Understanding British Jihadis

sniperIt is easy for security analysts, former Islamist penitents and politicians to rely on ready made narratives on why the UK is still producing Jihadists. Terms like self-radicalization, alienation, terrorism and hatred for the West have been accepted and bandied around without question. But ultimately acceptance of these easy narratives has lead to misunderstanding and wrong policy decisions. The truth is our post-Enlightenment mind finds it difficult to comprehend men who look at the world differently from us.

When Ali Manasfi, a British Syrian fighter, says “By God going into battle against the enemy and shouting Allahu Akbar [God is Great] at the top of your lungs is the best feeling in the world”, he is expressing a view shared by many; Jihad is the philosophical equivalent of the good life. The fact that Ali gets attacked by helicopters daily bothers him little. He feels at home in this hyper charged environment of faith, guns and martyrdom. It is bizarre to meet joyful men like Abu Ra’if laughing off a shell that destroyed part of the room whilst he was sleeping. “By the grace of God,” he says smiling, “they didn’t hit next door. There’s a family of four. If I die, I’m in Paradise”. Abu Jihad knows he’s in the right, “when our brother’s die they do not rot; when we kill theirs they turn black”. Another fighter waves a picture of a dead friend seemingly smiling, “he used to fast alternate days and God gave him what he prayed for, I smelt the musk on his breath- O God make us of the martyrs”. An Amen goes out across the whole room. For some men, Jihad is a way of life. In the past living this way was easy, Islamic history is replete with irregulars joining a Ribat- a fortress, or even Sufi fraternities in order to live in this way. Where the modern period is different is that there is no Muslim State willing to regulate or command the authority to channel the bellicose sentiments of men who consider Jihad a way of life.

Zeeshan Siddiqui has been described as a disturbed British Jihadi by some, but frame him within a world that looks at Paradise as reality and then this enigmatic figure makes sense. I met him by chance in college washing his feet in the sink, his cap had the Nike swoosh blacked out. Zeeshan was probably the most otherworldly man I knew; a Peter the hermit in the age of Fight Club. He was impeccably honest, always informing his customers of the money making scam that his employer was trying to foist on them. He was indifferent to our youthful ardours, oblivious to the ephemeral.

As I got to know him, he seemed even more enigmatic. I once found him sleeping on my balcony in freezing weather then awakening telling tales of Paradise, this was not about a Muslim Valhalla complete with sensual delights but about proximity to the Divine Presence. Sometimes he turned up with one of Majid Nawas’ friends trying to convince me that the Ottoman caliphate needed reviving. Whilst skeptical, one couldn’t help marvel at his vision of Homeric proportions with Mehmet the Conqueror surpassing the deeds of Achilles. He could make you believe that you, who would soon become a married mortgaged middle management Mondeo man, could be part of something epic.

Mohammed Lamine, described by former Home Secretary John Reid, as dangerous was the complete opposite of Zeeshan. He didn’t raise his ideas to the level of myth. Lamine was deeply intelligent and well versed in Socrates and the Enlightenment, yet was conscious of the way the Algerian military junta had crushed the Islamist FIS election victory with the tacit approval of the West. He was aware of his father fleeing Algeria because of his politics. He often complained to me how the Muslim world was being invaded, its resources stolen and no one did anything.

Lamine didn’t expect help from the West. Imbued with the heroic, he was peering out in the horizon waiting for Islam’s heroes. Lamine was not unique in this regard. Fathers name their sons and daughters after heroes. Watch Moustapha Akkad’s The Message or the more recent Arab drama, Omar, or look at the Syrian brigades, Islamist or not, who name battalion after battalion after Islamic heroes harking back to the days of yore. Islamic tradition aspires to the heroic and Lamine swam in this sea. The only problem was Lamine grew up in the 90s and the Muslim world had a shortage of heroes, and so he stepped up.

Lamine’s support for the likes of Khattab, the Saudi fighter who plagued the Russians in Chechnya, was a response to this. His rationale ran thus: Russian SpetsNaz soldiers were etching swastikas on young Chechen women, Arab leaders did nothing. Khattab, a young Saudi, abandons the comfort of his home just like the early Companions of the Prophet did, for the rugged mountains of Chechnya. Khattab becomes a real Hadji Murat and defends the oppressed unlike the hypocritical Muslims leaders. It was this choice, this desire to fulfill an ideal, that made Lamine log onto sites like Kawkaz where Khattab’s comrades blew up Russian convoys, where men seemingly smiled in the face of death. Lamine looked at Jihad similar to the way Christians did when Pope Urban II declared Crusade in the fields of Clermont.

At its most fundamental, this is not about alienation, radicalization or the ideas of Al-Qaeda. It’s more about men who inhabit a non-Newtonian world – a world not un-similar to Medieval Christianity where God is the cause and end of things. Ali, Zeeshan and Lamine, like previous generations, took seriously the numerous prophetic traditions about the virtues of Jihad. They were moved, not necessarily by a hatred of the West or identity politics, but by a combination of idealism, Paradise, a sense of the heroic and opposition to Western foreign policy.

There is an urgent need to reassess the idea that all foreign fighters travelling to Syria are radical extremists. Some of course can become grizzled by the effect of war as do all human beings, and some harbor extremist ideas. But many others go viewing their efforts like the internationalists did going to fight against Franco’s fascists in Spain in the 1930s; as a service to remove an unjust government. The issue about British Jihadis going over to Syria then, is not as black and white as some security analysts would have you believe.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post