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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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Sheikh was furious about the massacres of Muslims in Bosnia, and demanded the study group lay down their Koranic debates and act. Usama told him: "If you're really serious, you can go and fight. I know people who have gone and fought. I can introduce you to them." And so his journey to torturing and murdering a Jewish journalist – simply because he was a Jew – began.

Usama doesn't want to talk about him any more: he changes the subject, and I have to bring him back to it. "Nothing is proved against him. He's fighting extradition," he says, after a long pause. "But ... " He has an awkward smile. An embarrassed smile. He quickly carries on speaking, ushering us away from Daniel Pearl.

People come in and out of the mosque office, and Usama lowers his voice a little. He says that as he was persuading young men to go and kill, he noticed something disconcerting: the Afghan mujahedin he had fought for were not building a paradise on earth after all. Instead, they were merrily slaying each other. "This great, glorious Islamic revolution – it didn't happen, at all ... they just killed each other."

As he watched the news of the Luxor massacre in Egypt or Hamas suicide-bombings of pizzerias in Tel Aviv, "It just became more and more difficult to justify that." He found himself thinking about the Jewish friends he had made at school. "They were just like me – human beings. And we had a lot in common. The dietary laws, and the identity issues, and the fear of racism." As he heard the growing Islamist chants at demonstrations – "The Jews are the enemy of God," they yelled – something, he says, began to sag inside him.

The stifled language Usama is using to describe his past reminds me of a recovering alcoholic trying to piece together his fragmented memories and understand who he was. When he talks about anti-Semitism, he is clearly ashamed; he giggles almost randomly, looks away, and looks back at me with a puckered, disgusted look.

We have talked enough; we arrange to meet again. The second time I see him, in a café, he seems more guarded, as if he revealed too much. He shifts the conversation onto theology – the area where, I discover, every ex-jihadi feels happiest. He says the 7/7 bombings detonated a theological bomb in his mind: "How could this be justified? I began to wonder if parts of the Koran are actually metaphor, and parts of the Koran were actually just revealed for their time: seventh-century Arabia."

Once the foundation stone of literalism was broken, he had to remake the concepts that had led him to Islamism one-by-one. "Jihad has many levels in Islam – you have the internal struggle to be the best person you can be. But all we had been taught is military jihad. Today I regard any kind of campaigning for truth, for justice, as a type of Jihad." He signed up to the pacifist Movement for the Abolition of War. He redefined martyrdom as anybody who died in an honourable cause. "There were martyrs on 9/11," he says. "They were the firefighters – not the hijackers."

He says he found himself making arguments he once thought unthinkable – like arguing that women should be allowed to show their hair in public. Jihadi websites run by his old friends started to declare him an apostate, a crime that under their interpretation of sharia is punishable by death.

There have been demands that he should be ousted from the mosque, but his father is its founder and chief imam, so he is protected for now. He says – leaning forward, his voice losing its public school composure – that the threats have only made him more sure of the need for reform. He has started to call for Muslims to abandon the "medieval interpretation of the sharia" that calls for the killing of apostates and homosexuals. He has said there should be a two-state solution in the Middle East. He has reached the conclusion that evolution is "a scientific fact."