This article, originally an ebook published by Newsweek Insights, is reprinted here courtesy of the author. Listen to Alex Perry discuss this story on the Longform Podcast.
Preface: January 2015
The murder of journalists, cartoonists and police officers at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, and the ensuing events in and around the city, focussed international attention not just on France but also the question of what it is that attracts some people of Muslim heritage (mostly young men, but sometimes young women too) raised in secular, western societies, to take up radical causes and commit criminal, violent acts at home and abroad.
I researched and wrote this book during the second half of 2014. Publication has been brought forward in response to last week’s events in Paris. The main focus is Ifthekar Jaman, a self-selected British-born enthusiast with no training who travelled to Syria at his own instigation and at his own expense, and died there within a year. There are some similarities between his early life and that of Cherif Kouachi, 32, the French jihadi who, with his 34-year-old brother Said, shot dead 12 people at the offices of the satirical magazine in Paris. But in other ways Kouachi conforms more closely to the pattern of a militant proactively recruited and trained by others using techniques, which are also examined in this book.
Like Ifthekar Jaman, the Kouachis’ parents were immigrants, in this case from Algeria. Like him, too, the brothers were members of a da’wah proselytising group and grew up in a small regional city, in their case, Rennes in Brittany, western France. But unlike Jaman, who came from a stable family, the Kouachi brothers were orphans, raised by foster parents. Cherif was also not a pious boy, as Jaman had been, but an aspiring rapper and, according to his lawyer, more a “pot-smoker from the projects than an Islamist”. “He smokes, drinks, doesn’t sport a beard and has a girlfriend before marriage,” said Vincent Ollivier at Cherif’s first court case for terrorism offences in 2008. Cherif himself told the court: “Before, I was a delinquent.”
That early history and Cherif’s subsequent embrace of doctrinaire violence fits a well-established progression in which a recruiter targets troubled youngsters and presents righteous Islamist militancy as their salvation. Cherif’s transition took a decade and he made it with the help of a group of Paris jihadis and Farid Benyettou, a young self-styled preacher whose local mosque in the city had ejected him for his radicalism. The 2008 trial followed Cherif’s arrest for attempting to travel to Iraq in 2005. In 2010 he was arrested again, accused of plotting to free Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, an ethnic Algerian who injured 30 people when he set off a bomb in the Paris Metro in 1995. His brother Said was also detained at the time, but after three months the pair were released for lack of evidence. One man jailed in that case was Amedy Coulibaly, who was freed from prison only two months before the Charlie Hebdo attack and who, the day after, killed a policewoman in Paris, then four more people at a Paris supermarket the next day.
When Cherif was first arrested in 2005, like Ifthekar Jaman he had no military training. The proficiency of the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices – in which the brothers executed 10 people in five minutes after reading out their names, then gunned down two policemen in the street outside, then eluded a massive manhunt for two and a half days – suggest that had changed. Credible reports have one or both of the brothers travelling to Yemen in 2011 to train with al-Qaida in the Arabic Peninsula. But in at least one sense, the Kouachis, Amedy Coulibaly and Ifthekar Jaman were the same. They all anticipated a glorious death. “Farid told me it is written in the scriptures that it’s good to die as a martyr,” Cherif said in court in 2008. “Thanks to Farid’s advice, my doubts evaporated. He provided justification for my coming death.”
My research uncovered how the binary positions adopted by both the jihadis and the countries increasingly frightened by them, have opened up a chasm of misunderstanding in which the truth has been lost. Both sides tell elaborate myths, about themselves and the world, which make any engagement with the other all but impossible. They speak past each other. It is the purpose of all journalism to pierce the murk, expose the fantasists and elucidate some truth. Mostly that’s a fairly civilised process but the Charlie Hebdo assassinations remind us of the seriousness of the task. Because make no mistake: these stories can kill.
A glossary of definitions of the Islamic phrases used, particularly in reported interviews, can be found at the rear of the book.
London, January 2015
1: Once upon a time
Once upon a time, not so long ago, in a land not far away, a British man who would become an icon to a generation of European Islamists fighting and dying in Syria and Iraq, sat down before a webcam in his parents’ modest home on England’s south coast and filmed a 90-minute tutorial on how to tie a turban …
The image was blurry and badly lit, but sharp enough to reveal the figure of a young man with extravagant black hair. To the back and sides, it fell in long, thick loops, tumbling onto the upturned collar of a docker’s jacket where it executed a final exuberant ski-jump. The front was more delicate: single, thin strands tipping like poured water down over his forehead, past his black eyes, his noble nose and full mouth, extending to his black beard. Ifthekar Jaman looked like a musketeer. Like Robin Hood. Like Che Guevara. And that was no accident. Staring directly ahead, Ifthekar examined his image, then ran his fingers through one side of his hair before turning to the other and smoothing it. “As-salamu alaykum,” he said. Then he added: “Okay… er… I thought I’d do a little tutorial on, er, turbans ‘cos a couple of brothers – I wonder if he’s watching – er, @ReflectionofIslam is a brother that asked can I do a tutorial so I thought yeah, man, might as well …”
Ifthekar checked how he looked again and smoothed his hair several more times. He regarded his smartphone, mouthing the words as he read them. “Hafee-m-m-munee,” he pronounced. “Hafid Munir,” he corrected. “Are you watchin’? I’m doing this tutorial for you. @me, @me, so I know.” With no audience, there was no point to the tutorial, and maybe not to anything, so Ifthekar waited in silence, watching himself on screen. He folded his fingers in a steeple and brought them to his lips. His hair still wasn’t right, so he went back to stroking it and puffing it and ruffling it and flattening it. “Hair’s really crazy, man,” he tutted, as though someone was watching – which, after several minutes, they were. “Cool, man, ’preciate it,” said Ifthekar, smiling at his phone. Then picking up a white Muslim cap, he cleared his throat and began. “Alright,” he said. “OK. So. First of all, you need a hat …”
Ifthekar Jaman was 22. His parents, Enu Miah and Hena Choudhury, were first-generation immigrants from Bangladesh. Arriving in 1981, the couple settled in Hudson Road in Portsmouth, a few streets from where Charles Dickens was born and a 20-minute stroll back from the old navy docks where Nelson set sail for Trafalgar. Like hundreds of Bangladeshi émigrés, Enu and Hena opened a takeaway selling kebabs, biryani, tandoori and chips with curry sauce, and free delivery on orders of more than £6. The name they gave their business, St Mary’s Kebab & Masalla, captured the integration – the multiculturalism – that was the shared hope of the British state and the hundreds of thousands of new citizens it assimilated from its former colonies in the half century after empire.
Portsmouth gave Enu and Hena the essential elements of a new, prosperous life: a decent living, a home, free hospitals, and free schools for their four children. But Portsmouth was a hard place to love. Hudson Road was one of hundreds of drab, treeless terraces ordering human life into neat, grey rows that ringed the city and one of tens of thousands like it in regional towns across Britain with names like Luton and Droitwich and Slough. The high streets of these towns, some bombed out during the Second World War, some without even that excuse, were filled with the same dreary architecture and cheerless enterprises that lined Portsmouth’s Commercial Road. Poundland, Iceland, Carpetland. There was Primark, whose clothes were made in the windowless garment houses back in Bangladesh. There was Galley Discount Stores, which hung T-shirts celebrating misery in its windows. “I Don’t Need Sex: the Government Screws Me Every Day” read one. “Parental Advisory: Don’t Have Kids” warned another.
Enu represented the family out in this English world. Hena lived more of an expatriate existence, moving between the few spots in the city – Asian stores, the Jami mosque, her kitchen – where her Bengali was understood. Her disinclination to learn English was partly due to her lack of schooling but partly a statement of sorts, about culture and tradition and tenacity and pride in this country of unearned affluence and extravagant complaining. Enu and Hena fretted they might lose one of their three sons to the tide of obliterated young Englishmen that staggered through the doors of St Mary’s Kebab & Masalla on Fridays and Saturdays. There were also the cheap, grubby escapes on offer at the southern end of Commercial Road: a nightclub called Heaven, a strip club called The Fuzzy and, tucked away behind blacked-out windows under a small pink and blue “Adults Only” neon sign, a porn store.
Tamannah was the couple’s eldest child and only girl, after whom came the boys: Tuhin, Ifthekar and baby Mustakim. Of all of them, Ifthekar was the dreamer. Like many English kids, as a boy he liked to lose himself in stories of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. That was fine, as far as it went. But these were British stories and British cultural mythology; and Hena, especially, didn’t understand them and neither she nor Enu really trusted them. So when Ifthekar was 11 they sent him for a year’s Islamic instruction at a private school in London. It seemed to work. Ifthekar stuck with his Bengali traditions. By the time he left school and got a job answering phones in a call centre for Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV, he was a polite and sober young man, popular with colleagues and calm with customers, even when one asked if his name was pronounced “I’m a fucker”. On Saturdays, he even volunteered at a da’wah stall in Commercial Road, where he and other respectable boys from the neighbourhood handed out Qur’ans to passers-by and talked to them about Allah and prophet Muhammad in a yellow T-shirt which asked “Is life Just A Game?” with the “I” in “Life” in the shape of a bottle and a silhouette of a naked woman reclining on the “E” of “Game”, like one of Charlie’s Angels.
Ifthekar, however, hadn’t stopped dreaming. On the contrary, for him Islam had become the foundation for a powerful new adventure fantasy. Online he began to sketch out a new narrative for himself as a Muslim warrior-hero. Ostensibly this was about religious piety. Some would also have spotted signs of radicalism. “I really like Osama bin Laden, I’ll be honest,” said Iftekhar, just like that, in the middle of his turban tutorial. But mostly Ifthekar was just playing at imagining a new identity for himself, trying it on for size, acting it out – above all, looking the part. That was the simple and beautiful truth about surrendering to Islam, said Ifthekar. With all Islam’s prescriptions on how to be and what to eat and how to look, how you looked was who you were. To Ifthekar, bin Laden looked “like a really nice guy, a genuine cool guy”, so therefore he was. “He kept his beard here,” said Ifthekar, indicating his cheekbones. “I like the natural flow too.”
That was the point of Ifthekar’s turban tutorial. The look was paramount and, for 90 minutes, Ifthekar never strayed from the subject of appearance. He talked about how his grew his hair long, and grew his beard, and how some girls might not like it, might not marry him because of it, but that was alright, that was his beard acting as “my filter, man”, weeding out the impure and undesirable. He showed the camera how he slicked his hair and beard with olive oil. He demonstrated how he applied kohl to his eyelashes with a sharpened matchstick. He showed his audience a Japanese sword he’d bought and filmed himself staring at the screen, holding the blade beneath his eyes and unsheathing it while he roared like a ninja. Ifthekar had a pronounced underbite, making his tongue seem too large for his mouth, and when he smiled, he’d slap a palm across his face and say his smile was uglier than the ugliest face he could pull. But when he was serious, he looked good and he knew it, and much of the 90 minutes was taken up with Ifthekar practising his stony face, all deadly kohl eyes and creased hero’s brow.
If even thinking of any kind of sex outside marriage hadn’t been haram, you might have wondered whether Ifthekar was gay. He talked about a wife more as a duty than a desire and would scold young Muslim girls who told him he was beautiful. His blogs and tweets and video streams and Facebook posts were rarely addressed to girls and Ifthekar unfollowed any of them who posted pictures of themselves with their faces uncovered. But when the boys said he looked great, Ifthekar was unrestrained about how much he loved them right back, often spinning off into rhapsodies about his deep feelings for the brothers. “I swear – you know what? – I love you brothers,” he would say. “I just want you to know. I love you brothers so much. It’s something I’ve never seen before. I wish us lot, us brothers, we could, like, we could get some land and stuff and do Khilafah, all of us. Honestly. Alhamdulillah.” And if Ifthekar was not all that articulate and easily distracted, going off on tangents about his pet cat, with which he played for hours, and how he liked to plait his hair and his beard, though he wasn’t sure whether beard-plaiting was haram, and maybe one of the brothers watching could let him know, though he was pretty sure plaiting chest hair was not only haram but impossible too – so that it took him 90 minutes to show you how to tie a piece of cloth around your head – despite all that, he was modest and had that easy-going, slightly feminine charm of 21st-century southern England and it wasn’t long before he had several hundred Twitter followers.
It was like this, steeped in his love for the brothers, and their love for him, and the way they looked, which was the way he looked, which was the same as Osama’s look, with bits from The Mummy and The Prince of Persia thrown in, that Ifthekar came to see himself as a soldier of faith and death, a mujahid, a jihadi, even, if Allah called him to it, a shahid – a martyr. If he was an example to others, he insisted it was not because he was anything special, but because he was guided through the darkness by the bright light of jannah, a word Ifthekar pronounced with a breathlessness because it was nothing less than another world, a perfect, everlasting paradise far away from Hudson Road and Portsmouth, far above Middle Earth and all the Muggles. “I’d love to meet all you brothers in jannah, man, just chilling, smoking some shisha,” he said. “Hey, imagine the cats you can have in jannah! Like massive tigers – or lions! – just walking with you…” This road to jannah was the “path”, and if you accepted your destiny and stayed on it, stayed true to the brothers, then Ifthekar said that was “being on it, man. On the deen, man”. That was the other reason for the tutorial. You had to share the knowledge and reinforce the Brotherhood and stay sure on the “path” – and if that meant a chance to dress up and look good on ustream, and have a few hundred people watch you, and tweet you, and maybe like you on Facebook, then that was cool, too. As Ifthekar said: “@me, @me.”
Ifthekar Jaman recorded his tutorial on the night of 16 December 2012. One day less than a year later, on 15 December 2013, in the snowy ruins of an eastern Syrian town called Ghazwa al-Khair, Ifthekar was sent by one Islamist militia to fight another and died right there, in the first minutes of his first battle, his legs blown off by a tank, his guts splashed all around, his lustrous long black hair curled back over his head.
2: The Meaning of Jihad
The prophet Muhammad was born in 570 AD in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia. Though high-born, he was orphaned at six and as a boy Muhammad earned his keep helping his uncle, who was a traveling trader. This unusual upbringing, in which he experienced privilege and poverty, gave Muhammad a unique outlook. He was a social rebel, who married a much older woman for love and treated her as an equal. He was also a reformer who – guided by the divine visions he began receiving at 40 – fought against the inequality, immorality and tribal lawlessness of 7th century Arabia. After his death in 632 AD, his followers set about formalising his teachings in a canon of holy custom and law. That work is still ongoing but its central elements include the Qur’an, God’s collected revelations to Muhammad, the Hadith, sayings which describes sunna, Muhammad’s way of life, and sharia, which is Islam translated into law. It was in these scriptures that the term “jihad” first appeared.
Most scholars agree jihad denotes lawful and justifiable war. It is founded on notions of sacred duty, righteousness and sacrifice. It applies most commonly to a war against oppression, especially one defending Muslims persecuted by unbelievers or apostates. It is that idea, coming to the aid of fellow Muslims, and the obligation and global Islamic brotherhood that implies, on which the concept of the itinerant foreign jihadi is based.
Inside these broad parameters, however, there is room for considerable debate and interpretation. Just as there is a rainbow of sects from Catholic to Calvinist inside Christianity (and just as Judaism, Christianity and Islam are themselves all subsets of the same, monotheistic faith) so inside Islam there are Sunnis, Shias, Sufis, Salafis, Ismailis, Ibadis and many more. Like different Christian groups, each strand of Islam tends to insist on its own infallibility. Like Christians, too, they set out their competing arguments in the way humanity has always communicated and argued with itself: in story form, in this case a highly creative mix of fact, fable, metaphor and parable.
One result of this diversity and inventiveness inside Islam is that jihad has meant different things at different times to different Muslims. In Islam’s first few centuries, Arab forces conquered most of the Middle East and North Africa, plus Portugal, most of Spain and even a small part of southern France. That empire is to what many Muslims are referring when they talk of the caliphate and in the context of this early Islamic imperialism, many scholars gave jihad a definition that was explicitly military and expansive. After the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 and European Christians began pushing the caliphate back, eventually expelling Muslims from Europe, jihad often came to have a more introspective and spiritual meaning, denoting an internal struggle for virtue. In the 18th century a new doctrinaire Islamic movement, Salafism, emphasising literalist adherence to ancient texts and the purifying absolutism of fire and sword swept Saudi Arabia and resuscitated jihad’s more bloody side. The Salafis found common cause with those Muslims in the north African lands of the old caliphate who were fighting European colonialism. In this new anti-colonial framework, jihad once again incorporated ideas of noble war, moral duty and defensive conflict, positioning jihad at a confluence of revolutionary righteousness. One legacy of this was to make jihad a cornerstone of a new reformist movement that emerged in the early 20th century in the Arab world, often called political Islam. Its most influential manifestation, the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in 1928 in Egypt under the slogan: “Allah is our objective. The prophet is our leader. The Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
As colonialism waned, the Islamists switched to fighting the newly established autocratic Arab regimes (and, in Palestine, the newborn Jewish state of Israel). Since political Islam also opposed exploitation of the weak by the rich and powerful, the Brotherhood sometimes seemed to have much in common with Marxism. But the Cold War brought the conceptual differences between the two creeds to the fore. Conventional revolutionaries wanted power but Islamists wanted paradise. For Marxists, power was achievable but for Islamists paradise could never be attained in this earthly world, making the struggle for it, the jihad, an everlasting task. In addition, Marxists were godless, and therefore the work of Satan. Any lingering doubts that the Soviet Union was Islam’s enemy vanished when Moscow invaded Muslim Afghanistan in 1980.
The Afghans’ resistance to the USSR briefly made common cause between the mujahideen and the West, specifically the CIA, who backed them. A resistance war fought by barefoot goatherds armed with muskets and First World War rifles against an almost infinite, technologically superior and faithless imperial army invoked the most celebrated of all human stories: this was man against monster, David against Goliath, George against the dragon, even, in the movie of the day, Luke Skywalker against the Empire. It was the kind of fight from which legends are spun, and the righteous romance of it attracted both real-life wannabe warriors from around the world, including a young Saudi billionaire’s son called Osama bin Laden, and America’s most famous fictional avenging knight, John Rambo, whose third adventure, Rambo III, was set in Afghanistan.
Also drawn to the story of Afghanistan was the man who would become the biggest British recruiter of foreign jihadis. When we met in his modest offices in another grey British regional town, Ipswich, Muhammad Manwar Ali told me he had sent so many British men to fight abroad, that he had lost count and could only estimate their number in the hundreds. That was the past. Manwar was now 54 and head of a peaceful, British Islamic faith organisation, JIMAS (Jamiat Ihyaa Minhaaj al-Sunnah). But he still remembered the pull of Afghanistan, the electrifying feeling of a gun. “I remember just holding it,” he said. “You just feel stronger, empowered, like you can take on the world. We were riding around in an open-topped jeep on the plains of Afghanistan and I was thinking: ‘Yeah!’ I remember no fear at all. I saw people crying and I just did not feel it. Guns and wars and stuff – I got a kick out of it. We all got a kick out of it.”
Like Ifthekar Jaman’s parents, Enu and Hena, Manwar’s story began in East Pakistan, later Bangladesh, where he was born and raised. His childhood was tumultuous. “I was born in 1959 and I experienced the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, then the 1971 war,” he said. The 1971 war, establishing the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan, was one of the bloodiest of the 20th century. Accounts of the toll differ, but, in eight months, somewhere between several hundred thousand and three million people died. Particular targets were intellectuals, both pro and anti-Pakistan. “My father, a professor and pro-Pakistan, was in prison for two and a half years,” said Manwar. “My elder brother was killed as were 22 of my relatives. Some died in shelling across the border. Some were slaughtered with knives. I witnessed massacres, fighting, poverty.” It was, said Manwar, a “traumatic upbringing, and I’m sure it had an effect”. But Manwar was also excited by the violence. “As a boy, I always liked guns and war films,” he said. “I wanted to join the air force from the age of 12.”
Manwar moved to Britain with his parents in 1975. Like Ifthekar, he was devotional, reading the Qur’an in Arabic at least once a month by the time he was 11 and leading prayers in the mosque by the age of 15. In 1979, as a computer science student at Kingston Polytechnic, he joined the campus Islamic society. It was a disappointment. Many Muslims were recent immigrants and anxious to fit in. “You would hardly see a beard or a veil,” said Manwar.
Manwar wanted something more passionate and alive. A generation later, Ifthekar would only need to open Google to find radical Muslims. In the 1970s, Manwar spent years searching libraries for texts of speeches by Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sayyid Qutb, its leader in the 1950s. Then, in the early 1980s, a group of Afghan mujahideen visited London to fundraise and Manwar found his band of brothers. “I went,” said Manwar, “and they told us about boys fighting with knives and World War I rifles and how the Russian army was killing thousands, these stories of massacres.” Manwar was entranced. “So I gave my £10 and I was swallowed in from there. I thought we had to try for ourselves the virtue of jihad. I thought I could make a difference.”
After several months of negotiating introductions and making contacts, Manwar paid his own way to Amsterdam, then after that to Peshawar in northern Pakistan. In each place, he was extensively vetted by several mujahideen leaders, who questioned him about his religious knowledge and his family and assessed his motivation. Finally, he was given permission to travel to Afghanistan. By this time, Manwar had graduated and was working as an engineer for British Telecom. His travels to the jihad assumed the character of an annual pilgrimage. While his British Telecom workmates took holidays in Cornwall or Florida or the Greek Islands, Manwar would spend his two or three weeks of break fighting in Afghanistan and with other mujahideen groups in Burma and Kashmir. Back at work, when his colleagues brought out their holiday snaps, Manwar would pass around pictures of himself posing next to tanks and holding an AK-47. As a “cold warrior”, Manwar was a hero.
Soon he was also a recruiter. One of those he persuaded to fight was Usama Hasan. “I used to go to the big protests in London,” said Hasan. “They were led by the Afghan guys and that’s when I first heard about jihad, about the ummah, a return to pure Islam and a caliphate stretching all over the world. I thought it was all talk. Then Manwar and the others said: ‘We have to be practical. We have to physically take part in our sacred duty’.” Some newspapers describe this kind of persuasion as “brainwashing”. Manwar preferred the word “coaching”.
Manwar said the essence of his technique was storytelling. He told his protégés legends of war and adventure, of righteousness and justice, “of a chivalrous ideal, of bravado, of freeing slaves”. He referenced ancient myths, drawing parallels between the persecution of Moses by Pharaoh and the Egyptian government’s suppression of dissent. He constructed his narratives so that they ignited a virtuous fury in his students. “You ratchet up their anger. You create a pervasive sense that Muslims are under attack, that Muslims are exploited. Then you tell them how to channel their anger, tell them their relief lies here, that [fighting in] Afghanistan was righteous.” It worked. Hasan went on to fight in Afghanistan. Others went to Kashmir and Bosnia and Chechnya.
Today Hasan is a peaceful imam and a campaigner against al-Qaida and Isis with the Quilliam Foundation, a moderate Islamic think-tank in central London. But he said he still felt the attraction of jihad. “I still feel very lucky to have been part of that,” said Hasan. “It was a different age. I was unmarried and a virgin. Life is discovering self, about growth, and I was enriched enormously by those days I spent in Afghanistan. It was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life.”
4: A Thorny Truth
If war was awesome, its aftermath was devastating. “After we took Kabul, I thought we would have an Islamic state, and peace and prosperity,” said Hasan. “Instead, we had a vicious war within the mujahideen. I realised we had a very narrow and superficial interpretation of the Qur’an [and that] things are not as straight-forward as we thought.” Manwar was especially disheartened. “When you are in the thick of it, you’re not able to think,” he said. After the fighting ended, however, wherever he was, Manwar would examine the men around him and find them wanting. “In Burma, it was the same thing,” he said. “In Kashmir, in Bosnia, Chechnya, everywhere, the same thing. They turned on each other. It was all politics. This was my disillusionment.”
Once the British jihadis began having second thoughts, they found it hard to stop having them. Hasan concluded the jihadis faced a similar dilemma to that which often confronts aid workers. However much you wanted to liberate people, by acting on their behalf, you couldn’t help but crush their freedom. “As a foreign jihadi, you parachute in with naïve ideas of jihad and you do it for your own personal satisfaction,” he said. “You are not really helping Afghanistan.”
Manwar agreed. “There should be humility and service,” he said. “It’s not for you to run the show and say: ‘We will tell you how to do it’.” Another devastating realisation was that the foreigners weren’t needed. Afghanistan, Kashmir and Burma weren’t short of fighters and the foreigners generally had far less experience than the locals. In addition, there was plenty of evidence to suggest the foreigners made a bad situation worse. “We made more mothers cry,” said Manwar. And when he looked at the texts again, Manwar found little justification for his actions in Islam. “Heaven is a place of peace,” he said. “It’s not for people full of hate and bitterness.”
As someone who had been 15 years fighting and a recruiter who had sent so many young men to war and death, Manwar’s doubts amounted to a personal crisis. He began to think of the stories he told not as inspiring but dishonest and manipulative. In his version of it, Muslims – and by that he meant Salafists – were only ever victims and only ever righteous. “Anything that contradicted me, I dismissed it,” said Manwar. “I told them: ‘The West is exploiting Muslims’. I said the whole Sunni-Shia conflict was Israel’s doing. Any conspiracy theory, I jumped at it. It was always about the Jews and Israel, never us. We were blame-free.” He had thought of himself as a holy warrior of truth. Now he was astounded by his capacity for self-deception. Saying the mujahideen were doing it for Allah had meant choosing to be blind to the billions of dollars and Stinger missiles they received from non-Muslim America. Saying the mujahideen were virtuous heroes required ignoring the corruption of their leaders, “how so much of your money is going to the sons and daughters of the leaders at universities in Malaysia,” said Manwar. “We were so peculiar, so stupid. I said these things. Did I really believe them? Was it habit? Was it posturing?” The kindest answer, he said, was that such stories were “commonplace”. The more shameful and honest one was that they were self-serving. Why was he fighting? “Because I wanted to fight. I was angry, self-righteous, arrogant. I wanted to go to for myself, for my own purposes.”
Manwar’s new insight was informed by a thorny truth. The world was more complicated than a jihadi fantasy. To view humanity with otherworldly purity was, in reality, to see it with inhuman simplicity. “I used to say: ‘We are trying to help the people of Kashmir’. But 20-30% of Kashmiris want to stay with India. We had to ignore them. We had to say: ‘They do not count. They should be killed’.” Henceforth Manwar’s creed would be nuance and uncertainty, something he would once have called heresy but now he saw as a beautiful human mosaic made up of a million different points of view. “The more I read, the less I felt I knew,” he said. He marvelled at human accomplishment, whether Muslim or kufr. “God has gifted all people,” he said. “Everyone is intelligent and has so much potential and there is so much good stuff coming from non-Muslims. How can we ignore all of that and say: ‘God said’ or ‘the prophet said’? How can we ignore the complexities? How can you ignore the Israelis who want to live in peace?”
5: Deepening Divisions
Not every jihadi experienced the same disappointment after Afghanistan. Moscow’s defeat in 1989 and the crippling cost of that war helped to precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. For a time, the West told itself that victory and peace was permanent, even, in the title of a book popular at the time, that history was at an end. But for many mujahideen, for whom jihad was everlasting, the defeat of one apostate superpower was simply a cue to turn on the next. In Sudan and later back in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden built a new group, al-Qaida, made up of old Afghan hands and former Brotherhood members committed to fighting the US. Other jihadis, too, found new wars with which to busy themselves, especially against the USSR’s former Serbian allies in Bosnia and its Russian successors in Chechnya.
Back in London, Manwar convinced some followers like Hasan to give up the fight. Others denounced him as a sell-out and a “coconut”. Among them were three other Islamic preachers, all from the Middle East, all born within a year of Manwar: the Palestinian Abu Qatada, the Egyptian Abu Hamza and the Syrian Omar Bakri Muhammad. Manwar’s new message was that Muslims should obey the law of the land in which they lived and appreciate the generosity of countries that gave immigrants housing, schools and hospitals. But the radicals said Muslim immigrants were wrong to try to integrate, that they were not British and never would never be, that they should forsake the kufr and the dar al-harb, follow only sharia and give their sons to jihad, whose purpose was to build a new caliphate. When Manwar said it was more complicated than that, the radicals said, no, it was simple. This was a holy fight, a mythic confrontation between good and evil. That was why they welcomed 9/11. By deepening the division between Christian and Muslim, it clarified it.
This intransigent creed appealed especially to the young. It spoke to the alienation of youth and the marginalisation of the immigrant. Its self-sacrificial solution – jihad – was also romantic and heroic. Hundreds of new Islamic schools sprung up across Europe. At first the imams and the parents were delighted. Look what good boys this new generation produced! Look how superior they were to the wasted white youth around them! But the distance between first and second generation immigrants is wide. Parent and child grow up in different cultures and speaking different languages and the internet, with its echo chamber chatrooms and social media silos, only further separated Muslim young from old. Online, Ifthekar and other young Muslims found sheikhs and forums and email fatwas that went way beyond what they could hear at the local mosque, declaring all Shia to be apostate, all kufr to be filthy dogs and describing jihad not just as compulsory but Call of Duty for real. Shallow in scholarship, often more gangster than preacher, this online jihad was textbook underground youth culture.
6: A Five-Star Jihad
In early 2011, a democratic wave that soon became known as the Arab Spring swept the Middle East. Though they themselves were distinctly anti-democratic, Islam’s radicals soon learned to ride the wave of protest. They challenged for power across the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood even held it for a year in Egypt. When the turmoil spread to Syria, the protests quickly became a rebellion and the rebels – outgunned by a 40-year-old authoritarian regime led by the Alawite president, Bashar al-Assad – were soon describing themselves as jihadis.
Ifthekar had often talked about wanting to migrate to the Middle East. Privately, he already considered himself a jihadi. In May 2013, telling his parents he was going to learn Arabic and maybe to help Syrian refugees, he booked a one-way ticket to Turkey and caught a bus to Reyhanli on Turkey’s southern border with Syria. “I went alone,” he told Shiraz Maher, another former radical, now a researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. “I didn’t want anyone to come with me because I didn’t know where I’d be sleeping or what I’d be doing. I just thought I’d place my trust in Allah.”
Ifthekar’s aim was to join a Syrian rebel group called Jabhat al-Nusra. Among the many Syrian insurgent outfits, al-Nusra distinguished itself by being one of the most effective and, with many former al-Qaida members in Iraq in its ranks, the official al-Qaida affiliate. Ifthekar had no idea how to cross the border to reach the group. But, as Maher wrote in the New Statesman, on the bus to Reyhanli Ifthekar spotted a man with a beard, offered him use of his bottle of alcohol-free perfume and introduced himself. The man was from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. He quickly surmised Ifthekar was an aspiring jihadi. A few hours later the pair had crossed the border and were driving in the man’s car towards Aleppo.
On arrival, Ifthekar went straight to a Jabhat al-Nusra command post. Ifthekar was a self-selected jihadi. But Jabhat al-Nusra still used the old ways – vetting, personal introductions, background checks – and Ifthekar knew no one in the group nor any scholar to vouch for him. He was rejected. “I got teary,” Ifthekar told Maher. “I was devastated. This is what I’d come for.” Ifthekar wandered into a coffee shop, where he met an Algerian fighter who was in another group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). Ifthekar hadn’t heard of the group. “But I checked them out,” he told Maher, “and they were great”. Isis vetted Ifthekar for a fortnight, then gave him some basic weapons training and, as a first job, guard duty.
Isis’s relaxed attitude to recruitment meant it had attracted thousands of foreign jihadis. Most were from the Middle East or North Africa but Ifthekar also met Britons, French, Germans, Scandinavians, Belgians and others from the Americas and Asia. The group was more sophisticated in other ways. Its commanders were often veterans of Saddam Hussein’s army, with battlefield experience against Iran and the US. Its structure included departments overseeing finance, logistics, power, education and health. It had a media team which produced videos of fighting and massacres it said had been carried out by Assad’s forces. They also oversaw a steady stream of online broadcasts from foreign fighters encouraging others to join them and denouncing the West on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and ask.fm.
With his online following and his good looks, Ifthekar quickly became the media team’s star. For his part, Ifthekar revelled in the attention. Now he was a warrior-hero for real, telling his own legend in selfies and tweets. He assumed a jihadi name, Abu Abdurrahman al-Britani, and began taking pictures of himself, staring seriously at the camera, long hair flying in the wind, wherever he went, mixing them with snaps of cats and the food he cooked. Several pictures went viral. One was of Ifthekhar looking stern and wind-blown as he rode across the desert in the back of a pick-up in black turban, a gun on his back and the black flags of Islam flying behind. Another selfie had him sitting in the back of a pick-up, a bullet cartridge in his mouth. A third had him kicking back on the floor of a house with another British jihadi, wearing jeans and boots, a black turban, an AK nestled casually between his legs, a giant brown rug hung like a poncho over his shoulders. He looked like a hobo warrior, a vagabond cowboy, relaxing after a hard day’s war on the range. Ifthekar’s tweets, too, spread like they were new hadiths. “There are people who think that the jihad in Syria is 24/7 fighting but it’s much more relaxed then that,” he wrote on 21 September 21 2013. “They’re calling it a five-star jihad.” Another celebrated line was about the hypocrisy of Westerners who denied the heroism of jihad. “A man leaves his home to fight for the oppressed people sounds heroic until you add in ‘Muslim Man’,” he wrote on 30 November. “Then he’s a terrorist/extremist. That is the view of the west. Osama bin Laden was known as a hero when he went, which was in an article, to fight against the Soviets.” Ifthekar soon had more than 3,000 followers on Twitter.
7: Joining the Righteous Path
Ifthekar’s fans wanted to be like him. Once looking like him had been enough. Now many wanted to join him in Syria. And Ifthekar encouraged them. It was easy, he said. Even if they had no money, they should trust Allah to find them a way. “The reason why I share so much is to show you how it is, the kittens, the landscape, etc, hoping to make you see the beauty of it & come,” he wrote.
By now, many of Ifthekar’s posts and recordings were assuming a new lofty, oratorical tone. It was one adopted by many foreign fighters and reflected their new status as bona fide jihadis. Now they were comrades of great shahid like Osama bin Laden and the American radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Both men had an authoritative and scholarly speaking style that was much admired – single finger raised, sitting crossed-legged and rocking back and forth as though in prayer, marking holy words like Allah and jannah with a rolling, mellifluous pronunciation. In one of his more grandiose posts, Ifthekar wrote that he had asked his family not to cry for him. Even if they were to cry an ocean, it would not benefit anyone. “But if they cried for a year to Allah, it would benefit them so much more. I am incapable of healing their hearts, with all the words I say. In the most beautiful of ways, the healer of the hearts and healer of all things is none but Allah. Your prayers is the solution to all the pain within the heart.”
Ifthekar took a personal interest in two groups of British men hoping to follow him to Syria. There were three men from Manchester with whom Ifthekar had become close online: Mohammad Azzam Javeed, Anil Khalil Raoufi, who would later re-style himself as Abu Layth al-Khorasani (meaning ‘the Afghan’, reflecting his ethnic origin) and another man who would take the jihadi name Abu Qa’qaa. There were also five friends from Portsmouth, many of them from his da’wah group: Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, who worked at Primark; Mamunur Roshid; Asad Uzzaman; Mehdi Hassan, a privately educated body building fan who was just 19; and an older man, Mashudur Choudhury, 30, who was married with two children. It was Choudhury who discussed the logistics of travelling to Syria with Ifthekar and gave the group its nickname: the Bangladeshi Bad Boys Brigade.
In the summer of 2013, both groups were busy planning their routes to Syria. It wasn’t complicated. They bought return tickets from Britain to Turkey. The Manchester group flew out on 5 October. After leaving letters for their families, the Portsmouth group followed three days later. Ifthekar guided the two groups together in Reyhanli. Abu Qa’qaa later wrote about the journey on Tumblr and his relief at meeting up with the Portsmouth group. These were, he said, “brothers who understood the deen, brothers who understood the reason we had been placed on this Earth and who knew what was incumbent upon them from the commands of Allah … this instantly placed love in our hearts for them”.
The next day the eight men packed and took taxis to the border. Abu Qa’qaa was spooked by the sight of a “random white man” outside their hotel, smoking and holding a notebook, who reappeared again when they reached the border. The border crossing, crowded and full of begging children, made him more nervous. Then, on seeing their British passports, the Syrian border guards demanded $6,000 to let them pass. “We returned back to the hotel extremely disheartened,” wrote Abu Qa’qaa. “Tears were ready to flow from our eyes. I was lying with my head on the lap of my brother Abu Layth. Your average person would never understand this. This is why the brotherhood in Islam is so beautiful. It is something unique, something you could never understand unless you were a Muslim.”
Suddenly, Mashudur Choudhury received a call from Ifthekar saying a van was coming shortly and the group must make ready to go. “Words cannot explain the excitement that rushed through our blood … Within five minutes the van arrived … It was only a short journey, around about 20 minutes.” The van took them to a Turkish village and dropped them. A second pick-up then took them a further five minutes, at which point they ran into a Turkish army patrol. “A few of the brothers thought this was it, that we were going to attain martyrdom or be arrested,” wrote Abu Qa’qaa. The Turks ordered the men out, searched their luggage, stole a pair of gloves, then discovered their British passports. At this, said Abu Qa’qaa, “they smiled, were inspired by our presence and let us go on our way on foot. Our happiness wasn’t hidden, it gleamed from our faces so much that it brought smiles to theirs”. The Turkish soldiers, wrote Abu Qa’qaa, clearly had a “love for the deen”.
The group walked across the border and immediately ran into a rebel fighter from another group who took them into the nearest town in his van. “As soon as we jumped out, a pick-up swung round the corner and out jumped Abu Abdurrahman al-Britani [Ifthekar]. He seemed as eager to meet us as we were to meet him. Instantaneously love was stored between our hearts and we hugged each other tightly with the biggest of smiles on our faces … so much the muscles in our face began to hurt!” After another two hours’ drive, the men arrived at Ifthekar’s Isis base. They were given a place to rest, shown an “entertainment room”, fed “some beautiful pasta and yoghurt”, then taken to see the six bodies of jihadis killed that day. “To my amazement it was if they weren’t dead,” wrote Abu Qa’qaa. “Wallahi, it was as if they were sleeping but more paler. This reminded me of the ayat in the Qur’an: ‘Do not think of those who are killed in the way of Allah as dead. Nay, they are alive!’”
8: A Divine Restorative
Our British jihadis are at a mid-point in their odyssey. They have been inspired to act and have made a great journey, passing many difficulties and dangers on the way. They have learned new truths about themselves and discovered new brotherhood, even love, and it is this personal transformation that will equip them for the great battle to come. This will be the climax, the final showdown, in which they must face a monster whom they believe to be nothing less than Satan. They are living in their own epic. And as their giddy posts and tweets reveal, so far it could hardly have been better.
But for their story to be complete, it’s worth lingering on the question of their inspiration. Muhammad Manwar Ali has long since given up trying to inspire British jihadis. But there is someone many accuse of replacing him in Britain, and I arranged to meet him on 11 September 2014 in a café near his suburban north London home. Academics and anti-fascist campaigners say Anjem Choudary and the groups he founded are the single biggest instigators of Western jihadis in the world. By their calculations, Choudary’s efforts account for a quarter of the several thousand European jihadis who have travelled to Syria or Iraq. They describe him, simultaneously, as a clown and a publicity hound, and one of the most dangerous men in Europe.
Choudary, unsurprisingly, told a different story. “Like many people who grow up in the West, I was educated in this country, and I learned the values of it,” he said. “And I was top of the class. I had a law degree. I was 25. I did maritime law, complicated, 600-page contracts. I subscribed to every single Islamic journal in England. I had reams of books and I had read them cover-to-cover. I was not like someone who, at 17, you can turn to jihad and send abroad – an easily impressionable young man. But when you come across people who explain a different way of life, you get a different perspective. What I came across was a man seeking asylum.”
Choudary meant the Syrian radical Omar Bakri. He met Bakri soon after the preacher arrived in London in 1986. What Choudary saw in Bakri was not just a spiritual belief but a comprehensive and revolutionary template for life. “You realise that the whole system which you were brought up in, and which you accepted, you realise there is a complete economic, political, ideological, social and judicial alternative to capitalism.” Choudary had toyed with socialism, even been present at violent student protests in the 1980s. But he concluded socialism was unrealistic and, anyway, in a world where the Left had already succeeded in tempering capitalism with welfare, passé. What socialism could never address was capitalism’s amorality. “There is no place in capitalism for ethics and morals,” he said. “It’s all about greed. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Why does capitalism allow a man to lie? That spiritual aspect is completely absent in the system.” Islam, on the other hand, “the more you study it, you realise that it offers solutions. I thought: ‘This is fascinating. I’ve never come across anything like this’. It was so incredible and fascinating, so beautiful.” It was something Choudary had to share. So he gave up law to become Bakri’s right-hand man, and in 1996 helped him found an Islamist activist group, al-Muhajiroun (The Immigrants).
The group advocated Islam as a divine restorative to our modern Babylon. At its core, Islam was about banishing the selfishness of capitalist democracy and re-establishing spiritual humility and communal trust. The basics of life – food, schools, electricity, medicine, gas, water, housing, clothes – would be provided free. Drugs and alcohol and other evils which led men astray would be banned for the greater good. There would be no need for democracy as the word of God was the law and such feeble man-made constructs were nothing before it. Once belief and subservience returned, bribery, promiscuity, usury and greed would disappear. “Think about it,” he said. “In this country they give the basics to all citizens but you still need to keep working, you still have all that stress, because you need to pay the mortgage. You’d find yourself dreaming about this beautiful system where that doesn’t happen. That’s the main work in Britain – presenting Islam as an alternative.”
In Choudary’s view, Islam was a revolutionary 7th century creed that he and Bakri were now using explicitly to “challenge the power of the time”. Since that required a certain “testicular fortitude”, it was particularly attractive to the young. “If somebody sacrifices their youth and life, that’s very attractive to the youth,” he said. “Osama bin Laden was one of the richest people but he lived in a cave. He suffered so much to resist oppression. That’s also very attractive.” Just as appealing were Choudary’s outrageous stunts, such as his 2010 plan to protest at funeral processions for soldiers killed in Afghanistan. (The plans caused such outrage by themselves that Choudary, apparently, felt no need to hold the protests and called them off.)
The young were the vanguard of his revolution, said Choudary, because they were not yet fully formed. He called them “sponges”. Especially receptive were those in some kind of personal crisis: drug addiction, perhaps, or struggling with their sexuality. “People do not face the solutions if they do not face the problems,” he said. “It could be someone in prison, going through a divorce, in some kind of corruption – and Islam provides the solution.” The zealousness of these new converts, he said, was something to behold. “They want to study every day. They reach a position in weeks that it has taken us years to get to. If you can grab them and convince them, these people are always going to be frontline.”
Choudary had the relaxed manner of a man at peace with himself. He was careful to distance himself from any violence. “There is no one with us when any kind of operation takes places,” he said. “They have all left long ago. I can’t be held accountable for that.” He warned me against traveling to Syria. “There is no sanctuary at this time,” he said. “They will use you. It’s Vlad the Impaler. Heads on spikes. It’s a war tactic. The idea is to scare the enemy so much that they give up. I cannot say that publicly because they’ll say ‘Mr Choudary wants more beheading’. But that’s the justification.”
Still, he was preaching revolution and was candid about how, in the course of it, there would be bloodshed. “If you want to change this country, it’s inevitable that it’s going to lead to conflict,” he said. “These guys don’t just give up power. And we are not like Christians, turning the other cheek.”
When I asked about the hundreds of his followers who had travelled to Syria and Iraq, he was just as sanguine. “Of course people go abroad. Sometimes they became martyred and die. These things happen.” The casual ease with which he accepted his followers’ deaths, the ego-centricity it took to dismiss them as easily impressionable young men, the way he focused on those in trouble and most easily influenced, called to mind child abuse.
Or maybe Choudary was just another story spinner, talking about places he’d never been, things he’d never do and people he’d never know. There was no doubt he was a true believer. Like his disciples, he was convinced the final battle, which he saw as a global Armageddon, was fast approaching. “Muslims, if they gather together – and jihad is obligatory together on every male when he becomes mature – we will have 250 million people,” he said. This mighty new Muslim army would smash America, the apostate regimes in the Muslim world and everything else, he said. “We are seeing signs of that now. We are nearing Biblical change. There will be a huge battle, and after that things will change. After every dark night is a bright dawn. After destruction, an Islamic State. A Caliphate. We will be here and in the White House. That is the prophecy and I believe that.”
The British jihadis began their training in Syria with religious study, memorising the Qur’an and the “nullifiers of Islam”, the 10 heretical acts which would condemn a man to hellfire. Then came basic military training. Months later Mehdi Hassan described on ask.fm how the men were shown how to use and clean an AK-47 and heavier weapons such as a mounted machine and a rocket launcher. “Also you will learn basic battlefield tactics, how to fight in mountains, city, field and desert terrain,” he wrote. “Attack and defence formations. How to attack a building and clear rooms. Basic IED [Improvised Explosive Device] training.” The fighters were also put through exercise drills, including runs. “At the end of your training your instructors will ask you what you specialise in and then they will decide what you will work as.”
Within days, however, the brothers suffered their first disappointment. Mashudur Choudhury announced he was quitting. His age had given him some authority over the younger boys. But among them he was both the biggest fantasist and, ultimately, the least convinced. As Kingston Crown Court would later hear, following the collapse of a business in 2012, Choudhury had claimed to have stomach cancer and persuaded his sister-in-law to give him £25,000 to spend on treatment in Singapore. Choudhury did fly to Singapore but spent the money on hotels and prostitutes. Trying to keep up the appearance of success, he took a series of other holidays with the rest of the money. Going to Syria as a jihadi was his masterplan to escape the past and impress the world. The training, he wrote on Twitter, “sounded proper hardcore, like running for 10km without stopping”.
One person who saw through his delusions was his wife, Toslima Aktar. Between foreign trips, she told the court, he would lie in bed all day, texting to get her attention whilst she was at work. When he messaged Toslima suggesting they move to Syria in 2013, she wrote back: “I hate you. Go die in battlefield, go die. I really mean it, just go. I will [be] relieved at last. At last.” Asked about the text in court, Toslima said: “I am telling him, ‘Get lost! Go die! Jump off a cliff! I’ve had enough!’”
Once Choudhury confronted the reality of war, the burned out cars, the shelling, the bodies he was shown on arrival, his fantasy fell apart. He asked to be driven back to the border. In the months to come, Isis commanders would, threaten, beat and execute fighters who asked to leave. But in Choudhury’s case, they apparently saw no use for this British father who had lost his nerve. They made him wash their clothes for a few days, then agreed. He travelled back to Turkey and on 26 October 2013 caught his return flight from Istanbul to Gatwick where counter-terrorism officers, who had been following his travels on Twitter and Facebook, arrested him on arrival. Choudhury had even brought his laptop with him, on which were stored details of his travels and a blog explaining his reasons for leaving for jihad. A second, fake blog he had written, making out he was innocent, was timed and date stamped at the airport from which he left Turkey. Charged with terrorism offences, he was convicted after a two-week trial in May 2014 and in December sentenced to four years in jail. It was in court that his wife heard for the first time that he did not, in fact, have stomach cancer. Prosecutor Alison Morgan told Choudhury he was “leading an appalling life … had lied about his illness and felt guilt and disgust … and was terrified of the hereafter”. Syria offered him a chance “to get away from your sins and your past”. Quietly, looking at the floor, Choudhury replied: “Yes.”
At least one of the British jihadis was now exposed as a spectacular fantasist. But if the others were disturbed by the revelation, they didn’t show it. Instead they embraced their new identities as holy warriors, taking new jihadi names, and posting messages online saying war was like the movies. One of the Manchester trio, Abu Layth al-Khorasani, claimed that a firefight he saw “was like a scene from Star Wars with all the ‘zing’ noises and red lights”. War was awesome, the British jihadis agreed. The group took pictures of each other standing on gun barrels or in gangster poses, their faces in black balaclavas, arms folded across their chests, bandoliers of bullets around their necks. Asked how it felt to own a gun by one online follower, Ifthekar replied: “Honestly? It feels so cool, haha.”
Of all foreign jihadis in Syria, Ifthekar remained the star. In November 2013, his fame hit new heights when he appeared on Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship evening show, via camera phone. This time Ifthekar seemed to be attempting a Special Forces look: black beanie, beard, kohl eyes, long hair, black scarf around his neck. He confirmed he was with Isis and said he had travelled to “the land of Sham” to establish “the law of God, the law of Allah”. He continued: “God says he will bring the best believers here. And you’ve got everybody here from anywhere around the world.” Syria appeared to have cemented Ifthekhar’s new image of himself. He was more certain and told his story in a more linear fashion. Asked why he left Britain to fight in Syria, he replied: “I was already, if you want to call it [that], a jihadi. That’s the way I was. I understood that I was on the jihadi path.” His inspiration, he said – who he was, what he did, what he would ever do – came from a single source. “Where it all began? It began from the book. And I read this and in there you see what jihad is about. It wasn’t taught to me that Islam is peace and there is no fighting. It is peace but it requires fighting.” He added it was his duty to love jihad. “One of the sayings of the prophet, peace be upon him, whoever doesn’t go to jihad or doesn’t even talk about it [and] dies … has a characteristic of hypocrisy. I am actually a Muslim following the way of the sunna the way I should be.”
For Ifthekar, Syria had removed any doubts about Isis, too. Its insurgency was “fully, fully” justified, he said. “What is happening in Syria, there are Muslims dying, they’re being slaughtered.” That did not mean, as he once thought, that non-Muslim Western powers should intervene in Syria to stop the killing. Now he was there, Ifthekar didn’t want to share the glory. “We don’t need their help, we don’t want their help, and if they were to come, they would get rejected,” he said. Asked about Isis’s habit of executing and beheading unarmed prisoners, he said his “stance on it” was that “it’s something I personally wouldn’t do” but that he hadn’t seen any executions and, on the contrary, what he had seen only deepened his respect for Isis. “That’s why I am so pleased to be here,” said Ifthekar. “The way they rule is with justice.”
10: He Got Shuhada
Ifthekar ended his interview by saying the British government shouldn’t worry about fighters like him returning home. In Britain, the press, government and security agencies were discussing plans to refuse the fighters entry should they attempt to come back. The assumption was that in Syria they would have acquired dangerous new skills and a terrifying battle ruthlessness. But Ifthekar said he had no plans to go home. “Life is for the hereafter,” he said. “So if God has said ‘help the people’ and you die in the cause that God told you to, then it’s an eternal paradise. It’s not anything … the sacrifice is small in comparison to what you receive.”
In truth, there was another good reason to believe Ifthekar posed little threat to Britain, or anywhere else. The Newsnight interviewer, like many of Ifthekar’s followers, seemed to presume that being in Syria meant being a fighter. The reality was that though Ifthekar had been in Syria six months, he had yet to fire a shot in anger. There had always been something of the tourist about Western jihadis like Muhammad Manwar Ali and Usama Hasan showing up every now and then for a couple of weeks of war. Hasan once said one comfort he had was that he was sure he’d never killed anyone. But Ifthekar was even less deadly. He had no combat experience, no medical knowledge, no understanding of tactics or soldiering and only the most rudimentary knowledge of how to use a gun. His lack of scholarship meant he could assume no religious role and his assiduous use of social media, compromising any hope of operational security, made him a liability to any military operation.
Mehdi Hassan had said the Isis commanders decided deployments and in the case of their British fighters, they seemed to conclude they were best used as guards, in the kitchen or as part of the propaganda unit. For them, jihad would mean standing around, cooking and maintaining a steady stream of selfies, pictures of kittens and stories of battlefield miracles, such as how martyrs’ bodies smelled of musk and were often found smiling. In one reply to a query on ask.fm, Ifthekar admitted he and his fellow foreign fighters “have no skills” and weren’t that much help to the war. But that shouldn’t discourage others from coming to join them. “Even if they didn’t need you,” he wrote, “you need this.” It was, at heart, an introspective adventure. They were in Syria, after all. Even if they weren’t doing much, they looked good. They looked the part.
If these were terrorists, then, they were among the least capable, least experienced and altogether least scary the world had ever seen. But even the most inept soldiers have one military use. And soon after the Newsnight broadcast – maybe the British fighters’ fame was making other Isis soldiers jealous, maybe Isis' commanders wanted to test the foreigners' zealotry, maybe Isis’s battle plan simply required a tactical distraction – the British fighters started being deployed as cannon fodder. After being kept out of the fighting for so long, suddenly they began to die off all at once. First to be killed, on 15 December 2013, was Ifthekar. On 3 February 2014, Abu Layth al-Khorasani was killed. In July, Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, the Primark worker from Portsmouth, was killed in a firefight while a third, 19-year-old Mehdi Hassan, was shot in the stomach. Over the summer, Isis made advances that were extensive enough for it to re-designate itself Islamic State, declaring its territory sufficient to constitute the new caliphate. But its successes ended with a costly battle against Kurdish forces aided by US warplanes for Kobani on the Turkish border. There, on 21 October Mamunur Roshid and Asad Uzzaman were injured when a building collapsed on them during a US airstrike; Roshid later died of his wounds. Three days later Hassan was also killed in Kobani.
In 10 months, five of the nine British fighters were dead. A sixth, Uzzaman, was badly injured. A seventh, Choudhury was in jail. Of the last two, Manchester jihadis Mohammad Javeed and Abu Qa’qaa, who was shot in the right foot and leg in the same attack in which Ifthekar died, little had been heard for months. The beheadings of two American journalists and two British aid workers between August and October 2014 by a masked jihadi with a British accent focused attention on the barbarism of Isis’s foreign fighters. A more accurate picture would have centred on their attrition rate. In August the US government-funded Western Jihadism Project, based at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, said that around a third of the 2,000 Westerners who had travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2011 had died. It predicted that to rise to a half.
As he had been in life, Ifthekar was especially illuminating in death. He and Abu Qa’qaa snapped a last picture of themselves before they set off for their first battle in December 2013. Ifthekar, as ever, looked great: black turban, black scarf, black combat jacket stuffed with spare AK clips, black gloves, black shirt, black baggy pants and black boots. The pair were deployed against a rival rebel group in a town called Ghazwa al-Khair in the province of Deir ez-Zor. “Ifthekar,” wrote his friend Abu Layth later, “joined the ightimas (plunge) group where they throw themselves into the enemy and begin shooting at them until they run out of ammunition, then they approach the enemy and explode their martyrdom belt to damage as much enemies as possible and themselves gain martyrdom”. In the event, Isis found themselves outgunned and decided to retreat. Falling back, one Isis fighter called to Ifthekar to follow. “One minute,” Ifthekar yelled back. Seconds later he was hit by a tank shell and, wrote Abu Layth, “got martyred straight away within that minute!”
Months later a recording emerged online of Abu Qa’qaa, recovering in hospital, describing his friend’s death to a group of other British jihadis. The impression is of the other Britons grouped around, sighing and giggling, as Abu Qa’qaa tells them his war stories. Abu Qa’qaa seems especially keen to pass on how the battlefield was full of miracles that would only re-confirm a jihadi’s faith. “You will see this,” he says. “Not just the normal shuhada. Because there was a brother called Abu Abdurrahman.”
“I heard he got shuhada,” says one of listeners. “Tall guy …”
“We was ightimas, shuhada ightimas. We was the frontline thing. We wanted to be with this brother, innit, because he’s been in, like seven battles, and he spoke English, so we thought, ‘We want to be with him’, and we ended up there. We was the first attack. And he [Ifthekar] pushed forward, he was brave in battle. And he was shot and he died, his legs were blown off by a tank. Abu Qasim was with him and he said: ‘Abdurrahman, let’s go, the tank’s coming, it’s coming close’. And Abdurrahman was like: ‘No, no, one minute, just give me a minute’. And Abu Qasim said he turned ’round and he’d been hit in the head, like a hole there. By shrapnels. And Abu Qasim said he was moving his lips and slowly he went like that. He died with a big smile on his face.”
“Insh’allah, Insh’allah …”
“Yeah, in front of my face. That was the first time I’d seen someone get shot dead. I was like: ‘Allah, Allah!’ If I did not do that, that would have sent me sideways. I would have run, I could have fainted, anything. Because me myself, if you don’t know, I’m squeamish. So I’ve gone ’round the corner, there’s no one there. And I’m dragging his body. And I bent down and I was stroking his face, like that. I started crying. I was emotional. That was a mistake. ’Cos then the tank went schweeoush! into the next house, but we was hit by the shrapnels. And I’m dragging myself back.” Despite his injuries, Abu Qa’qaa said he was having the time of his life. “I wasn’t thinking,” he says. “I was just enjoying myself in the battle. Just thinking: ‘This is amazing’.”
One of the other jihadis then relates how Muhammed Rahman, the Primark worker, had had a dream the night before Ifthekar’s death in which he met Abu Qa’qaa. “You had an injury on your head and you were bleeding and he asks you: ‘Why are you so sad’. And you say: ‘I didn’t get shuhada’. Next thing you know he saw a light and heard Abdurrahman’s voice and it’s the holy light coming down to grab him’.” When he awoke, said the speaker, Rahman went for a long walk. On his return, he met a group of fighters who told him: “We’ve got news for you, mate. Your brother’s got shuhada. [And he says]: ‘Yaaaah! Lion!’”
Later Abu Qa’qaa wrote that he too “literally screamed with joy at the news”. “Tears were shed and we ask Allah to accept him amongst the anbiyaa, the siddiqeen and the shuhada. May Allah feed him from the fruits of jannah as he fed us well in the dunya.” On the hospital recording, Abu Qa’qaa tells his audience: “I didn’t feel sad or anything.” There are murmurs of assent from the other jihadis. “I just feel sad that I’m not going to see him again,” says one. “The only annoying thing is he got there before us.” Perhaps overshadowed by his friend’s death, Abu Qa’qaa is quick to point out that injuries are “a blessing” too. “’Cos Allah gives you the opportunity to increase your reward,” he says. “The shahid is at a high level. But the more you continue and gain more reward, the more higher you get. The reason I say this is because there were brothers in the battle who weren’t hit by anything. Why? Because Allah didn’t choose them. The battlefields is full of miracles. Anyway, in the middle of this, this brother runs forward and gives me chocolate.”
“Chocolate!” laughs one of the listeners. He then repeats Ifthekar’s best line. “Some five-star jihad!”
The British jihadis cast themselves as heroes facing a monster. Most of Britain – and the world – cast them as the monsters. Neither story was true. But the way each story perfectly contradicted the other made any understanding impossible. Neither side would allow the other any truth. Everything about their side was right. Everything about the other was wrong. They talked past each other. It was a recipe for entrenched division, alienation and hate. It was the antithesis of understanding and, it’s worth noting, since both came from the same country, nationhood.
The jihadis’ motivation was transparent. They wanted to be adored. But what reason would the British state and press and politicians have for describing these little boys lost as the devil? For it was largely a fiction, even the part about the threat they posed on coming home. Of the 500 Britons who have travelled to Syria and Iraq, around 260 have returned but only 40 are being prosecuted for terrorism offences. That’s worth repeating, only 40. Even the British counter-terrorism services consider a full 220 of them less dangerous than Mashudur Choudhury.
One day I met a senior counter-terrorism officer who told me returning jihadis were arrested more as a matter of course than to prevent any immediate danger. “You can’t post a picture of you with a group that likes to behead people and not expect the police to want to speak to you when you return home,” he said. On the other hand, he believed that far more dangerous than returnees were prospective jihadis stopped from going abroad. He pointed out that the two Canadian converts arrested for attacks in October – one ran over two soldiers in Quebec, killing one; the other shot a guard at the War Memorial in Ottawa before he was gunned down inside the Canadian parliament – had both been prevented from traveling to Syria. “What the hell do we do about people who are frustrated because they cannot even get there?” asked the officer.
So why would the British security services raise the threat level from “substantial” to “severe” in August 2014? Why would London’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, warn in November 2014 that police were stretched thin by a new “momentum” in terrorist plots? Why would police on 25 September 2014 arrest and release without charge Anjem Choudary, giving him more kudos and prompting his right-hand man, arrested with him, to skip bail and travel to Syria? Why would they the next month do the same to Ifthekar’s entire family – including his sister and his 50-something parents, Enu and Hena? Why would Europe’s governments unanimously agree on the rising threat terrorists posed when the truth is that in all of 2013 the total number of deaths attributable to terrorism in the United Kingdom was one? (The running over and butchering in a south London street of British soldier Lee Rigby. Significantly, it later transpired one of the two attackers, Michael Adebolajo, had been stopped in Kenya in 2010 en route to join al-Shabab, Somalia’s al-Qaida franchise, and deported from Kenya back to Britain.)
CAGE, an organisation that describes itself as ‟an independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror”, believes large parts of the British establishment have an incentive not to dampen public fear but to raise it – effectively assisting radical Islamists in terrifying the public. The British security services, it says, are trying to scare the public into letting them pass ever more draconian security legislation, such as plans to allow increased surveillance, detentions, secret trials and punishment without due process due to come before the British parliament in 2015. The British police, CAGE adds, are trying to drum up extra resources. British politicians are keen to appear tough on terrorism and foreigners at a time when hostility to immigration is electorally popular. And British newspapers faithfully repeat all these stories in the hope of capitalising commercially on xenophobia among their readers.
Amandla Thomas-Johnson, an activist with CAGE who has interviewed British jihadis in Turkey, described the concerted intolerance of Islam that now resonates from British power as a new McCarthyism. “It’s a paranoia that Muslim dissent needs to be dealt with and that any Muslim who does not agree with them is an extremist,” he said. What’s more, he added, the proposed new anti-terrorism laws were self-defeating – “a slap in the face of the British values they claim to be protecting” – and counter-productive. “The more they toughen up, the more it will push people over the edge,” he said.
It was possible that CAGE, some of whose members have been detained themselves under terrorism powers in the past, were seeing another monster in the British power structure. But they were right that the idea of Muslims as monsters has rarely been more popular in the West. In the last few months, a hatred for Islamic State has motivated a number of Western volunteers, including former soldiers and German Hell Angels, to join Kurdish forces fighting it. This is the power of the stories we tell ourselves at its most absurd. Westerners are fighting Westerners in Iraq and Syria, both of them trying to kill the monster, which turns out to be each other; both of them fighting for the justice and liberation of Iraqis and Syrians, neither of whom much want them there. Whatever tether to reality these tales once had has long since been severed.
12: The One Winner
Perhaps most ironic, the one winner to emerge from this confusion is the man all sides agree is a true monster: President Bashar al-Assad. In his quest to stay in power, Assad has torn his own country apart, flattened many of its cities, made more than three million of his people refugees and used chemicals on those who have remained. From the start, he claimed to be fighting al-Qaida. To add some truth to his claims, in 2012 he released from prison hundreds of Islamists and, it is reported, ensured his forces initially gave Isis a wide berth so it could build its strength. He also stoked Sunni anger. Video clips began circulating showing Assad’s forces torturing Sunnis and forcing them to declare: “There is no God but Assad.”
The Sunnis, the jihadis and the foreign fighters duly responded and gave Assad the enemy he wanted. The spectre of a new group that outdid even al-Qaida then prompted the most gymnastic redrawing of international alliances. By the end of 2014, Assad’s most natural allies, Shia Iran and Hezbollah plus Russia, were in effective alliance with Sunni Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf states, some of whom have backed Sunni Islamist militants in the past, as well as the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, all of Europe and Israel. In December 2014, Iranian and American aircraft were in action over Syria on the same day. Assad’s story, which was a bald lie when he started spinning it, was coming true in spectacular fashion. Perhaps he understood better than anyone the power of stories to shape reality. Or maybe he was just lost in his own narrative, one where he was the good guy.
A generation ago Usama Hasan discovered in Afghanistan that the world and especially war is often “nothing that we thought”. What Syria and the saga of the British jihadis teaches us, is that anyone who describes the real world in terms of heroes and monsters is probably not to be trusted. There may be both somewhere out there. But all the evidence, from Syria and everywhere else, suggests that far more common are human accidents and people, good at times, misguided at others. It was a “huge task, a lifelong struggle” to unlearn the stories he once ardently believed, Hasan said. The key to dismantling them was not ditching his faith – Hasan said he still read the Qur’an every day – but fighting the distance and dissonance these fierce stories created between him and the world. He had, finally, to allow himself to see that he could “operate in peace” in the world. “I had to see that I can fit,” he said.
Hasan sounds older and wiser. Tragically, that’s probably the trouble. What he’s proposing is the opposite of that essential youthful desire – to stand out and look great. “This is going to sound weird,” said an aspiring jihadi with a Scottish accent in an anonymous audio tribute he posted online a few months after Ifthekar’s death. “But I was actually really impressed, Masha’allah, by how handsome this guy was when his pictures came up. When I’ve seen his picture for the first time, I was jealous. I was like, ‘Man, this guy’s got a turban on, he’s got really great eyes, beard, everything about this guy, he looks like what the prophet would have looked like’. That was really impressive to me. That inspired me. I really wanted to copy him. I wanted to wear the turban better and wear kohl in my eyes. Because of brother Ifthekar. That was what inspired me the most. The way he loved to be like Muhammad. The way he tied his turban the way the prophet tied it. He made it look cool.”
Al-Muhajiroun: the immigrants
Alhamdulillah: all praise and thanks to God
As-Salaamu Alaykum: may the peace and mercy of Allah be with you
Ayat or ayah: verse in the Qur’an
Caliphate: Islamic kingdom. The term most commonly refers to the Muslim empire created in the early centuries of Islam, which covered most of the Middle East, took in much of north Africa and large parts of Spain, Portugal and an area of southern France. It has also been used to refer to subject Muslim empires, such as the Ottoman Empire. Currently IS use caliphate to denote territory they control in Iraq and Syria
Dar el Harb: Land of Sin
Da’wah: Islamic proselytising group
Deen: the righteous path
Dunya: the present life
Hadith: a collection of traditions reporting sayings of the prophet Muhammad, a major source of guidance for devout Muslims. Hadith can be used for any of the individual sayings as well as referring to the collection
Haram: sinful, an act forbidden by Allah
Hijra: pilgrimage, the journey to jihad
Igthimas: frontline military unit, martyrdom unit
Insha’allah: God willing
Jihad: holy war
Jihadi: holy warrior
Khalifah: the head of a Muslim state, and representative of Allah on Earth
Khilafah: the caliphate
Kufr: sinner, non-Muslim
Masha’allah: Muslim expression of joy and praise
Land of Sham: Syria
Sunna: the path, the practices and example of Muhammad
Ummah: the global Muslim community
Alex Perry is an award-winning author and correspondent, and a contributing editor to Newsweek Europe. He has reported from approximately 100 countries around the world and covered 35 wars. His latest book, The Rift, based on eight years of reporting in Africa, will be published worldwide in 2015. His previous Newsweek Insights eBooks include The Hunt for Boko Haram: Investigating the terror tearing Nigeria apart, Clooney’s War: South Sudan, humanitarian failure and celebrity and Cocaine Highway: The lines that link our drug habit to terror.
Other books by Alex include Falling Off The Edge: Globalization, World Peace and Other Lies and Lifeblood: How to Change the World, One Dead Mosquito at a Time.