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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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Jimas told their members they were part of a persecuted billion, being blown up and locked down across the world. "It was a bit like a gang," he says. "And we had a strong sense of being under siege. It was all a conspiracy against Islam, and we were the guardians of Islam. That's how we saw ourselves ... A lot of my friends would wear the army boots, and carry knives." I realise now that for a nebbish intellectual boy, it must have felt intoxicating to be told he was part of a military movement that would inevitably conquer history.

For his summer vacation in 1990 – as a break from studying physics at Cambridge University – he went to wage jihad on the battlefields of Afghanistan. He arrived with two friends from Jimas at an Arab-run training camp in the mountains of Kunar in Eastern Afghanistan. It was a sparse collection of tents and weapons left behind by the CIA in the snow and blood. They spent the days running up and down mountains learning how to fire Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers. "When you fire a Kalashnikov, it echoes all around the mountain," he says. "After this boring life, you feel the adrenaline pumping."

The Arab fighters wore four layers of clothes and still shivered. They had never seen snow before, so every now and then, they would lay down their weapons to have a long, gleeful snow-fight. Once they had all learned how to kill, they were taken to the front line to shell the communist hold-outs. "One of the shells landed very close to us, about 100ft away." He fired in retaliation. "I hope we never killed anybody," he says quickly.

Usama tells his story fluently and fast, and rides over these difficult moments – a killing – like a speed-bump. He thought an earthly paradise would rise from the rubble he was creating – and remake the world in its image. "The expectation was that Afghanistan would become this dream Islamic state," he adds, "which would then spread all over the world." He returned to Cambridge University determined to convert as many of his fellow Muslim students as possible to Wahabism. "It was relatively easy to persuade them," he says. "People were looking for group identity. They were very confused: what does it mean to live as a Muslim in society like this? We had easy answers. Go back to the original sources, and [follow it] literally."

At the center of this vision was the need to rebuild the caliphate – the Islamic state under sharia law persisted from the time of Mohamed until 1924. "It was a very dreamy, romantic idea," he says. "If anybody asked questions about how it would work, we would just say – the people that will make it happen will be so saintly, they will make the right decisions." It was the old promise of the revolutionary down the ages: there would be a single revolutionary heave in which all political conflict would dissolve forever, and a conflict-free paradise would be born.

Usama's job was to persuade people to go to fight in Afghanistan and, from the mid-1990s, Bosnia. He was one of the best – and he says, again very fast, that one of his successes was to radicalize Omar Sheikh, the man now on death row in Pakistan for beheading Daniel Pearl. "I set him off on his path to Jihad," he says. He looks a little excited, and a little appalled. The first thing he remembers about Sheikh – who he met at a Jimas study circle – is the fresh lemonade he made in his university rooms. "It was delicious. And we drank and drank. My first impression of him was that he was a clean-shaven, well-educated British public schoolboy. A lovely bloke."