Man challenging extremism as a life mission talks about battling ISIS by podcast

After a decade shaping counter-extremism messages, Adnan Sarwar talks about his time in the ruins of Mosul

When Adnan Sarwar stood amid Mosul’s ruined buildings, there was a moment he realised just how deep and far went the pain of war.

Fifteen years earlier, he had been a soldier on the start-line of an invasion that was a turning point for Iraq and left a legacy the nation grapples with to this day.

The former British Army bomb disposal expert, 42, is now a prominent advocate for turning young people away from terrorist movements such as ISIS.

He is working with the Global Coalition Against Daesh, an international alliance working to counter the extremists’ propaganda.

Coming from Burnley, a town in north-west England where about one in 10 people is Muslim, he is driven to address the misaligned world views that lead recruits to the extremists.

“When I go back to my home town and listen or talk to people, I am worried: not that all these Muslims are going to go join ISIS, but about how they understand or see the world,” he told The National.

“Sometimes thinking that their country is against them, sometimes not accepting independent views from organisations such as the BBC and The Economist, which check their facts or base their employees in war zones.

“Certainly, we have our problems in this country, but it’s about how do you create a message that people are going to accept on from a very complicated subject matter like terrorism and get some kind of mass acceptance? That is difficult.”

To address that difficulty, with the backing of the Global Coalition, he has made a series of 10 podcasts called Taking Apart Terror.

Each 30-minute episode is intended to be accessible, understandable and to turn people away from extremism.

Their titles are self-explanatory, and include Is ISIS still a thing?, Who funds terror? and Does terrorism have a gender?

Sarwar admits his life could have taken a different direction if, after “I screwed up my education”, he had not made the tough call of joining the British Army in 2000, when it had a tiny number of Muslim recruits. He has no regrets.

“I felt this absolute desperation that I was locked in a situation which I wasn’t going to escape, and joining the military is the well-trodden route out of a difficult situation that many people have followed,” he said.

In 2003, he crossed the border into Iraq from Kuwait, attached to the US Marines as a bomb disposal expert in the Royal Engineers.

Speaking some Arabic and with Pakistani heritage, he made a good connection with the Iraqis.

“It was nice for them to see a brown face, hear a bit of Arabic, rather than a bunch of white guys with weapons,” he said.

Sarwar went back to Basra for his second six-month tour in 2006, then left the army shortly afterwards. His military service had exposed him to “an international way of thinking”, but on returning to Burnley he was confronted by a more parochial world view.

“People would come up to me and say ‘You’re in Iraq fighting fellow Muslims’ without any kind of nuance to the fact that Saddam Hussein killed thousands of Muslims in the Iran-Iraq War,” he said. That broadening experience gave him a new perspective.

“There’s some doors that you go through that you can’t come back through, and joining the military taught me lots of things that made me see the world certainly differently to [others in] my home town.”

After attempting a few careers, including a stint acting as a Taliban fighter opposite The Office star Mackenzie Crook in the British TV series Accused, Sarwar returned to Iraq in 2018 for a BBC documentary.

Travelling the length of the country, he found himself in Mosul shortly after ISIS had been ejected.

“It was absolute devastation and I saw how its people had been affected. It really taught me about the long tail of war. You can go there as a soldier for six months and leave, but for the people you leave behind, they are in a bad situation for a long time.

“It is going to take decades to fix the destruction ISIS caused, but people back home just see this as a news item for six minutes and move on.”

An increasing concern for Sarwar was that people he knew back home had formed their views from marginalised and myopic outlets that could in some cases expose them to extremism.

At this point he was approached to present the podcast, which has the catchline ‘Understanding terrorism is the first step in fighting it’.

“The key is how do you convince them that the world is not as they see it?” he said.

“You set it out in very simple terms, and say ‘Hey, let’s talk about money and terrorism’. The podcast is important because it gives you a starting point.”

One episode includes an interview with a former Al Qaeda recruiter who turned his back on terrorism.

“We have to say that sometimes human beings are extremely motivated and dangerous, but also that human beings make mistakes and join an organisation which they didn’t understand.”

It is then that deradicalisation can begin. In one emotionally charged podcast, Sarwar spoke to the mother of Martyn Hett, who was killed at the age of 29 in the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.

“One of the most powerful episodes is about forgiveness when we interviewed Figen Murray, who lost her son from the Manchester bombings.

“She was talking about how these are mums and dads from England who lost their children in a bombing by British people that was inspired by this ISIS cult. Then she talked about forgiveness and how to forgive, and then why forgiveness is different to forgetting, that we have to remember what these people did.

“Whether it’s an ancient city like Mosul or a new city like Manchester, we have to remember what they did everywhere.”

The podcasts, which are also presented in Arabic by MBC anchorwoman Suhair Al Qaisi, are intended for an audience that doesn’t understand ISIS or that thinks terrorism has gone away.

“It’s about the ISIS threat today, that we should still be scared of these people, and then people actually doing something about it,” Sarwar said.

He also believes many people are unaware of the growing threat of terrorism in Africa, and believe it is “too far away to concern them”.

“We are a collective of people that are interlinked with other countries and so, what happens in other countries is absolutely important to all of us,” he said. He has similar concerns about Afghanistan.

Ultimately, it is the enduring memory and footage of Mosul’s wreckage that continues to motivate the former soldier to educate a younger generation about the lasting legacy of war.

“I want them to know that the threat hasn’t gone away, that there’s still people who want to cause harm, who don’t agree with our world view. And that ISIS is a death cult, not a redemption.”

Updated: July 21st 2021, 6:16 PM