CBS Foreign Correspondent Clarissa Ward has reported extensively from Syria since the beginning of the country’s uprising. Her coverage of Syria has earned her two Emmy awards, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Silver Baton and a George Foster Peabody Award.
Clarissa recently traveled undercover across the Turkish-Syrian border to meet two foreign fighters who left their lives in the West to fight the Assad regime. Although Ward has made almost a dozen trips to Syria since the start of the war, this was her first since Islamic State rebels beheaded two American journalists and two British aid workers.
Her interviews with Western jihadis provided a rare insight into what has motivated so many foreigners to travel to Syria. Intelligence estimates put the number of Westerners who have joined the jihadists militants as high as 3,000, with a total number of foreign fighters numbering in between 11,000 and 12,000. They have become a major concern for U.S. and Western security officials.
Clarissa shares her experience of reporting from Syria now, in a land riven by war and ISIS influence.
Syria Deeply: You’ve made 11 trips into Syria since the start of the uprising in 2011. How has it changed with each visit?
Ward: The situation in Syria is constantly shifting. There are different dynamics at play, different factors to take into consideration. You always have to be on your toes; never relying on how the circumstances were the last time you went in.
There is no question that the Syrians have been beaten down to the point that they can barely breathe any more. Just getting out of bed, putting one foot in front of the other, is a challenge. But they are survivors, they do go on with their lives, and you can see signs of life on the street. Shops are open, people are building houses … life goes on.
Syria Deeply: Syria is now the most dangerous place in the world for reporters. How has it become more difficult to cover the story over time? How has the emergence of ISIS changed how you can do your job?
Ward: It’s changed everything. Two and half years ago, people came up to me on the streets; women would kiss me on the cheek. They thought journalists were their heroes. They thought that by hosting us in their countries and risking their lives to take care of us, that our work would have an impact on the international community and bring about aid and assistance. What they were ideally hoping for was some form of intervention. When that didn’t happen, people’s attitudes towards journalists shifted towards suspicion.
Now, there is a level of fear. People don’t want to have anything to do with you because you are a target for ISIS and the regime, and therefore taking care of you or hosting you in anyway could be very dangerous for them.
The attitude towards journalists has changed for ordinary people. It’s obviously incredibly difficult for us now that ISIS is actively kidnapping and executing Western journalists. It’s very hard to move around Syria now. The only way to do it is under deep, deep cover with very few people knowing you are there.
Syria Deeply: You spoke to two western jihadis fighting in Syria, What was most surprising to you about that conversation?
Ward: The most striking thing when talking to both of them was the kind of schizophrenia that exists in both of them. On one hand, they espouse this very militant ideology and can say things very shocking to us, like talking about their love for Osama bin Laden. But at the same time, they are Western and are born and raised in the U.S. or Europe, so they share a lot of the same cultural values as people do in the West. It can be really jarring and striking to hear them say something horrifying and then the next minute hear them talk about a movie we have all seen, or referencing a part of popular culture we all know and love.
Syria Deeply: Why do you think we’ve seen such a sharp rise in the number of Westerners, traveling to Syria to fight?
Ward: In the beginning it was because of a perceived lack of intervention or help from the international community. I also think they felt a sense of duty to defend Syrians who were being bombed into oblivion. The problem is, that noble sense of wanting to help quickly morphed into something else. When you are living in an extreme war zone you become battle hardened, desensitized and radicalized quickly. What’s been striking to me in all my dealings with these jihadis in the past year is to see that without a doubt, the longer they spend in Syria, the more extreme they become.
Syria Deeply: Have any of them been shocked by ISIS’s brutal tactics and indicated that they want to go home?
Ward: I spent a lot of time talking to one jihadi who returned home because he was so shocked and appalled by ISIS’s tactics. I think, privately a lot of them would tell you that they don’t agree with ISIS’s tactics, particularly when it comes to killing other Muslims, but they are very cautious about acknowledging this in public. They live inside Syria where ISIS is the most powerful force, so they don’t want to be seen publicly challenging it. Even those who are critical of ISIS would still see ISIS as closer to them than the West at this stage.
A lot of them buy into this utopian vision of creating a caliphate where there will be none of the social ills we have in the West: no alcohol, no prostitution, gambling, no huge wealth gap. This is essentially Marxism under the veil of Islam. A huge part of the appeal of the caliphate is that everyone will have a house, a salary and a certain amount of food. You are essentially taken care of by the state. None of them can return home, and they know it.
Many of them also feel that this is their duty, religiously, to bring about prosperity and cement the foundation of the caliphate – they need to start families there, get married, and get their new lives under way.
Syria Deeply: Why do we see women accompanying men who are joining ISIS in Syria?
Ward: A lot of these girls are teenagers. They are young, impressionable and also looking for love. This is bedroom jihad, where a lot of these people are being recruited at home, online, at night, and their parents don’t know about it. With girls, many of them are falling in love with the romance of the story. The idea of religious warriors fighting to defend the Syrian people and uphold the word of God is a very powerful and compelling narrative, particularly for a teenage girl.
Syria Deeply: We generally hear so much news about ISIS, while Syria still faces a wider war. What do you think readers need to know and would do well to understand, when it comes to Syria as a whole?
Ward: Syria is such a complicated story: there are so many different groups, factions, the situation shifts constantly in different parts of the country. It is very hard for people who don’t know the story well or follow the news, to really understand what is going on there.
In some ways, the role of ISIS has filed a similar role to what gangs play in other countries. The people that go to join ISIS in Syria are often very young, impressionable, have mental problems or feel marginalized by society.
It’s important to understand what motivates these young people so that we can do a better job to prevent them from making these decisions. Even if they go there with noble intentions, things change very quickly on the ground once they are there. It becomes more difficult to help them and bring them back, the longer they are in Syria.