comments_image Comments

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.

Continued from previous page


And for the first time in his life, Usama has begun to allow himself to listen to music. "I was taught to believe it shouldn't be allowed. But now, I listen on the car radio." I ask him what music he likes, and he lets out a high-pitched giggle. "You'll get me killed!" he says. "Everything in the charts." He gives me some names, but then calls later and asks me not to print them: "That would be a step too far."

As the threats against him rattle across the internet, I like to think of this as my last image of Usama – a 39-year-old man slowly slipping off the Puritan chains in which he has been bound and finally, in his fourth decade, beginning to dance, as he is circled by the angry ghosts of his younger self.

II. The Prisoner

The most famous former Islamist fanatic in Britain is Maajid Nawaz – a high-cheekboned 31-year-old who walks with a self-confident strut. I make an appointment with him through his personal assistant, and he strides into the hotel lobby where we have arranged to meet in an immaculate and expensive suit. He seems to blend perfectly into the multi-ethnic overclass who use expensive hotels like this as their base; I have to remind myself with a jolt that, not so long ago, he was caught up in a murder in London, helped to plot a coup in nuclear-tipped Pakistan, and served three years in the most notorious prison in Egypt.

Maajid begins to tell me his story as if he is delivering a PowerPoint presentation. He has offered it before, and he will offer it again; it is his job now. He has distilled it into a script. When I try to poke beneath it with questions, he seems irritated, and returns to the comfortable form of words he has established as soon as he can.

His journey towards Islamism began, he says, at the sandy edge of Essex, in the dilapidated coastal town of Southend-on-Sea. It is an old, elegant Victorian resort town drooping under a century of disrepair, reduced to a smattering of tatty arcades and a long, neglected pier that reaches into a filthy sea. Maajid's parents were mildly prosperous first-generation immigrants from Pakistan. "My upbringing was completely liberal from the start," he says. "In fact, I didn't even have a Muslim identity." He went to mosque only once, when he was 11, and an imam hit him with a stick for speaking too loudly.

Asian families were a rarity there in the 1980s, but he had a large group of white friends and felt no different to them. Yet when Maajid turned 14, a strange political shift was taking place in Southend. It began – for him, at least – one evening when Maajid, his brother and his friends were at the funfair, leaping on and off the rides and eating candy floss. A group of young skinheads spotted them and started making Nazi salutes and shouting "Seig Heil."

Maajid and his mates "ran the hell out of there", but a white van pulled up and seven skinheads piled out, wielding machetes. They cornered Maajid and one of his white friends. To his astonishment, they turned to the friend and stabbed him repeatedly with a carving knife, shrieking: "Traitor! Traitor! Race traitor!" They drove off, leaving Maajid covered in his friend's blood.

The story of what happened next is buried in yellowing cuts from the local newspapers. A pack of unemployed young men who had been kicking around on Southend's beaches had joined the Neo-Nazi group Combat 18, named after Adolf Hitler's initials: A is "1" in the alphabet, H is "8." They targeted Maajid's friends one by one for befriending a "Paki." Over the next two years, three of his friends were stabbed, and one was smashed up with a hammer. Maajid began to distance himself from his white friends, out of guilt. He drifted instead towards a group of young black people who were also being terrorised by Combat 18. They would meet at house parties and marinate themselves in hip-hop, Public Enemy, and cannabis fumes. He says: "Feeling totally rejected by mainstream society, we were looking for an alternative identity, and we found the perfect, cool, fashionable identity through listening to hip-hop and speeches by Malcolm X."