Turkey, Syria, Iraq: ‘It’s jihad, innit, bruv.’ The young British Muslim cut an absurd figure in ski mask, dark glasses and hoodie. He had not used that exact phrase but it would have summed up our faintly comical encounter. I remembered a security analyst’s remark that British Islamists in the Middle East are best explained by Four Lions, the mock documentary about some Yorkshire jihadis on an incompetent quest for martyrdom.
He called himself ‘Obeid’ and he described, in a Leeds or Bradford accent, how he had arrived in Turkey on a tourist visa. Then, speaking no Arabic, and barely knowing one end of a Kalashnikov from the other, he had managed to sign up with one of the most feared and bloodthirsty jihadi commanders, a Chechen credited with 300 beheadings.
He had not taken part in any fighting, or even any beheading, though. So far, his jihad had consisted of guard duty outside a base. He was, however, part of Isis, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — or ‘the Islamic State’ as they are now known.
I met Obeid in Turkey; the ski mask wouldn’t have been so funny in Syria. He was in his late twenties, British-born of Pakistani descent. Before jihad, he had been ‘a bad lad, gettin’ into bovver’: petty crime, car theft, insurance fraud, running prostitutes. Then he found Islam, but not his parents’ version of it. His parents still didn’t know he was fighting in Syria. He was heavily disguised to hide as much from them as from MI5.
He had been encouraged by jihadi propaganda on social media. 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.
A Western diplomat told me there were two types of foreign Islamists: the ‘gangsters’, often former petty criminals attracted by the guns and the glamour of jihad; and the true believers, those who come to Syria and Iraq to stay, often to die. Obeid was the former, probably heading back to Britain eventually, Islamic and street credibility enhanced by his ‘jihad holiday’.
Abu Sumayyah al-Britani, as he called himself, was a true believer. He left a wife and three children in the UK and had signed up to become an Isis suicide bomber. We spoke by Skype, as I wasn’t about to head into the ‘Islamic State’. ‘Everybody’s got their name on the list for martyrdom operations,’ he said. ‘Everybody’s asking the emir to push their name up. We wish to leave this world and meet our lord.’
How many of the 400 to 600 Britons the intelligence agencies think went to Syria then moved on to fight in Iraq? The head of Kurdish intelligence in northern Iraq told me they had found the body of a dead Isis fighter wearing gloves from Gold’s gym in Surrey and a shirt from M&S. It seems, though, that most Brits were left behind to do guard duty in Syria. They don’t speak Arabic and the most experienced fighters are Iraqi.
They might now be brought over to Iraq as Isis tries to consolidate its grip on the territory it so dramatically captured last month. Isis was just one part of a wider tribal uprising against the government of Nouri al Maliki. Sunnis (and others) accuse him of running a sectarian regime, overseeing immense corruption, and tolerating death squads run by those close to him.
Baquba is a Sunni town on the edge of going over to Isis. The town’s mayor showed me photographs on his smartphone of some 46 Sunni prisoners murdered in the local police station. The police — all Shia — claimed the building was hit by a mortar during an Isis attack. But if so, it was a mortar that killed only Sunnis. Each body had a single bullet hole to the head. Some of the prisoners had been arrested only because they were Sunni, the mayor said, including his own nephew, who was among the dead. No wonder some Sunnis are turning to Isis. Isis now seeks to position itself as the Sunnis’ protector, after killing Shiites in large numbers, provoking revenge attacks.
The other Sunni armed groups are plotting to double-cross the ‘Islamic State’, having used Isis as shock troops to get the government out. But that won’t be so easy. An Iraqi intelligence official told me that Isis had seized 1,000 tons of ammunition, 300 Humvees, 80 tanks, and even some helicopters. At the same time, Isis has drawn the Americans back into Iraq, making this a holy war. All this and the Isis ‘brand’ attracts young Muslims from around the world. I asked Abu Sumayyah al-Britani if some of the British mujahideen would eventually return home to plant bombs on London buses. No, he said, they were so happy in the ‘Caliphate’ that they had even burned their passports. It was anti-Muslim propaganda to claim that they were being prepared to commit acts of terror in the UK.
But that might change if the ‘Caliphate’ were crushed with western help. ‘9/11 was a warning shot. If you don’t leave our Muslim brothers around the globe and mind your own business and if you support our enemies against us, then you can expect these attacks,’ he said. Just in case there was any doubt, he went on: ‘If the British government commits terror against our people …then you can expect attacks on your soil.’
Leaving Isis alone has its risks, too. Its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, claims the loyalty of Muslims everywhere. His first address to the faithful as ‘Caliph’ hinted at global jihad. He is perhaps too clever to pick a fight with the US and others now. But an Iraqi intelligence official with knowledge of this enigmatic figure — he had actually met him — told me Baghdadi would not be able to resist showy attacks in Europe or the US. The unpalatable choice is whether to leave ISIS to grow — or to back a regime viewed as brutally sectarian by a large part of the Iraqi population. If western governments get it wrong, Abu Sumayyah and his friends will be waiting.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent. His Panorama documentary on Isis is available on iPlayer.