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What Makes a Young Person Embrace Death and Murder? Former Jihadists Speak Out

Former radical Islamists share their tales of why they turned to extremism, and why they repented.

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They had to go looking for other Islams – and often they found it in the more mystical school of the Sufis. "Wahabi Islam is totally sensory: eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth," Usman says. "It lays out a strict set of rules to be followed here on earth, every moment of the day. Sufi Islam teaches instead that the realm of Allah is wholly separate and spiritual and nothing to do with the shadow-play of mere mortals. It is accessible only through a sense of mystery and transcendence." In this new Sufi Islam, Usman found something he had never known before: a sense of calm.

Ed Husain insists: "There are a lot of Muslims who agree with us. A lot. But they're frightened. They see what's happened to us – the hassle, the slander, the death threats – and they think: it's not worth it. But you know what? When I first spoke out, I was alone. I had no idea that, a year on, there would be this number of people speaking out, and many more who are just offering resources and support. Once a truth is spoken, it takes on its own life."

IV. Not Strawberry Season

Anjem Choudhary waves his hand angrily through the air, and says that in the world he wants to create, the people I have been interviewing will be put to death. "They are apostates. I don't consider [them] to be Muslim in any sense of the word," he says. "Everybody knows the punishment for apostasy." My facial muscles must involuntarily react, because he leans forward and asks suspiciously: "Are you Jewish?"

Anjem is one of the last of the famous Islamists from the 1990s still walking London's streets, free and furious. A decade ago, this city hosted a stream of fanatical Muslims who kept cropping up in the tabloid press as semi-comic pantomime villains. But gradually, one by one, they have been deported or arrested, leaving Anjem as their final public face. He has said the Pope and the Mohamed cartoonists should be executed, and has lauded the 7/7 bombers as "the Fantastic Four."

I wanted to see what the people the ex-jihadis have left behind make of them – and to sense if they are seen as a real threat. Anjem suggests meeting me in the Desert Rose Café in Leyton, not far from Usama's mosque. The 41-year-old lives here on social security benefits, paid for by a populace he believes should – in large measure – be lashed, stoned or burned in the hellfires. A long beard covers his chubby face, and long white robes cover his swollen form. I was surprised he agreed to meet me. He rarely speaks to print journalists. The last time he did, he stormed out, accusing the reporter of being a paedophile.

He immediately launches into a lecture about how the ex-Islamists are all liars and charlatans. They are "government bandits, set up by them and funded by them to do their dirty work within the [Muslim] community ... They were never actually practising! They were ignorant of Islam."

When I read him statements by ex-Islamists, he spits: "This is heresy ... The Muslim must submit to the sharia in all of his life. If I start to say things like, 'I don't believe the sharia needs to be implemented,' then that's tantamount to denying the message of Mohamed ... To say that any part of the Koran is not relevant nowadays is a clear statement of apostasy."

Taking any part of the Koran as metaphor will, he warns, cause the text to turn to dust in their hands. "I can't pick and choose what I like from the scripture. This is not strawberry season, where you can pick your own strawberries. You abide by whatever Allah brought in the final revelation with the example of the Prophet. And if there's something that you don't like, then you need to correct your own emotions and desires to make sure they're in line with the sharia."