Inside the Foreign Fighter Pipeline to Syria: A Case Study of a Portuguese Islamic State Network.

AuthorPinto, Nuno Tiago
PositionCase study

Message to America. The Islamic State is making a new movie. Thank u for the actors." Posted on Twitter and Facebook on July 10, 2014, by Nero Saraiva, a self-professed Portuguese Islamic State fighter already on the radar of Western security services, the cryptic message received little attention. (1) But 40 days later, it gained an entire new meaning. On August 19, 2014, the Islamic State published a four-minute, 40-second English video on the internet. (2) Its title: "Message to America." Its content: the shocking murder of American journalist James Foley.

British and Portuguese intelligence officials eventually came to the conclusion that Saraiva's post on social media was no accident, but that he had advanced knowledge of James Foley's fate and might have been involved in the production of Islamic State videos. (3) Saraiva had arrived in Syria in April 2012 (4) as one of the first Euforeign fighters to join the conflict. He allegedly became part of a group responsible for a wave of kidnappings of Western citizens (5) and became close to the British jihadis known as the "Beatles" (a) led by Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State executioner known as 'Jihadi John.' (6) While in Syria, Saraiva maintained several social media accounts where he shared images of his daily life in the jihadi battleground: pictures of weapons, armored cars, and Islamic State flags were mixed in with mundane images of landscapes, cats, horses, and food. (7)

In Syria, according to the author's investigative reporting and court documents, Saraiva was the most senior member of a jihadi network of Portuguese nationals who joined the Islamic State. (8) The group had bonded in London, to where they start moving in the early 2000s, and had become radicalized under the influence of hate preacher Anjem Choudary (9) and the online preaching of Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. (10) The network included several sets of brothers (b) and childhood friends, all with roots in former Portuguese colonies in Africa. According to court documents, in the United Kingdom they had lived on welfare state benefits and had been able to create a scam that allowed them to obtain thousands of pounds in state subsidies, which they used to travel to Syria, recruit several British jihadis, and support Nero Saraiva's activities in Syria. (11)

Aside from Nero Saraiva, the other key figures in the Portuguese jihadi network were Sadjo Ture, a recruiter and treasurer; (12) Edgar Costa, an ideologue and trainer; (13) and his brother Celso Costa, who appeared in several Islamic State propaganda videos. (14) Edgar Costa, Celso Costa, and Sadjo Ture first traveled to Syria in April 2012 with Nero Saraiva. (15) But while Saraiva stayed in northern Syria, the two Costa brothers and Sadjo Ture returned to Europe in August that year. (16) The network would then expand to include Portuguese nationals Fabio Pocas and Sandro Marques, who were also living in London at the time and were unknown to the authorities. (17) Between 2013 and 2014, the five of them traveled to Syria with their respective wives and children and were reunited with Saraiva. (18) Two other alleged members of the network, Cassimo Ture and Romulo Costa, remained behind, in Portugal and the United Kingdom, respectively.

All eight (see Figure 1) were charged with terrorism-related offenses by prosecutors in Lisbon and are expected to be put on trial in September 2020, with all but two likely to be tried in absentia. (19) Romulo Costa is currently detained in Portugal; Cassimo Ture is awaiting trial while at liberty in the United Kingdom. (20) Sadjo Ture, Edgar Costa, Celso Costa, Sandro Marques, and Fabio Pocas have died while fighting for the Islamic State, intelligence and police authorities believe. (21) But without conclusive evidence of their deaths, prosecutors decided to charge them in absentia. (22)

Saraiva was also charged in absentia. Despite being the first to arrive in Syria, Saraiva was apparently the only one of the adult male travelers to survive the fall of the Islamic State. In March 2019, he was arrested by the Syrian Democratic Forces after he left Baghouz severely injured. (23) Then, in early 2020, he was transferred to coalition forces' custody in Iraq (24) and is considered a key element to clarifying what happened to Western hostages like British photojournalist John Cantlie and American reporter James Foley. (25) He could face the death penalty in Iraq or be extradited to Portugal to stand trial for his crimes. (26)

This article provides detailed insight into how one group of European foreign fighters operated prior to their travel to Syria and their contacts, plans, relationships, and lives in the Islamic State. It starts by explaining how a group of childhood friends from the outskirts of Lisbon became radicalized in the United Kingdom and how they proceeded with their intentions to join a jihadi group by traveling first to Tanzania and then to Syria in early 2012. It will detail how one of them remained in Syria while the others returned to Europe where they became the target of a police investigation in Portugal and the United Kingdom and how the then absence of legislation in Portugal criminalizing foreign fighter travel allowed several to return to Syria to join what would become the Islamic State. This article will also describe how investigators were able to track their steps and status in Syria through online monitoring, shedding light on the environment in which such foreign fighters operated. The article concludes by examining the foreign fighter recruitment pipeline between Europe and Syria and the challenges counterterrorism officials had in shutting it down.

The information presented here is the result of six years of investigative reporting by the author in Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Finland, (27) and is based on more than 10,000 pages of judicial documents, as well as interviews the author conducted with counterterrorism and intelligence officials, witnesses, one alleged member of the network (Pocas) while he was with the Islamic State, and several relatives of the eight-man group.

The UK Radicalization of a Portuguese Friendship Group

Sadjo (c) and Cassimo (d) Ture, Sandro Marques, (e) and the brothers Romulo, (f) Edgar, (g) and Celso Costa (h) were childhood friends. They lived in the county of Sintra in the outskirts of Lisbon, went to the same school, and shared a love for soccer and music. In the late 1990s, Sadjo Ture and the three Costa brothers were part of a hiphop group called Greguz du Shabba (28) and spent afternoons in their family apartment, improvising rhymes about racism, poverty, and social exclusion, while practicing break dance moves. (29)

The Costa brothers, who were Portuguese nationals of Angolan descent, and Sandro Marques, a Portuguese national of Cape Verdean descent, (30) were raised in Catholic families. (31) Sadjo and Cassimo Ture, Portuguese nationals whose family originated from Guinea-Bissau, were the only ones in the alleged eight-man network raised in a Muslim family. (32) One by one, the Sintra group started immigrating to the United Kingdom to study and work. The first to move was Sadjo Ture, around 2003. (33) He went to live in an apartment on Creighton Road in north London, in a building mostly occupied by immigrants, and would later move to a tower block in the east London district of Leyton. (34) In 2005, he was joined by his older brother, Cassimo Ture. (35)

Sandro Marques and Romulo and Celso Costa followed them not long after. (36) Edgar Costa stayed in Portugal until after he finished his marketing degree in Porto, and by 2007, he had also moved to London, along with his girlfriend. (37)

It was in the British capital that some years later the Sintra group met Nero Saraiva (i) and Fabio Pocas. (j) Both, like the Costa brothers, had Angolan origins. (38) Born in Angola, Saraiva at age three moved to Portugal with his mother to escape civil war. (39) He went to a Catholic school until his mother moved to the United Kingdom (40) where his name appears on the electoral roll from 2003. (41) Pocas was the youngest of the group. Born in Angola, he was raised in the outskirts of Lisbon. At 16, he went to live with an aunt in London (42) to study arts and play soccer. (43) He enrolled in a Muay Thai gym where he met the rest of the group. (44)

The Portuguese London friendship group would gather to play soccer in public parks and watch Portuguese soccer games in a Portuguese cafe. (45) The circumstances are not clear, but at some point, the non-Muslim members of the group converted to Islam. Very little is known about how the group as a whole became radicalized.

Sadjo Ture, who had resided in London the longest, at a certain point came to admire the hate preacher Anjem Choudary, (46) and the rest of the Portuguese group came to share these views. (47) In a later search of the Costa family residence in Lisbon, the police found CDs and DVDs with preachings and writings by the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and, among others, a PDF copy of Join the Caravan, the book authored by Abdallah Azzam, the Palestinian cleric who led the mobilization of Arab fighters to Afghanistan in the 1980s. (48)

The Portuguese group stopped drinking alcohol, going out at night, and playing music. (49) Gradually, they drifted away from the remaining Portuguese community in Leyton. "They spent a lot of time talking about religion and reading the Quran. They stopped playing soccer with us and started playing with each other. They started to learn Arabic and from time to time they came to us talking about religion," a person who had once been friends with them told the author. (50) What is certain is that by around 2010, most of them were already radicalized (51) and had two goals in mind: to join a jihadi movement (52) and to marry and have children. (53)

Travel to East Africa and Syria

According to court documents, in early 2010...

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