By Nesrine Malik
30 Jul 2018
The first time I saw El Shafee Elsheikh’s name in the British media, it took me a while to make the link between this Islamic State terrorist – said to be a member of the so-called Isis Beatles – and the stories I’d heard about the misfortunes of a Sudanese woman called Maha whose boys were losing their way in London.
The Elsheikhs were a distant part of my extended family circle in Sudan before they sought asylum in the UK. I never met any of them, but they were spoken of often, long before the brothers were radicalised, as a family that had fallen through the cracks in exile. The irony in the Elsheikh story is that the parents were communists who fled to the UK from the persecution of an Islamist regime that came to power in Sudan in 1989. A whole middle-class generation left the country in the early 90s, either out of fear for their safety after they refused to support the regime, or because they were too liberal and progressive. Many struggled to thrive once they fled.
The Elsheikh family stories came through regularly, traded in the salons of Khartoum. It was unkind gossip from those who had stayed behind to suffer under the iron fist of the military, sneery and gloating at their lack of success. The parents had separated shortly after arriving in the UK and the mother, Maha, and her three boys lived in a west London council estate. Two of the boys began to stray into gang violence, their close threesome shattered when the eldest was sent to jail for a decade for firearm possession during a plot to murder a boy who had stabbed El Shafee several times in a fight.
El Shafee fell under the influence of an imam version of the Pied Piper, who set him on the path to radicalisation, and ultimately to the torturers of Isis. El Shafee’s younger brother, left alone with his mother, followed him to Syria and was dead within a year. El Shafee, on the other hand, rose high in the Isis ranks.
He allegedly became part of the “Beatles”, the gang of torturers and executioners that also included “Jihadi John”. The sobriquets and breathless media coverage of this gang of four, wielding their weapons as they bantered in masks and London accents, jarred with the sad, small life lived by misfit boys in west London that had been gossiped about among their parents’ peers.
This is not a glamorous story with a coherent thread, it is a story of political failure in Sudan and social failure in the UK, underscored by family breakdown. It is a story of poverty, urban drift and atomisation. And it is a story of how some preachers in London’s mosques stalk the city, picking up fatherless, disenchanted boys.
So it is unsettling to hear the way Elsheikh’s narrative is being retold today – giving him the chance of glamorous martyrdom at the hands of Isis’s great satan, the United States, with the UK happy to assist without any assurances against the death penalty being enforced. This is a mistake. Not out of any sympathy for Elsheikh or his fellow jihadis – they chose their path – but because to strip them of citizenship and condemn them to death gives them a shot at the jihadi big time. And it fuels the idea of a western enemy that claims to have values but jettisons them whenever is convenient. This is the west of Guantanamo Bay, of extrajudicial torture and execution.
Elsheikh draws his lifeblood from this. Since his arrest in Syria, he’s been happy to give interviews, seething with anger against his FBI interrogators – according to him “the least respectable of the bunch” of parties that interviewed him. He rails against his statelessness and how it guarantees mistreatment at American hands.
Already he is an embarrassment to the British government. His mother launched a legal bid last week to stop Britain handing over evidence to US authorities. The Home Office, which had until then cooperated with the US, paused its assistance – potentially saving Elsheikh’s life. It is the first time in the legal proceedings since he and another alleged former “Beatle” Alexanda Kotey were arrested in Syria that authorities have intervened on behalf of British due process.
The British government seems happy to wash its hands of the whole affair. The home secretary, Sajid Javid, in a leaked letter to the US attorney-general Jeff Sessions, states that the government “does not currently intend to request, nor actively encourage” the transfer of Kotey and Elsheikh to Britain, allowing the US retribution machine to take over.
It seems we have in this country defaulted to some of the American way of dealing with Islamist radicalisation, in that we imbue it with an exceptional sort of criminality, something that requires a public square lynching. Only a month ago, it was revealed that British intelligence had been involved in hundreds of illegal rendition or torture cases. This plays into all the narratives that nourish radicalisation, that spin elaborate tales to convince people such as Elsheikh that they are not merely gangsters. The whole purpose of joining Isis is to inflict as much damage and pain as possible against its self-appointed enemy, before succumbing to crucifixion and in the process, earn an identity, an arc, some meaning.
Elsheikh’s story has no arc or meaning, it is merely one of self-righteous violence with a banal origin, and it should be treated that way. The crimes he and Kotey are accused of are horrific and, though it is tempting to look for a jurisdiction that metes out maximum punishment, to do so gives them too much credit. They would become two more names to be used in the Isis propaganda of victimhood, of heroism in the face of barbarism. Handing them over boosts them and diminishes us.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist