On the Trail of Britain's Homegrown Jihadis

Ifthekar
A screenshot from Ifthekar' Jaman's YouTube tutorial on how best to tie a turban. Shutterstock

Not so long ago, in a land not far away, the 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 parent’s modest home on England’s south coast and filmed a 90-minute tutorial on how to tie a turban. The image was 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 spilling 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 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. “Assalamu alaikum,” he said. “Okay … er … I thought I’d do a little tutorial on, er, turbans ‘cos a couple of brothers – I wonder if he’s watchin’ – er, @ReflectionofIslam is a brother that ask can I do a tutorial so I thought, yeah, man, might as well …” Ifthekar checked how he looked again, smoothed his hair several more times and regarded his smartphone expectantly. With no audience, there was no point to the tutorial, and maybe not to anything, so Ifthekar waited in silence, examining himself on screen. “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 taqiyah 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 spicy chips with 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 decades 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. Tamannah was their eldest and their only girl, after whom came the boys – Tuhim, Ifthekar and baby Mustakim – and, of all of them, it was Ifthekar who was the dreamer.

Like all English kids, as a boy he liked to lose himself in the stories of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. That was fine, as far as it went. But these were English stories about English boys fighting English monsters and Hena, especially, didn’t understand them and as such 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.

Jihadist A still showing Ifthekar Jaman, after he has given an online tutorial on how to tie a turban. YouTube

It seemed to work. Ifthekar stuck with his Bengali traditions. He helped out in the restaurant kitchen, preparing kofta and naan and puri, and rarely missed prayers at Jami mosque. 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 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.

But Ifthekar 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 facing off against the biggest monster of them all: Satan. Ostensibly this was about religious piety, though often it seemed to be about nothing more serious than Ifthekar’s love of cats, of which he posted endless pictures. But 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. There were also hints that Ifthekar was gay. His blogs and tweets were rarely addressed to girls, and Ifthekar unfollowed any who posted uncovered pictures of themselves. But when the boys said he looked great, Ifthekar would reply with 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.”

But mostly Ifthekar was just trying on a new identity for size. 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 appear, how you looked was who you were. And 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 bin Laden’s look, with bits from The Mummy andThe Prince of Persia thrown in, that Ifthekar came to see himself as a soldier of faith and death. He was 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 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 . . .”

Ifthekar Jaman recorded his tutorial on the night of 16 December 2012. A 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.

THE ROAD TO JIHAD

In early 2011, a democratic wave that became known as the Arab Spring swept the Middle East. Though distinctly anti-democratic, political Islam soon learned to ride the wave of protest, challenging for power across the Arab world, even holding 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 an Alawite president, Bashar al-Assad – were soon describing themselves as jihadis.

Ifthekar often talked about migrating 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 help Syrian refugees, he booked a one-way ticket to Turkey and caught a bus to Reyhanli on Turkey’s southern border with Syria. Ifthekar had no idea how to cross the frontier. But, as he told Shiraz Maher, a researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, 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 surmised Ifthekar was an aspiring jihadi. A few hours later the pair crossed the border and were driving in the man’s car to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.

Propoganda While battling its way into Iraqi cities, Isis and its supporters also set out on an offensive social media campaign to recruit young men with “inspirational” posters. Instagram

Writing in the New Statesman, Maher said Ifthekar’s aim was to join a Syrian rebel group called Jabhat al-Nusra. Among Syria’s insurgents, Jabhat al-Nusra distinguished itself as one of the most effective and, with many former al-Qaida in Iraq members in its ranks, the official al-Qaida affiliate. But Jabhat al-Nusra still used the old ways – vetting, personal introductions, background checks – and Ifthekar was a self-selected jihadi. Presenting himself at a Jabhat al-Nusra compound in Aleppo, Ifthekar was rejected. Devastated, he 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 Isis. “But I checked them out,” he told Maher, “and they were great.” Isis vetted Ifthekar for a fortnight, then gave him basic weapons training and, as a first job, guard duty.

Isis’s relaxed attitude to recruitment meant it was attracting 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. 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, electricity generation, 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 team’s star. For his part, Ifthekar revelled in the attention. He assumed a jihadi name, Abu Abdurrahman al-Britani, and began taking pictures of himself wherever he went, staring seriously at the camera, long hair flying in the wind. Several pictures went viral. One was of Ifthekhar looking stern 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. Ifthekar’s tweets, meanwhile, were widely celebrated. “There are people who think that the jihad in Syria is 24/7 fighting but it’s much more relaxed than that,” he wrote on 21 September 2013. “They’re calling it a five-star jihad.” Another famous 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.” Ifthekar soon had more than 3,000 followers on Twitter.

THE BANGLADESH BAD BOYS BRIGADE

ISIS A screen shot showing Ifthekar Jaman surrounded by other ISIS fighters. YouTube

Ifthekar’s fans wanted to be like him. Once looking like him had been enough. Now, in the summer of 2013, many wanted to join him in Syria. Ifthekar took a personal interest in two groups of British men. There was a trio from Manchester with whom Ifthekar became close online: Mohammad Azzam Javeed, Anil Khalil Raoufi, who would later re-style himself as Abu Layth al-Korasani (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 Mashudur Choudhury, 30, who was married with two children. It was Choudhury who discussed the logistics of traveling to Syria with Ifthekar and gave the group its nickname: the Bangladeshi Bad Boys Brigade.

Getting to Syria wasn’t complicated. To seem like they were going for a holiday, both groups bought return tickets from Britain to Turkey. The Manchester group flew out on 5 October, the Portsmouth group followed three days later and Ifthekar guided them together in Reyhanli. Abu Qa’qaa later described his relief at meeting up with the Portsmouth group on Tumblr. These were “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”.

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” smoking and a holding notebook outside their hotel. 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, something unique.” Suddenly, Mashudur Choudhury received a call from Ifthekar saying a van was coming shortly and the group must make ready. 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. 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”.

ISIS ISIS' propaganda on Instagram illustrates how the group hope to attract new fighters. Instagram/Shutterstock

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 then taken to see the bodies of six 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!’”

The British jihadis began their training in Syria with religious study and gun safety. But within days, they suffered their first disappointment when Mashudur Choudhury announced he was quitting. Though his age gave Choudhury some authority, among the brothers he was both the biggest fantasist and, ultimately, the least convinced. As Kingston Crown Court would later hear, after the collapse of a business in 2012, Choudhury pretended 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 and a series of other holidays. 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”. But confronted by the reality of war, Choudhury lost his nerve. He travelled back to Turkey and caught his return flight to Gatwick, where he was arrested by counter-terrorism officers who had been following his travels online. In May he was convicted of terrorism offences and in December sentenced to four years.

At least one of the British jihadis was now exposed as a spectacular fantasist. The others appeared undeterred, however, embracing their new identities with new jihadi names and posting messages online saying war was awesome, and just like the movies. Abu Layth al-Korasani claimed a firefight he saw “was like a scene from star wars with all the ‘zing’ noises and red lights”.

Of all the foreign jihadis, 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 added that Isis’s insurgency was “fully, fully” justified, despite its habit of executing and beheading unarmed prisoners. “That’s why I am so pleased to be here,” he said. “The way they rule is with justice.”

BRINGING TERROR BACK HOME

Ifthekar ended his interview by saying Britain shouldn’t worry about fighters like him returning home. Back home, the press, government and security agencies were discussing plans to refuse them re-entry. The assumption was that in Syria they would have acquired dangerous new skills and a terrifying battle ruthlessness.

In truth, Ifthekar posed little threat to Britain, or anywhere else. Though Ifthekar had been in Syria six months, he had yet to fire a shot in anger. 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 made him a liability to operational security. For the British fighters, jihad meant guarding, cooking and a steady stream of selfies. It was, in the end, an introspective adventure. Even if they weren’t doing much, they were in Syria and 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 inept soldiers have one military use. And soon after the Newsnight broadcast – maybe the British fighters’ fame was making other Isis soldiers jealous, maybe their commanders wanted to test their zealousness, maybe Isis’s battle plan simply required a tactical distraction – the British fighters started being deployed as cannon fodder. First to be killed, on 15 December 2013, was Ifthekar. On 3 February 2014, Abu Layth al-Korasani died. In July, Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, the Primark worker from Portsmouth, was killed and Mehdi Hassan was shot in the stomach. Over the summer, Isis captured enough territory that it re-designated itself “Islamic State”. But its successes ended with a costly battle against Kurdish forces aided by US warplanes for a city called Kobane 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 Kobane.

Kobane Ferocious fighting for control of Kobane has raged for three months. The tow has become a symbol of resistance against ISIS. Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty

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 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 the fighters’ own attrition. In August the US government-funded Western Jihadism Project said around a third of the 2,000 Westerners who travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2011 had died. It predicted that to rise to a half.

OF HEROES AND MONSTERS

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.

The jihadis’ motivation was transparent. They wanted to be adored. But what reason would the British state 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. To repeat: even the British counter-terrorism services consider a full 220 of them less dangerous than Mashudur Choudhury.

A senior counter-terrorism officer told me 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. So why such concern over the British jihadis? Cage, a Muslim prisoners group, believes the British security services have an incentive not to dampen public fears but raise them to scare them into approving ever more draconian security legislation and drum up extra resources; British politicians want to appear tough at a time when hostility to immigration is electorally popular; and British newspapers faithfully repeat these stories because they are, after all, good stories, well sourced, and those sell papers.

The one winner to emerge from this confusion of story-telling 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, flattening cities, making more than three million of his people refugees and using chemicals on those who have remained. Assad’s justification has always been that he is fighting al-Qaida. It was once a fiction. But the foreign jihadis not only gave him the enemy he wanted but prompted the most gymnastic redrawing of international alliances.

Today Assad’s backers – Iran, Hezbollah and Russia – are in effective alliance with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, all of Europe and Israel. Fantasy has become fact. And, for Europe’s thousands of aspiring jihadis, this looking glass world holds an open invitation for thousands to follow Ifthekar and make their dream reality.

“This is going to sound weird,” said a young Muslim man with a Scottish accent in an audio tribute posted online after Ifthekar’s death. “But I was actually really impressed, masha’allah, by how handsome this guy was. 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 the prophet’.” The Scot said he wanted to copy Ifthekar. “He made it look cool,” he said.

Alex Perry's in-depth ebook on homegrown jihadis, Once Upon a Jihad, is available now from Newsweek Insights.