The martyrs of Louth and Meath
Mohammed Busidra, a sheikh in eastern Libya, shares this concern. He has been contacted by several people about relatives who have gone to Syria. They include one distraught father whose 15-year-old son left to join the rebels. He says the issue has become so pressing that he has raised it with Libya’s interior minister.
Some in Libya and Ireland blame Mehdi al-Harati for encouraging people to go to Syria. Liwa al-Umma’s Facebook page, which has been shut down, featured a video clip of the late Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian religious scholar who provided the theological underpinning for the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, outlining when jihad becomes fard ayn, meaning an individual duty. A message bylined by Harati contained an invitation to “join the jihad in the land of al-Sham”, a reference to Syria.
Harati became embroiled in controversy in late 2011 when an Irish tabloid alleged, citing anonymous sources, that he had received money from US intelligence, a claim he firmly denied. He formed Liwa al-Umma early last year after several Syrians, aware of his experience as a rebel commander in Libya, approached him about establishing a brigade in Syria. The brigade draws on a network of private donors in Syria and across the Middle East and north Africa for finance.
Harati and a number of other Libyans involved in setting up Liwa al-Umma have not been back to Syria since last autumn when Turkish authorities informed them they were no longer allowed to enter Turkey.
“Liwa al-Umma now has very few foreigners in it, perhaps around 10 maximum,” Harati says. “It is now under the command of a Syrian and consists mostly of Syrians.”
Harati says he was sad to hear of Gaidan’s death, because he was so young, but he describes it as “a great thing” that the teenager was “martyred for a cause, fighting a criminal like Bashar”.
He says Gaidan was not involved with Liwa al-Umma and he knows nothing of how the schoolboy got to Syria.
“Some people are angry with me, but this is not fair,” Harati says. “The people going to Syria are not babies; they are 17 or 20 or 22 or older. They can make their own decisions. I never encouraged people to go to Syria, but I can’t stop them. My view is that people should go in an organised way, not independently.”
Harati’s Irish-born brother-in-law, Housam Najjair, was also involved in Liwa al-Umma. Now back in Ireland, where he has been writing a book about his experience of fighting during the Libyan revolution, Najjair says the news of Gaidan’s killing stirs “bitter-sweet” feelings for him.
“I strongly believe that this would not be an issue if the international community was standing by the people of Syria as they did in Libya. Now it is not just al-Qaeda and other groups we have to worry about filling the vacuum, due to porous borders and lack of security, but also rising numbers of young men and teens. The more people such as Shamseddin learn about the regime’s massacres, the more they feel compelled to do something where others have failed.”
Hudhaifa ElSayed looks down from a huge banner that adorns the hallway of his family’s home in Donacarney. The ElSayeds, like the Gaidans, fear they will never get their son’s remains back, but their grief is laced with pride.
“As a mother, of course I wish Hudhaifa had stayed with us. He had so much potential,” says Asmaa. “But I do not regret what he has done, because he went to Syria for an honourable reason.”
Abdel Basset nods in agreement. “If he died in an accident I would feel more sadness,” he says. “But we know he died for a great thing.”