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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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One day, his brother came home bearing a sheath of leaflets saying Muslims were being massacred all over the world, from India to Bosnia to Southend. He had stumbled on a stall in the High Street manned by a group called Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). They said he would never be accepted in irreparably corrupt, decadent and racist Britain: Combat 18 were the snarl hidden behind every net curtain. Western society was merely a purgatory for Muslims, and the only escape could be to migrate to a renewed and perfect caliphate somewhere in Arabia. He joined up that day.

Maajid climbed the ranks of HT fast, because -- with his easy eloquence – he was especially good at recruiting new members. After a year, they sent him to live in London and conquer a sixth form college. Newham College is a sprawling glass-and-concrete school for 16- to 19-year-olds in the most depressed slab of London. There, Maajid found himself in a majority-Muslim environment for the first time. "I was like somebody who has been craving chocolate for a long time who ends up in Belgium. I thought: these are my people. I knew exactly how to manipulate their grievances. And I did it. We took over that college."

We are served tea by the kind of effusive waitress who works in high-end London hotels. Maajid does not acknowledge her. He says it was "unbelievably easy" to recruit young Muslims to Islamism at that time. He would start with lectures that "broke down the concepts they had been told they should hold dear – like freedom and democracy", he says. It was only in the second or third talk, once humanism lay in rhetorical rubble, that he would announce: "God is in a better position to set those limits than you are, because you'd always contradict yourself, being an imperfect human." So then he would announce: "Let me tell you what God says."

When Maajid enrolled, there were hardly any girls wearing headscarves; by the time he was thrown out a year later, most of them were. The stand-alones were jeered at and harassed.

Maajid was elected President of the college's student union and he was prickling with a Messianic sense of mission. He saw Newham College as a microcosm of the changes that were swelling in the world. "It literally felt revolutionary. We had taken over the campus, and that we were soon to take over the world ... We really believed the caliphate would be established any day soon." On the school's open day for prospective pupils and parents, they staged a massive prayer demonstration. Dozens of them stood in the main hall, yelling to Allah for vengeance. "We wanted to show the parents that if you're sending your kids here, these are the people in charge," he says.

I ask if anybody was arguing for a more liberal form of Islam. Maajid laughs. "Absolutely not. No way. In fact, the only people who were young that were articulating any form of Islam were the Islamists."

The only substantial push-back came from rival religious groups -- especially students with a Nigerian Christian background, known universally as "the blacks." There was a racist hysteria that they were muggers and rapists and "somebody had to stand up to them", Maajid says. "Along came us, these crusading Islamists, who didn't give a shit. We'd stand in front of them and say – we don't fear death, we don't fear you, we only fear God." Allah was in their gang, and they were invincible. Young jihadis from outside the college started to hang around there, to defend the Muslims from "the Christian niggers." A tall, aggressive recruit from Brixton called Saeed Nur was appointed as their "bodyguard." He intimidated everyone into silence.