By Mary Anne Weaver
14 April, 2015
He was a dreamer, with Che Guevara looks — a jet-black beard and eyes — who built a new persona online, as a Muslim warrior riding into battle in the back of an open-bed truck, dressed in black, his long hair blowing in the breeze, with an AK-47 hanging from his shoulder, strapped to his back. He had just turned 22 — the product of British private schools, a computer aficionado working in customer service at Sky News — when he decided to turn his dream into reality.
In May 2013, Ifthekar Jaman left his comfortable home in Portsmouth, England, explaining to his parents, who emigrated years earlier from Bangladesh, that he wanted to learn Arabic in the Middle East. Instead, he booked a one-way ticket to Turkey. The next time his parents, Enu and Hena, heard from him, he had crossed the Turkish border into Syria and joined the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham — also known as ISIS or ISIL — the most brutal, and now the most powerful, of a dozen or so militant Sunni Islamist groups arrayed against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his equally brutal Alawite government.
Ifthekar was part of the first wave of foreign fighters, whose motives were primarily humanitarian. Everyone — not just Muslims — was outraged by the atrocities of the Assad regime. Both the U.S. and the British governments were calling for Assad to step down. So were France, and Turkey, and a number of nations in the Middle East.
The foreign fighters were arriving by the hundreds to join one of the various rebel groups challenging Assad’s military-backed dictatorship. Many were as naïve and inexperienced as Ifthekar was. Some recruits were fervent believers; others showed scant knowledge of Islam. Ifthekar was pious, though not doctrinaire. He embraced his Bengali traditions, but he appeared well integrated into British life and was popular among his classmates and his non-Muslim friends. As a boy, he spent hours immersed in the tales of “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings.” As a teenager, he played the guitar and was a member of the Portsmouth Dawah Team, which, on weekends, distributed free copies of the Quran. He had a cat, Bilai, that he adored and that, on occasion, would follow him to dawn prayers at the Portsmouth Jami mosque.
Dressed, as he’d planned, all in black, a long, Salafist beard framing his face, a black prayer cap on his head, Ifthekar set out for Syria alone — there were no established routes or support networks then, as there are now — following the dusty road from the Turkish border town Reyhanli to the Bab al-Hawa crossing into Syria. He was intent on joining Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, which was the pre-eminent Islamist group in the early stages of the anti-Assad campaign. The only problem was, he didn’t know how.
A chance encounter with a bearded man would provide the key: As he boarded a bus near the Turkish border, Ifthekar, still lacking any plan, quickly scanned the faces of his companions. “Turkey is a pretty secular country,” he would later explain, “and I only spotted one man with a beard.” Ifthekar approached the man and, as the bus careered down the road, offered him a small bottle of attar, an alcohol-free musk oil popular with Muslims. The two began to talk. The bearded man, a Syrian from Aleppo, asked Ifthekar if he was en route to Syria to do jihad. Ifthekar responded that he was. When the bus stopped on the other side of the border, the bearded man drove him, in his waiting car, to the recruitment office of Jabhat — also known as the Nusra Front.
Ifthekar was devastated when the group turned him down. He didn’t have the required letters of recommendation.
“I got teary,” he later recalled. “This is what I’d come for!” He pleaded with the Tunisian jihadist manning the recruitment desk, even offering to be held prisoner by the Nusra Front while it did a background check on him. It was all to no avail. Finally the Tunisian offered to help him join another Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham. Ifthekar refused. He knew that Ahrar permitted smoking, of which he most strenuously disapproved.
And so it was that Ifthekar, after being vetted for a fortnight by the group, joined ISIS.
His major complaint — which echoed the complaints of many of the foreigners who had come to these battlefields — was that of boredom. Weeks turned into months, and he and many of his fellow fighters had yet to wage jihad. Many manned roadblocks or checkpoints; others performed menial tasks. Ifthekar, whose father owned a takeout restaurant, had traveled to Syria, at considerable risk, to be drafted as a chef.
Then, in December 2013, seven months after he arrived, Ifthekar was finally sent into battle in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
He was killed almost immediately.
Ifthekar’s story would become an iconic one of the foreign jihad in Syria. It was recounted to me by Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (I.C.S.R.), an innovative institute at King’s College London. Here, a handful of researchers have been charting, following and, in some cases, interacting directly with foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq — through text-messaging and smartphone apps — in hopes of understanding their motivations and their worldview. The center now monitors some 700 of the 20,000 foreign fighters from 90 countries around the world. (Foreigners make up half of ISIS’s total fighting force.) An estimated 4,000 are from Western nations, some 600 to 700 from Britain alone. More British Muslim men have joined ISIS and the Nusra Front than are serving in the British armed forces.
Many of the fighters from Britain — as well as those from Finland, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands — came from comfortable middle-class homes. Many were university students or graduates; a surprising number were women, too. But they didn’t appear to fit a typical profile, which confounded counterterrorism experts and Western governments. Some, like Ifthekar, seemed driven by romantic notions of jihad. Others, like Mohammed Emwazi, who later became known as Jihadi John, the ruthless executioner of Western journalists and aid workers in the ISIS videos, fully embraced the violence of the Islamic State. Emwazi was also a Briton, and also the son of a comfortable middle-class family, with a degree in computer programming. And then there were still other cases in which entire families made their way to Syria or Iraq: pregnant women; young children; even the family pets.
The I.C.S.R. forms part of the Department of War Studies at Kings College’s Strand Campus. Peter Neumann, a 40-year-old political scientist and a professor of security studies, established the center in January 2008 to study the roots of radicalization and political violence. Now, as its director, he supervises a surprisingly small staff, considering the depth and range of the research the center does. There are only nine full-time academics attached to it, supplemented by a dozen or so part-time interns or students who sit hunched over their laptops in shifts, tracking the militant Islamists in the center’s database.
Initially, researchers monitored jihadist websites and individual Twitter accounts. But it was not until 2013 that they established direct contact with the foreign fighters themselves. “It was exhilarating,” Maher said to me, “and we came about it only by chance.” Maher happened upon Ifthekar, who used his Twitter feed to recount his experiences in Syria and to urge all of his “brothers and sisters” to come and join the fight. Soon, I.C.S.R. researchers realized there were other Europeans in Syria: a Dane named Abu Fulan; then a former Dutch soldier called Yilmaz. They sent a flood of messages, hoping some of the fighters would respond. Ifthekar was the first; he invited Maher to talk on Skype. As the researchers gained the fighters’ trust, direct contact increased. Most of the jihadists preferred text-messaging, for both convenience and security. Some of them were effusive; others were guarded and skeptical; still others, over a period of time, actually began to seek, or offer, guidance and advice.
“Building these relationships with these guys, you get to know them,” Maher told me. “You build and develop rapport. You get to understand why they’re there; what they hope to do. One Eid, the first message I got was not from my parents, but from a member of Al Qaeda. It was surreal.”
Maher, a 33-year-old historian of medium height and medium build with a neatly trimmed beard, is an expert on Salafi jihadism. As I sat with him one February morning, he scrolled through dozens of images culled from Facebook and jihadist websites that he’d stored on his laptop: young men in battle gear, some posing with weapons, others manning roadblocks; still others lounging by swimming pools and extolling the virtues of what the foreign fighters have coined “the five-star jihad.”
As we looked at the images, Maher began recounting some of the fighters’ stories to me. Some of the jihadists were hardened radicals who would become suicide bombers in Syria or Iraq. Others, he discovered, were much more fanciful. There was, for example, the foreign fighter from Mexico who constantly complained that it was impossible to find good Mexican food in Syria. There was the blind man from the Netherlands, who told a recruiter that because he was blind he couldn’t fight; the recruiter told him to come anyhow: “We’re a state,” he said, “and we need people to build that state.” And then there was the young man from Britain, who was already packed but had one last question before he left: Was hair gel available in Syria?
I looked around at the various flags that festoon the I.C.S.R.’s walls. They told the story of the three generations of Western fighters who had embraced jihad — going back to the 1980s and the war in Afghanistan. There were banners of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Free Syrian Army and ISIS, interspersed with posters of angry young men, some holding Kalashnikovs, others staring sternly ahead. The black, white and green flag of the U.S.-trained Free Syrian Army, Maher told me, took forever to find; he finally came upon one in a Turkish border town on the Syrian frontier. The black-and-white banner of ISIS, conversely, was available everywhere.
Maher explained that Ifthekar’s experience with the Nusra Front was not atypical. “Al Nusra has a vigorous vetting process, especially for foreigners,” he said. “It’s called tazkiyah, and it means that you must be vouched for by someone already in the organization. The system has worked well for Arabs with links to the group, but it has made it much more difficult for Europeans to join.”
The group also expects recruits to speak Arabic. “Nusra is very big on being entrenched in local communities,” Neumann told me. “If they think you’re not going to be useful, they won’t take you in. ISIS is less discriminating. They say: ‘If you’re a Muslim, you’re already part of the Caliphate. So even if you’re too fat, or too old to be a fighter, we’ll find something else for you to do. You have a right to emigrate. We’ll find a place for you.”
Of the 600 to 700 British fighters now in Syria and Iraq, only 20 percent have gone to the Nusra Front, according to Neumann. “The remaining 80 percent,” he says, “have joined ISIS. Very, very few are joining other groups.”
Hours at the I.C.S.R. can be erratic: Exchanges always occur on the jihadists’ clock. Maher and the other academics often have to wait, sometimes seemingly endlessly, for the fighters to call. In conducting research into radicalization, its causes and effects, and how it might be reversed, the center has published scores of research papers, journal articles and monographs. In some cases, it has acted as a kind of news service for those on the battlefields. It was the first to announce the death of one young British man.
I asked Maher if, based on the center’s research, he could draw a typical jihadist profile. “The average British fighter is male, in his early 20s and of South Asian ethnic origin,” he began. “He usually has some university education and some association with activist groups. Over and over again, we have seen that radicalization is not necessarily driven by social deprivation or poverty.” He paused for a moment, and then went on. “Other than those who go for humanitarian reasons, some of the foreign fighters are students of martyrdom; they want to die as soon as possible and go directly to paradise. We’ve seen four British suicide bombers thus far among the 38 Britons who have been killed. Then there are the adventure seekers — those who think this will enhance their masculinity, the gang members and the petty criminals too; and then, of course, the die-hard radicals, who began by burning the American flag and who then advanced to wanting to kill Americans — or their partners — under any circumstance.”
One afternoon I was talking with Maher in his office, which is filled with books and files, when an intern came in and handed him a note. He immediately turned to his computer and began to navigate onto jihadist websites, until he found what he was looking for: a video clip showing First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian fighter pilot, as ISIS was about to burn him alive.
We both sat stunned as the video began to play. Lieutenant Kasasbeh had been a prisoner of ISIS since Dec. 24, when his F-16 fighter plane was supposedly shot down, not far from the ISIS capital of Raqaa in northern Syria. He was the first member of the U.S.-led coalition to be captured by the Islamic State. Now dressed in an orange uniform — to resemble the attire of prisoners in Guantánamo — he stood inside a locked cage in the middle of the desert. A dozen or so ISIS fighters, some wearing masks, others not, formed a semicircle at a safe distance from the cage. The footage began cutting back and forth, between the desert scene and images of the charred bodies of women and children, their flesh discolored and raw, who, according to a voice-over, had been the victims of the coalition bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria.
The camera zoomed in and out, focusing on tight head shots of Kasasbeh, his bright orange uniform in sharp contrast with the taupe of the desert and the black ISIS flags. Then, with a flourish of his hand, one fighter set a powder fuse alight. The flames raced across the sand to Kasasbeh’s cage. The fighters began swaying rhythmically back and forth to the background music of a prophetic lyric, or nasheed. Kasasbeh flailed his arms as the flames entered his cage, first setting the bottom of his uniform alight, then moving on until the 26-year-old pilot disappeared in a human fireball.
Shiraz Maher, a former Islamic militant who is now a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization in London. Credit George Georgiou for The New York Times
Later, I asked Maher if such an act would dissuade potential fighters from joining the Islamic State. He replied that it would not. “In their minds, this was qisas, the principle of equal retaliation under Islamic law. If someone is killed, you can kill the perpetrator. You can choose the means. And he was burned at one of the very sites that the coalition forces bombed. Something like this will not affect the average fighter I’m talking to. For them, they are in a state of war with us. The Caliphate must be protected at all costs.”
Whether or not the Caliphate that ISIS has declared proves viable, it has extraordinary appeal, a return to the grandeur of the seventh- century Islamic state. ISIS now controls one-third of Syria and nearly one-third of Iraq. And as its territory has expanded, its volume of resources (oil, gas, electricity from captured dams and millions of dollars paid for hostages) has become unmatched — one primary reason that thousands of foreign fighters have abandoned other jihadist groups, including the Nusra Front, in order to join the ISIS fight. According to one U.S. intelligence official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the subject, an estimated 1,000 foreign fighters are joining ISIS every month. Even as ISIS shocks the world with its public beheadings and its demolition of priceless archaeological sites, its ranks continue to expand, from Boko Haram in sub-Saharan Africa, to Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Afghanistan. In many Middle Eastern countries, a new generation of jihadists came of age in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, when earlier exhilaration gave way to dashed hopes, and the return of even more brutal authoritarian states.
From its hundreds of online platforms — and at least 46,000 Twitter accounts, according to a new report by J.M. Berger of the Brookings Institution — ISIS recruits from multiple spheres, not only foreign fighters but also doctors and nurses and technocrats, schoolteachers and accountants. And women as well, to marry fighters and populate the state. (British women make up some 20 percent of the 550 Western women who have joined Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq.) In late February, when three young British girls — two of whom were only 15 — clandestinely traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State, concern in London gave way to alarm not only because they were straight-A students but also because their recruiter was a woman, a Briton too, known as Umm Layth (or Mother of the Lion), who had become a den mother for scores of disaffected, or bored, or angry, or frustrated young British girls.
I puzzled over why the flow of young British men, and women, into ISIS-controlled territory continued to grow. And I asked Maher now if Muslims were less integrated than the seemingly assimilated lives of Ifthekar and Jihadi John, for example, would suggest.
“We are one of the best integrated countries in Europe,” Maher said. “We have high-level Muslims in politics, including cabinet ministers; among opinion makers and journalists. Unfortunately, in the mid-to-late 1980s and the 1990s, we took in a number of dissidents, a new wave of Muslim preachers, who integrated into the heart of British Muslim life. They spoke Arabic, wore fancy robes and came from the Middle East. They were the ones who opened the debate in the mosques on ‘What is the Caliphate? What role does, or should it play, in everyday Muslim life?’ A lot of young people who go to Syria today were infants when the debate began, so this is what they’ve grown up with; it was the mood music of their lives. And today, ISIS and other recruiters have fed into this. Their message is: It’s better to be a Muslim in Raqaa than living next door to a Christian neighbor in London. And this is something with which an aspiring jihadist can connect.”
“Is that what convinced you?” I asked.
“No.” He smiled.
For four years, Maher was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamist group that he describes as an intellectual movement, not violent per se, but the political wing of the global jihadist movement worldwide.
Raised in Saudi Arabia, where his British-Pakistani parents had moved so that his father could set up an accounting practice there, Maher lived, as most Westerners do, in a walled compound, with swimming pools and tennis courts, cut off, in effect, from the desert kingdom surrounding them. Politics was never spoken of.
Then one day when he was 11, and wearing a Daffy Duck T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I Support Operation Desert Storm,” someone he now described to me as “an ordinary Saudi,” challenged him. “He asked me why I flaunted such a slogan on my T-shirt,” Maher told me. “ ‘Why not?’ I replied; ‘Saddam is a terrible man.’ ‘No,’ the Saudi replied. ‘The Americans use this as an excuse to establish bases on holy soil.’ ” It was Maher’s first encounter with anti-Western Islamist thought.
Not long after returning to Britain, he enrolled at the University of Leeds. “I was rootless and would have described myself as an agnostic or atheist,” he told me now. “Then Sept. 11 happened, and I said to myself: ‘You Americans, if you play with fire, you’ll get burnt. You’ve meddled in the Arab world. You’ve supported Israel. You should reap what you have sown — I thought to myself: America is the strongest power in the world, yet 19 guys got in and wreaked havoc. I was 21 at the time, and I thought, We’re on the cusp of history; we’re going to reshape the world.”
Within days, he had stopped drinking; left his girlfriend; and joined Hizb ut-Tahrir, quickly advancing in its ranks to become the group’s director for the northeast of Britain. Then in July 2005, the London Underground was bombed, and just as his own jihadist trajectory was born in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, it came to an end that day. He had already begun having doubts about Tahrir and what he considered to be its simplified, absolutist version of Islam. He was, by now, a graduate student at Cambridge, where the Islamist debate was more pluralistic and nuanced.
“If I had been 30 years older, I probably would have become a Communist,” Maher went on. “And even now, when I meet some of my friends who also used to be in Tahrir, we all agree that, yes, if we were 10 years younger, we’d probably be off fighting in Syria or Iraq. Can you imagine, a 20-year-old kid whose peers are getting drunk, obsessed with finding a girlfriend, as opposed to doing something in Syria or Iraq that, within an hour, gets a response from the president of the United States? Obama doesn’t know what a 25-year-old manager at Primark does, but if he goes to Syria and becomes involved with the Islamic State, he goes from being the manager of a second-rate clothing store to someone giving headaches to the president of the United States.”
While I was in London, the question of re-entry — and possible rehabilitation of British foreign fighters — was being debated, often vigorously, in the halls of Parliament, in universities and the press and among human rights groups. The government was putting the final touches on a new counterterrorism and security bill — which would become law on Feb. 12 — one of a number of measures designed to stanch the flow of British fighters abroad and, as important, to define how to deal with them if they return home. The tension in Parliament was palpable. The bill was passed in the wake of three horrific events: the terrorist attack in Paris against the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which left 12 dead, and two other related attacks, in which five others were killed; the discovery that Jihadi John was, in fact, a Briton; and the incineration of the Jordanian pilot, al-Kasasbeh.
As the debate continued, I asked Peter Neumann what he thought. Keeping tabs on returned fighters is not part of the I.C.S.R.’s mission, he said. The jihadists with whom the center corresponds often simply disappear — they may have died or been taken prisoner or even switched allegiances — and the center is wary of implicating itself or any of its contacts by tracking whether fighters return home.
When I asked him whether the fighters returning to Britain posed a real threat, he replied that a small percentage of them did. “According to a recent study, based on foreign fighters who had gone off to fight in previous conflicts, one in nine ended up being involved in terrorist activities when they returned home,” he said. “So the good news is we’re talking about just over 10 percent. But a number of other studies have also shown that when foreign fighters are involved in terrorist attacks, the attacks are larger, and more dangerous.” He paused for a moment, and then he said: “We don’t know whether they will act today or tomorrow, but what we do know is that in five, 10, 15 years, not just next month, they will pose a danger. They’ve had military training; they’ve set up networks. We’ve seen it with the Afghan Arabs” — those foreign fighters who came of age in the decade-long, C.I.A.-financed jihad of the 1980s against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. “Many of them subsequently became involved in every conflict of the 1990s: Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya. Others went home to Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and, once there, like the other Afghan Arabs, they became the elite: the leadership of the new jihad.”
Twenty-six years have passed since the C.I.A. closed down its pipeline to the Afghan mujahedeen, leaving behind some 25,000 well-trained and well-armed foreign fighters from nearly 30 countries, the first generation of today’s jihad. Today’s pool of fighters is even greater.
“The numbers of this generation are astonishing,” says Richard Barrett, a former head of counterterrorism for MI6 and now a senior vice president of the Soufan Group in New York — which, among other things, provides strategic security and intelligence services to multinational organizations and government. “We’re talking about some 20,000 fighters from about 90 countries around the world — which could be three times more nationalities from which today’s fighters are being drawn. And although the number of fighters is fairly comparable, those who went to Afghanistan arrived over a period of 10 years; in Iraq and Syria, it’s been only three, four years.” He went on: “There’s also more of a common purpose today and thus more camaraderie. A great majority of today’s fighters are fighting for the Ummah — the community of Muslims — which they see as being under threat. With Afghanistan, the battle was against the Soviets, which was much more opaque. Also, and this is very important, in the case of Afghanistan, many of the jihadists were being sent by their governments; it was state sponsorship. Today we are seeing 20,000 young men from around the world — aided by social media, to a great extent — simply packing their bags and taking the initiative.”
The counterterrorism bill was being harshly criticized by human rights groups for, among other things: the power to temporarily ban re-entry to the country, for two years, of any British citizen suspected of fighting in Syria or Iraq; to empower airport security officials and border guards to confiscate the passports of any suspected would-be jihadists before they set off; and to require Internet-service providers to retain communications data from private accounts. The government defended its position on national-security grounds. “One of our major problems here is that, until now, we have had no significant border checks for exiting the U.K.,” a member of Parliament, who was not authorized to speak on the subject and so asked not to be named, explained. “As a result, we have no idea where someone has been when he or she comes back. As far as the exclusion provision is concerned, anyone who is not permitted to re-enter the country has the right to appeal, and that appeal must be granted, as long as that person agrees to an interview with a member of the security services. The point of this section is to stop individuals suspected of terrorism from coming back without making their return clear and obvious to the government.”
I asked Barrett what he thought of the bill’s provisions. He replied: “This bill was driven by two factors: the government’s responsibility to protect the state, of course, but also domestic opinion and, as part of that, commensurate pressure on the government. This is the government’s way of saying: ‘We’re tough on terrorism.’ But a negative in all of this was the government’s speed in drafting the bill, with elections coming up.” What he had hoped the bill would do, he said, was to establish ways of reintegrating those who had gone to Syria or Iraq. “Before this bill was passed, according to official figures, 260 Britons had already returned, and only 40 or so were arrested, and may be brought to trial. So we’re talking about some 220 people who came back and got on with their lives. Now, with this new legislation, if someone really wants to come back because he’s disenchanted with all the infighting, with all that he’s seen, what’s going to happen to him? This is not something you can legislate with a blanket approach. What do you do? Tell this young man, You’re going to have to stay there for two more years, and thus become even more radicalized?”
He paused and then said: “Another thing which is terribly important is how to stop the flow; how to dissuade young men — and some women, too — from going out at all. And who is better to do this than those who have returned? Let them tell potential recruits: ‘It’s terrible! Don’t go!’ If you want to send a message, you’ve got to choose who that messenger will be. If you want to get credible messengers, you’ve got to find people with credibility.”
Aldgate East is the last stop on the District line before London proper ends. It is a welter of shops and coffeehouses and traffic jams; noise and people are everywhere. It used to be a largely Jewish neighborhood, and then in the 1970s and 1980s, waves of Bengalis, from the Indian subcontinent, arrived, and the neighborhood was transformed. It is now home to the largest mosque in Britain, the East London Mosque, a massive, sprawling structure set somewhat incongruously next to — and surrounding three sides of — the tiny Fieldgate synagogue.
I had come here to meet Moazzam Begg, an Islamic activist, a prolific writer and speaker and a former prisoner at Guantánamo Bay who, along with 15 other Britons who were also detainees, sued the British government for complicity in their detention, successfully. More recently, Begg, who now works with a human rights and advocacy group, had traveled twice to Syria since the carnage there began.
As I went in search of his office, I promptly became lost. I wandered around for perhaps 15 minutes or so, well away from the neighborhood’s bustling thoroughfare, down quiet cul-de-sacs and labyrinthine passageways. I realized almost immediately that I was the only woman not wearing a hijab, or head scarf, or a full veil. I felt more self-conscious in appearance here, in East London, than in Peshawar, Pakistan. I couldn’t help wondering, yet again, about the degree of assimilation, and integration, of Muslims here.
The Cage offices are in an unpretentious building on a quiet street not far from the mosque. I met Begg in an open alcove area that abuts the main reception hall. Beyond it, five or six young men and women worked at computer screens; others checked reference books and files.
Begg, the son of a professional, middle-class family — his father, a former bank manager, writes Urdu poetry — is a product of the Jewish King David School, where he wore a blue blazer affixed with the Star of David; the Lynx Gang of Birmingham, which consisted mostly of South Asian youth; and the University of Wolverhampton, where he studied law. He is short in stature, with dark, intense eyes and a graying beard, premature perhaps, for someone only 47, but possibly a result of the nearly three years he spent, often in solitary confinement, first at the U.S. detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan, and then, as an “enemy combatant” in Guantánamo. He was never charged or tried — as nearly none of those in Guantánamo have ever been — and was released by President George W. Bush in January 2005, as a favor to a friend, the British prime minister Tony Blair, who was then facing harsh criticism at home for his support of the Iraq War.
In 2006, Begg joined Cage Prisoners, which campaigns for the release of those remaining in Guantánamo and, as important, seeks countries to which they could be sent. (The organization’s mandate has since expanded to include a campaign against the “war on terror” and is now called Cage.) As the group’s outreach director, Begg traveled across Europe, into the Middle East and on to Asia, addressing the European Parliament; winning praise from the American ambassador to Luxembourg and human rights groups. He became a minor celebrity in Britain; a much-sought-after media star; and, to the delight of liberals, the personification of the Bush administration’s worst nightmare.
Cage, however, is not without its critics. In late February, it provoked uproar when its research director, Asim Qureshi, who had been in contact with Mohammed Emwazi before he became Jihadi John, suggested that MI5’s earlier harassment of him may have contributed to his radicalization. London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, called the accusations “incredible.” And Lord Carlile, a former independent reviewer of terror legislation for the government, said: “At the very least, Cage are guilty of sloppy thinking and very unwise language.”
I first heard Begg speak the month before, on a panel at London’s Frontline Club, discussing the fate of British fighters who had gone off to Syria and Iraq, and what should happen to them when they came home. Now, as we sat in his office, I began by asking Begg what his most vivid memory of his three years in Bagram and Guantánamo was. “It was a long time ago,” he replied, “but one of the things that keeps coming back are the American threats at Bagram, that if I didn’t cooperate in their interrogations, I’d be put in a wooden box like Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was — and that I’d be shipped to Egypt or Syria to be interrogated there.” (Al-Libi, a key Al Qaeda trainer at Afghanistan’s Al Khaldan camp, was renditioned to Egypt and, after what a Senate intelligence report describes as severe and prolonged torture, claimed, falsely, that there was a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was a key component of the Bush administration’s justification for its March 2003 invasion of Iraq.)
“The threats were my introduction to the U.S. rendition program, and the black sites,” Begg went on, “and this is something I’ve spent a lot of time investigating since.” It was during a trip to Libya in 2011, to find out what happened to Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, Begg said, that he met the people who would encourage him to make his first trip to Syria the following year. “We were interested in two specific cases of U.S. prisoners who had been renditioned there,” he told me now. “One of the things I discovered in the process was just how close the cooperation was between the Bush administration and the Assad regime, with the complicity of the British government.” Then he said, “Now, looking back, three years later, many of those who had been renditioned, or sent to black sites by the United States, are rebel leaders in Syria today.”
Begg returned to Syria in 2012 for a second trip, to continue his work on U.S. renditions there, but only after a meeting with officials from MI5, at their request. “I told them in advance,” Begg said to me, “that I would not discuss what I had seen or learned about British involvement in the renditions. They agreed and we met, with lawyers on both sides. MI5 gave me the green light to go.”
A little more than a year later, in February 2014, without warning, Begg was arrested and charged with seven counts under the terrorism act. He was sent to Belmarsh Prison, where he remained for nearly eight months. Then, just as abruptly as he was arrested, he was released, and all charges were dropped, after what the BBC described as “new material” emerged. In a terse statement, the Crown Prosecution Service announced: “If we had been made aware of all this information at the time of charging, we would not have charged.” It was rather like the N.Y.P.D. arresting someone for a trip sanctioned by the F.B.I.
“Among the things I was charged with was sending a generator to a Syrian rebel — at the same time the British government was supplying generators to Syrian rebels,” Begg told me now. “Obviously, I was happy to be released, but I wanted my day in court. I knew that I would never be convicted. The government’s evidence was going to be my strongest defense. They know my views on what’s happening in Syria. They’d bugged my car for the last year and a half.”
Given that Begg had been in Syria fairly recently, and had also met some of the jihadists who left Britain to fight there, I asked him if, in his view, they posed a threat to Britain, if they decided to come home.
“When I was being held at Belmarsh,” he replied, “I was held with several young men, who had returned from Syria and were arrested and being prosecuted under the terrorism act. Their age didn’t exceed 22; most were in their late teens. Some of them had been held since September, October 2013. Prior to then, people had been coming and going to Syria, as they had done in Libya, without fear of being prosecuted when they came home. I know many men who fought in Libya against Qaddafi’s regime and then went on to fight in Syria against Assad. But Libya was the ‘good war,’ and they were treated like heroes then. So why, in Syria, are they being treated like terrorists? Short of having been with ISIS, what crimes did they commit? To punish them — to take away their youth? Let them talk about their experiences. Let us learn from them. The only threat they posed was to the Assad regime.
“And let us be involved as well, those of us who have been to Syria and have seen what’s happening on the ground. Let us be part of the reintegration process when they come home.” He paused, and shook his head. “There was one young man in Belmarsh, he was 19 years old, and he was sentenced to 13 years. He had not been fighting with ISIS. Indeed, ISIS was the reason he left.”
A stream of people came and went from Begg’s office as we continued to talk.
I asked Begg why, in his view, ISIS had such appeal for the hundreds of Britons who had gone off to fight with it.
“In a word, legitimacy,” he replied. He, too, cited the territory ISIS had seized, the declaration of a Caliphate, the sense that they alone were fighting the enemy, which was not just Assad and the West but the corrupt regimes of the Middle East. “As much as I oppose ISIS,” Begg went on, “I recognize that these arguments are very powerful, but I believe the arguments against ISIS are more powerful. One of their biggest drawbacks is that they have no grounding” — in Islam — “no knowledge; no experience. It’s really quite bizarre. The old religious scholars — Sheikh Abu Qatada and Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, for example — the religious authorities to whom those who became ISIS deferred in the past, now they are simply ignored. Their advice is not taken. When they’ve tried to mediate the release of hostages, for example, they’ve been rebuffed. So now, like much of the religious establishment, they’ve unanimously rejected ISIS and condemned it for many of its acts.”
He then pointed to the fact that ISIS, unlike the Nusra Front and other Islamist groups, had antagonized local populations with its harsh punishments. “The people I lived with in Syria, and to whom I became close, have recently been arrested by ISIS, and the head of the household was executed for refusing to pledge allegiance to the group.”
He paused for a moment and then went on: “I keep thinking of the young men in Belmarsh, and what will happen to them. This new counterterrorism bill should not be passed. Britain already has more antiterrorism legislation now than we had during the time of the I.R.A. The home secretary says we are now facing the greatest terrorist threat in recent history. Has she forgotten the conflict with the I.R.A.? What about it? What about the 3,000 people who died then?”
While talking to Begg, I recognized a man who had entered the outer reception area and whom I had been trying to meet for two weeks. I’d been told that three of his sons had gone to Syria to fight.
“Is that Abubaker Deghayes?” I whispered to Begg across the table at which we sat.
Thirty-five years ago, Zohra Zewawi Deghayes, a young Libyan widow, whose husband, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist, was killed by Qaddafi’s regime, began to make plans to smuggle her family, including Abubaker, then 11, and his younger brother, Omar, 10, out of Libya and into England, where the family spent summer holidays. Eventually she succeeded, and the family moved to Saltdean, outside Brighton, and into a large house by the sea, where Zohra Zewawi, now a British citizen, continues to live today.
Omar, now 45, became a lawyer like his father, and after university, he moved to Afghanistan, where he helped to establish a school and worked with NGOs. Then came the American bombing campaign in October 2001, and Omar, with his family, fled to Pakistan, where he was arrested by Pakistani intelligence officers and turned over to the United States, which, he claims, was sending out bounty hunters to find any foreign men who had recently arrived from Afghanistan. Like Begg, he ended up in Guantánamo, where he spent more than five years, until the Americans realized their mistake: the man for whom they had been searching was not of Libyan descent after all but a Saudi who had served in Chechnya. After the intervention of the British government, Omar was released, but not, he claims, before one of his Guantánamo guards tried, with his fingers, to gouge out his right eye — an eye in which he remains blinded today.
Abubaker, meanwhile, remained in Saltdean, where he became a property manager and a trustee at the Brighton mosque. His life was pleasant, if uneventful. Then, early last year, it fell apart. Three of his five sons, he told me now, as we sat in Begg’s reception room, had gone to Syria and joined the Nusra Front. Two of them had been killed.
“Amer, the oldest, was the first to go to Syria,” Abubaker said. “He was 19 when he left in 2013. He had become interested in world affairs about two years before, at the time of the Arab Spring. He never thought of going to Libya; he was more concerned with his career. He was studying finance and took his studies very seriously. But with Syria, he felt differently. I knew he was going to go, we discussed it a lot. I urged him to go with an aid convoy, which I had done a number of times myself; to work in the refugee camps; to do humanitarian work. I pleaded with him not to become a fighter. I thought he had agreed. But then I was told by a friend in one of the Turkish refugee camps that he had crossed into Syria and joined Jabhat.”
He sat silently, staring ahead.
A stout, bearded man, now 47, Abubaker has a zebibah, or prayer bump, on his forehead, the sign of a devout Muslim man. “Then last February,” he went on, “I found out that Abdullah, my second son, and Jaffar, my fourth, were missing, and their passports were gone. I left for Turkey immediately, fearing the worst. Unlike Amer, they left without my knowledge, without discussing it at all. I found them in Reyhanli” — the Turkish border town that is a base for Syrian refugees and a rallying point for fighters crossing into Syria.
“I had been to Reyhanli a number of times myself with aid convoys, and it was easy to find them. There are only two hotels. They were shocked to see me; I pleaded with them, to no avail. They were intent on joining Amer, and wouldn’t come back with me.” He paused for a moment, and then he said, “Abdullah, who was 18, was killed in a couple of weeks. Amer and Jaffar were both with him when he died. Then, Jaffar, my next to youngest son, was killed in Idlib last October. He was only 16. Amer told me that he had been shot through his head. He survived for 15 minutes or so, just long enough, Amer said, to recite the final Muslim prayers.”
His eyes misted over, and neither of us said anything more.
Jaffar Deghayes was one of the youngest British foreign fighters to die in Syria. He had not yet finished school, but he wanted to study finance one day, as his older brother Amer did, interrupted only by his own journey to Syria.
Abubaker told me that he was increasingly worried about Amer, to whom he had spoken the previous morning, and who was torn: his fellow fighters were urging him to stay. “It’s becoming harder and harder for Amer to pull himself out,” Abubaker said. “I keep telling him, I have faith in the fairness of the system here. But the fighters surrounding him there keep trying to dissuade him, telling him that dying as a martyr is better than living this life.”
He paused and then went on, saying that he was also concerned about what would happen to Amer if he did come home. “Under this new legislation, you’re guilty until you’re proven innocent. Many Brits went to fight in the revolution against Qaddafi; many fought in Bosnia and, before that, in Afghanistan. They were the cream of the Afghan Arabs, and they came home. They never did anything against this country, and they’re grandfathers now.”
Abubaker stood up to leave, but then turned to me and said: “Please tell Amer, if he reads your story, please tell him he must come home. And for any other young men, tell them now, please, tell them: Just don’t go!”
Mary Anne Weaver is the author of “Pakistan: Deep Inside the World’s Most Frightening State” and “A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam.”