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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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The news reports from the time confirm what happened next. One afternoon, a row broke over the use of the college pool table, as Maajid stood watching. A Nigerian student wanted to push the Muslims off it, and began making derogatory remarks about Islam. Somebody called Saeed to "sort him out." As soon as he arrived, the Nigerian student pulled out a knife – and Saeed produced a Samurai blade and thrust it straight into the boy's chest. As he fell, the other Muslim students set on him with hammers and knives and pool cues. They beat him to death.

How did he feel about the victim? Did he think about his family? He prods the questions away with a grunt. Maajid says he felt "indifferent" to the victim, but was pleased "the Muslims prevailed in the end." He adds: "We were heroes in HT ranks." And he is back to his story. He doesn't want to retrieve his emotions.

He was expelled, and spent the next few years ascending the ranks of HT, while pretending to study at various colleges. But he wanted to be at the heart of the jihad – and in 1999 he found a way. Abdel Kalim Zaloom, the global leader of HT, issued a command from his hidden base somewhere in the Middle East. Pakistan had just unveiled its nuclear weapons to the world. Zaloom wanted them to seize Pakistan, so when the caliphate came it would be nuclear-tipped. Maajid enrolled at Punjab University as a cover – and jetted off to the country his parents had left a lifetime ago.

In the sprawling slum-strewn chaos of Karachi, Maajid found "the first crack in my ideological armour ... I thought – oh, my God. I had idealised Muslim societies, but the people here know less about Islam than we do. And look at how disorganised it is."

He met with a slew of junior Pakistani army officers who had been training at Sandhurst, Britain's elite officer training academy. "They seemed like quite decent, amiable chaps, who believed in our ideology," he says. They had been recruited by other members to HT, "and I told them to rise up the ranks of the army, and when we had an opportunity, to mount a coup and declare the caliphate in Pakistan."

And then, in the strangely bland CEO-speak these ex-Islamists often lapse into, he adds enthusiastically: "It was a very exciting project. We thought it would happen in the medium-term."

Maajid won't be drawn – not now, and not in our later conversations – on the details of this coup plot. Perhaps this is because he is worried about compromising his ability to visit Pakistan. The Pakistani military spokesmen say it's a lie. The officers were, Maajid says, quietly arrested by Pervez Musharraf's government in 2003, and are currently in prison. Maajid decided to move on to Egypt, and arrived to study in Alexandria on 10 September 2001. When he saw the news from New York City, he felt – that word again – "indifferent." HT technically opposed the attacks, on the grounds they were carried out by private individuals rather than by the army of a renewed caliphate. But Maajid says "There was a huge wave of internal sympathy for [Bin Laden], because he's an ideological comrade, isn't he?"

He started to recruit other students, as he had done so many times before. But it was harder. "Everyone hated the [unelected] government [of Hosni Mubarak], and the US for backing it," he says. But there was an inhibiting sympathy for the victims of 9/11 – until the Bush administration began to respond with Guantanamo Bay and bombs. "That made it much easier. After that, I could persuade people a lot faster."