Shipping out to ISIL: Europe’s young men lost to extremism

Young men across Europe are heeding the call to jihad, to take up arms alongside ISIL extremists in Syria and Iraq. Many have come from the port town of Portsmouth, but why are they motivated to abandon their lives in the UK?

CCTV footage showing “Britani Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys” leaving for Syria.
Powered by automated translation

As western recruits continue the march to take up arms with ISIL and similar groups in Syria and Iraq, the southern English naval port of Portsmouth has gained notoriety as an unexpected hotbed of extremism.

The city’s unwanted recognition is reinforced by the grainy image taken from CCTV footage showing five young men heading for a flight to Turkey at London’s Gatwick airport on October 8 last year. A sixth had gone ahead months earlier.

Calling themselves “Al Britani Bangladeshi Bad Boys”, denoting their family origins, all had turned their backs on normal lives in Portsmouth and were bound for war.

In the year since they made that journey, four have been killed in combat and one is in jail in the UK.

The sixth is believed to be fighting alongside ISIL for the Syrian town of Kobani, a battle in which two of his friends have already died.

Portsmouth’s role in the bloody conflict does not end there. A seventh recruit, an older man fighting as Abu Abdullah Al Britani, has appeared in a recent video pledging to die for ISIL’s cause if necessary.

A brother of one of the four men killed is also in custody charged with “the preparation of terrorist acts” in relation to Syria.

And last weekend on the Isle of Wight, officers at Parkhurst prison reportedly foiled an escape plot in which the warder was to be taken hostage.

The British justice ministry said a prisoner was placed in segregation after a “very basic description” of the prison layout was found during a search of his cell.

“I am a Muslim and it has nothing to do with Islam,” says Taki Jaffer, executive chairman of the Portsmouth Interfaith Forum.

He accuses ISIL of spreading “evil propaganda” on the internet and says this defeats the strenuous efforts of the city’s imams to prevent the spread of radicalisation among young men.

Mr Jaffer, who has lived in Portsmouth for 42 years since arriving from Tanzania, says: “I do not think it is just this city. There are others that have not suffered yet in the same way and I do not think Portsmouth is radicalised per se.”

Naval heritage

With only 220,000 inhabitants packed into Britain’s most densely populated area outside London, the city is no stranger to the pride and tragedy of war.

King Henry VIII decreed in the 16th century that the city should be the home of his newly-formed royal navy.

From there, one of the nation’s greatest war heroes Admiral Horatio Nelson set sail in 1805 for the Battle of Trafalgar that would defeat the Franco-Spanish fleet, but would cost him his life.

Affectionately known as Pompey, the city was later subjected to German bombings in both World Wars and saw many poignant departures and triumphant returns of warships in the Falklands War of 1982.

The “Bad Boys” worshipped at the Jami mosque, whose leaders are committed to moderate Islam. Muhammed Zaman, 78, a retired restaurateur and company director who helped to found the mosque, told The Observer newspaper: “It seems totally crazy. Their brains have been washed to leave this safe city, and for what?”.

As has become routine with stories of ISIL recruits, some are remembered by friends and relatives as normal, industrious young men, deeply troubled by the brutal response to rebellion against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, but the last anyone would expect to end up on foreign battlefields.

Motivation

The first to go, in May of last year, was Ifthekar Jaman, 23. He appears to have been a recruiting sergeant for the others but was killed shortly after they followed him, in an attack on an arms depot in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Al Zour.

One of his recruits was Muhammad Rahman, 25, a privately-educated clothes store supervisor.

Rahman is reported to have been killed in July, not long after an internet conversation with Shiraz Maher, head of outreach at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, showed how his objectives had altered.

“We are not here for the Syrian people,” he said. “This land belongs to Allah, not the people.”

Jaman’s younger brother, Mustakim, was arrested by Hampshire police this month and is awaiting trial under Britain’s counter-terrorism laws. Their parents and another brother were also arrested but released on bail pending further inquiries.

The youngest of the group of six, Mehdi Hassan, 19, also attended an independent school and was expected to study international politics at university.

The most recent to have been killed tweeted this month, after US president Barack Obama said he was considering drone attacks against the extremists: “America wants to drone Dawlah [the self-proclaimed Islamic state]? Inshallah, you will receive many more 9/11s.”

His belligerence was unrecognisable to those who knew him. Some believe his true nature surfaced as he tried to escape from ISIL, despite fearing what awaited him back in Britain.

Donna Jones, Conservative leader of Portsmouth city council, says she understands he was within minutes of the Syrian border with Turkey, where his mother awaited him, when stopped by ISIL this year.

“His case is an absolute tragedy,” says Mrs Jones. “He was a sweet kid, attended one of Portsmouth’s top independent schools and was polite, with no aggression or history of trouble with the police.”

Another of the group thought to have died in the ISIL attempt to capture Kobani was Mamunur Roshid, 24.

Mashudur Choudhury, 31, was more fortunate. He returned to Britain within weeks of his departure, but was quickly arrested and, in May, became the first Briton to be convicted of preparing terrorist acts in relation to the Syrian civil war.

Exactly what he was planning remains unclear. He was portrayed in court as a misfit who had hoodwinked relatives into giving him money after falsely claiming to need treatment overseas for cancer. Instead, the money went on high living and prostitutes.

European challenge

Portsmouth is not the only city in Europe to experience a disproportionate flow of young people to the conflict zone.

The International Relations and Security Network in Zurich says Milan has always been Italy’s “undisputed hub of jihadist activity”, dating from Islamist attempts to radicalise the Balkan conflict in the early 1990s.

A Milan imam, Anwar Shabaan, commanded foreign mujahideens fighting in Bosnia.

Vilvoorde, 20 kilometres north of Brussels, is home to most of the young Belgians known to have joined extremists in Syria.

And one of the biggest concentrations of suspected extremists in the Netherlands is in the city of Arnhem, whose mayor said recently that 22 possible ISIL sympathisers, some who have fought in Syria, were under surveillance.

But even more than other locations in continental Europe, Portsmouth is attracting the kind of attention it would rather do without.

Civic leaders insist the proportion of “would-be jihadists” remains small, among more than 500 Britons estimated to have gone to Syria and Iraq.

Police counter-terrorism officers, however, are reported to be taking an intense interest in extremist elements among the port’s Muslim community.

“The vast majority are well integrated, many having been born and grown up here,” says Margaret Foster, a centrist councillor for the Charles Dickens district where many Muslims live.

“I cannot put a finger on why so many have gone from Portsmouth. It’s a desperate shame. They cannot have thought of the repercussions for their families when they went.

“It has cast a black cloud over the Jami mosque but the internet has a lot to answer for.”

Some academics and community leaders say the young men have answered the call, however misguidedly, as idealistic young people did when joining the International Brigades that fought Spain’s fascist rebellion led by Gen Francisco Franco.

Mehdi Hassan’s mother says it “melted his heart” to see the suffering of Syrians, and that he was impressionable enough to want to fight the Al Assad regime.

At least one intelligence specialist has called for leniency for those who return truly disillusioned, and before taking part in ISIL’s escalating brutality.

Mrs Jones is happy to leave that issue to the wisdom of the British courts.

But while committed to helping parents safely report suspicions or fears to stop their sons and daughters being recruited, she says this must be accompanied by a “strong message” of deterrence.

“They need to know that if they travel to Syria to join this group, they risk spending the rest of their lives in prison,” she says.

crandall@thenational.ae