Despite huge media attention, the actual information we have about the British man believed to have murdered James Foley remains limited. We know he’s left-handed, wears Timberland boots, and speaks with an accent that appears to be from London or the southeast. A former French captive of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, aka ISIS, referred to him as “John the Jailer”. Security sources told the Guardian that the man is an intelligent, educated man who has been in charge of hostage negotations in Raqqa, Syria. The Times said he’s linked to a group of four British-Pakistani jailers, and may speak some Arabic. It is claimed he and his fellow guards singled Foley out when they discovered his brother was a U.S. airman. Today’s Sun suggests he might be the rapper Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, who has posed before with a severed head.
And we have very little knowledge beyond that. But this mysterious character did not appear out of the blue. His appearance in the horrific video of Foley’s death has only highlighted the fact that Britons have been involved in acts of extreme violence in Syria and Iraq for well over a year now. They’re not alone — scores of young men from Belgium, Denmark, Holland, France, and other European countries have joined in the fighting in the Middle East.
No one really knows exactly how many Britons are fighting for ISIS. Security services estimate that there are around 500 British civilians fighting overseas. This marks an increase since William Hague said in June that there were about “400 British nationals and other UK individuals who could present a particular risk should they return to the U.K.”
However, Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP for Perry Barr, controversially estimates that the true figure is around 2,000, due to a lack of border controls. He pointed out that this would mean there are considerably more British Muslims in ISIS than the 600 in the army. BuzzFeed has repeatedly asked Mahmood to provide sources for his figures, but he has been unable to do so.
In the wake of Foley’s murder, U.K. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told BBC Breakfast he was aware of “significant numbers” of British jihadis. He said: “This is something we have been tracking and dealing with for many many months, and I don’t think this video changes anything. It just heightens awareness of a situation which is very grave and which we’ve been working on for many months.” There have been 69 Syria-related arrests in the UK in the first half of 2014.
Regardless, the number of people sympathetic to ISIS’ cause should be seen in context: There are nearly three million Muslims in the U.K.
Earlier this year, three British men, Abdul Raqib Amin, 26, Reyaad Khan, 20, and Nasser Muthana, 20, appeared in a promotional video for ISIS.
Khan and Muthana were schoolfriends at Cantonian High School in Cardiff. Of Khan, the Daily Mail reported: “Former schoolmates remembered him as a talented scholar who had moderate views and mixed well with people of all backgrounds.”
Khan once dreamed of becoming Britain’s first Asian prime minister. The Guardian managed to obtain footage of a 2010 interview with him in which he talked about “illegal wars” and young people taking the “wrong path” in life. He also talked about being “stereotyped” because of his ethnicity. There are still a number of questions about how he became radicalised. His Facebook page looked like that of any normal young man with a love of Chelsea FC and video games. It appears his interest in religion began to harden only last year, when he applied for a place at Madinah University in Saudi Arabia.
According to The Telegraph:
The college, which focuses on Islamic subjects, was where the controversial Birmingham-based preacher Abu Usamah attended. Usamah has been criticised for his extreme views, which include preaching that homosexuality should be punishable by death.
Muthana was apparently a straight-A prospective medical student. His stunned father thought he was attending an Islamic seminar in Shrewsbury when he skipped the country and headed to Turkey. He was joined by his younger brother Aseel, 17, believed to be the youngest Briton to join the terror networks so far, who took a different route, via Cyprus.
When interviewed by the Telegraph, Muthana’s father said:
Who is behind this? Who is paying for my sons to go and risk their lives fighting in a war that doesn’t concern them? Behind this are Islamic radicals, hiding behind the scenes, influencing the minds of young people. It is not members of the Yemeni community in Cardiff doing this. They come from outside, I’m sure. But someone is persuading them, brainwashing them, helping them travel, arranging tickets.
He has previously boasted about his prowess with bombs alongside a picture of a demolished army base.
In other tweets, Khan boasts of “martyrdom ops” and “preparing for fireworks.”
The third man in the video, Abdul Raqib Amin, was from Aberdeen. His friends back in Scotland have expressed complete confusion as to how ISIS could have attracted a “nice guy” who was a keen cricketer and footballer. One of them told the Daily Record:
He played football, he was a bit cheeky, but he was a decent dude. You’d never have thought he was going to do something like this. I saw him a few years back. He’d gone abroad and came back with a beard, the whole al-Qaeda costume. It was a big shock. He was really popular and he was always up for a laugh.
One of the most well-known British Muslims to join ISIS is Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, the so-called “Primark Jihadist”, and one of a group of at least six men from Portsmouth’s Bangladeshi community who have travelled to Syria to fight for ISIS. Rahman, a former Primark supervisor, was one of (it is suspected) 19 Britons to have died fighting in Syria, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London.
Earlier this month, BuzzFeed uncovered a number of social media accounts believed to be his. They paint an intriguing picture of his new life in Syria.
ISIS appears well-funded: Rahman says it won’t need you to bring money, won’t “force you to fight,” and has members from various social backgrounds.
One thing that cannot be in doubt is the dedication of these recruits. The harrowing Vice video above follows Amer Deghayes, from Brighton, who watched his younger brother die in fighting. He says the death was for “a good cause,” because the army retreated due to his brother’s advance. Deghayes says he has a “strong feeling” that his brother is alive and enjoying himself in heaven.
The question of why young men would be attracted to martyrdom is difficult to answer. Is it a fear that Sunni Islam is under threat from Shia Muslims? Is it purely a means of escape for people who have become socially and economically detached from mainstream society and are now seeking a narrative that will give their life meaning?
There’s plenty of evidence that the rise of gang culture in Britain in the early part of the 21st century has been closely related to the latter. As this video from BBC correspondent Paul Wood shows, in that context jihadism is certainly being sold as a viable alternative to criminality.
A classic of the genre is a YouTube video from an “Isis mujahid” on “how to leave that Gangster Life.” “Dear bruvvers, we’re in the land of jihad, wiv a glock 19, yeah,” says a figure in a black ski mask brandishing a pistol. “Stop sittin’ on the corner…chasing that squilla [drugs]…chasing that honey wiv the little batty [arse]… Where are you when our women are getting raped in the jails by these dirty kuffars [infidels]? Where are you when we start taking heads off?” Cue gunfire.
And in the New Statesman, Mehdi Hasan notes that two of Britain’s wannabe ISIS fighters actually bought a copy of Islam for Dummies prior to going to Syria earlier this year. He feels this makes it clear that “religious fervour” isn’t what motivates many of these young men, and points to other factors: “moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, the search for a new identity, for a sense of belonging and purpose.” Hasan cites the testimony of anthropologist Scott Atran to the US Senate:
That’s a big reason so many who are bored, underemployed, overqualified, and underwhelmed by hopes for the future turn on to jihad with their friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer (at least for boys, but girls are web-surfing into the act): fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool. Anyone is welcome to try his hand at slicing off the head of Goliath with a paper cutter.
But the multifariousness of the social and economic profiles of the Britons who have travelled to the Middle East makes it extremely hard to generalise about why they’ve been attracted to extremism. While the above cases suggest elements of social marginalisation, other case studies differ wildly.
Mashadur Choudhury — the first Briton convicted after fighting in Syria — was a serial liar who had disgraced his family by lying about a cancer diagnosis, and appears to have been motivated by guilt above all. Salma and Zahra Halane were hard-working schoolgirls who had nearly 30 GCSEs between them, and appeared to be influenced by their older brother. Aine Davis was a petty criminal who is thought to have been radicalised in jail. Khadija Dare, who posted a picture of her small son with an AK-47, wasn’t a Muslim to begin with. And so on.
No doubt the problem is exacerbated by radical imams. Kim Howells, a former foreign office minister, recently told BBC Radio Wales: “Governments have been afraid to touch [the issue of radical imams]. They’ve allowed those communities to become isolated to look inward, instead of trying to integrate with the rest of society, and they’ve said, ‘That’s alright, that’s multiculturalism.’”
As well as well-known examples of radical imams like Abu Hamza, there have been a spree of less-noted examples, not least in prisons. The Times recently reported on the case of Azadul Hussain, an imam who works with prisoners in Bedford:
On his Facebook page, Mr Hussain has shared material published by MPAC, an anti-Semitic Islamist group banned from campuses by the National Union of Students, and the Islamic Education and Research Academy, a Salafi extremist group whose officials believe adulterers should be put to death.
Charlie Cooper of the Quilliam Foundation told The Independent that one reason British people are joining ISIS is “the sheer ease with which people can get to Istanbul in Turkey, and then catch a bus to get into neighbouring Syria,” and that ISIS wants to “show off” its foreign fighters as propaganda. The unnamed man who beheaded James Foley will, he said, have “committed himself entirely to furthering the aims of the Islamic state” and “completely rejected his British nationality.” The Quilliam Foundation believes ISIS has now superseded al-Qaeda in terms of the effectiveness of its online recruiting, telling Newsweek: “Their use of the internet is unlike anything we have seen before.”
Indeed, ISIS has taken the use of the internet to terrify enemies to a new, psychopathic level. Perhaps it’s the inevitable result of an ever louder and less subtle online world. As Jon Lee Anderson put it when discussing the case of the small Australian child seen holding an opponent’s decapitated head: “ISIS, an organization of thugs, is the Middle East’s answer to the psycho-killer narco gang Los Zetas, trying to out-bad their enemies, to frighten them into submission, and to somehow draw themselves into an ugly cartoon of evil.” This is same movement, remember, that tried to co-opt Lionel Messi after he scored against Iran in the World Cup, and regularly posts cat pictures.
In this Spectator video you can see Shiraz Maher, of King’s College London, explaining that he believes that British fighters in ISIS are not in senior leadership positions because most will not have had direct combat experience. However, many people consider the British fighters who have joined the ISIS cause to be among the most “extreme and vicious fighters,” he says. One of the disturbing things about John the Jailer, therefore, is the possibility that he’s one of the first senior British figures in ISIS. This, of course, may well not be the case – but it could also be a false belief the movement is keen to promote.
And these vicious fighters will be coming home to the U.K. Helen Ball, the national coordinator for counterterrorism, recently gave an interview in which she said the social media actions of ISIS may be putting off more people than they attract. She told the Evening Standard: “The families who are affected by this are part of British society; they are not some excluded group.” But as Home Secretary Theresa May pointed out last year, there’s no doubt some of them will see the U.K. as a legitimate target.