message. Mohammed said Human Aid wanted to send more convoys but was currently reviewing the situation and the risk of their volunteers being arrested.
One charity worker, who did not want to be identified, said the organisation he worked for had stopped sending convoys and was concentrating on distributing aid to Syrian refugees in Turkey. “If taking nappies, or baby milk or clothes, to a refugee camp in Syria is helping the terrorists then it is a crazy world that we are living in. But everybody is jumping on the bandwagon of Muslims being terrorists,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mohamed Elhaddad, a veteran organiser of aid missions to Gaza and Libya, said he had been to Syria at least 25 times, delivering more than 350 vehicles and accompanying more than 1,000 people from the UK.
He acknowledged that a few Britons had travelled with convoys with the intention of fighting, and said other volunteers had signed up to fight after being emotionally affected by the suffering they had witnessed.
“Sometimes a few individuals go and join the jihad, but from that perspective they damage the profile of the pure humanitarian people like myself,” Elhaddad told Al Jazeera. “I have no interest in supporting jihad there. What is my mission? It is to help the people in need.”
Elhaddad said he had been questioned by counter-terrorism police or MI5 intelligence officers before and after virtually every convoy. He said he believed his long track record of aid work meant he could work without risk of arrest, although he acknowledged that “anything can happen” and nothing is certain as the UK government cracks down on travel to Syria.
And he said those who were not already on the security services’ radar would inevitably come under suspicion.
“I think all the intelligence people know who I am. That is my understanding and I know my file is quite big. But it is getting much harder for others to come. For the drivers, for the donors, for the collectors, for the fundraisers. It’s not as easy as before and that will prevent more donations reaching the needy people of Syria.”
When Al Jazeera spoke on the telephone to Movlana Abdullah Ahmed he was waiting on the Turkish side of the border as the final paperwork checks were being carried out on five ambulances he was to hand over to Syrian drivers for delivery to hospitals inside the country.
‘Crazy bad apples’
“A couple of hospitals don’t have any ambulances at all so it is a must that we help them out,” said Ahmed, whose charity operates under the name World Aid Convoy. “The British ambulances are some of the best around. They get well serviced and even when they are decommissioned we can put them back together.”
Like many other charities, World Aid Convoy currently considers the risks of sending its volunteers into Syria to be too great. Ahmed also said charities have a duty to vet their volunteers for “crazy bad apples” intent on causing harm. Like most organisers, he forwards a list of participants to police and border authorities to be checked prior to departure.
“You know the score here is that British Muslims and British charities are under the eyes of intelligence and police, and they are scrutinising every charity and every convoy that leaves England,” said Ahmed. “Regarding our own charity, we won’t associate ourselves with any rebel groups. The people we work with are the orphans, widows, refugees, hospitals and the most needy.”
Later, after the ambulances had been handed over, Ahmed said he and other volunteers had put a foot across the border before turning around to begin their journey home.
“All the authorities are warning you that if you’ve been to Syria you are going to be arrested. Ok, we’ve stepped into Syria. Are you going to arrest us now? If they are arresting people when they haven’t done anything wrong then there is something wrong with the system.”
A version of this article was originally published on Al Jazeera on 14 March, 2014.