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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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Then, at 3am one morning, a cadre of soldiers smashed into Maajid's bedroom bearing machine guns and grenades. He was taken, blindfolded and bound, to an underground bunker below the state security offices in Cairo. There were around 50 other men penned in. For three days, he kneeled, and heard the men around him being tortured with electric cattle prods.

"I thought, 'This is something I have been mentally preparing for, for a long time. I knew this day would come,'" he says. On the third day, the guards dragged him into an interrogation room with another British HT member. They punched him in the face and whacked him with batons. They produced the cattle prod. Maajid told them they wouldn't dare to torture a British citizen. "So they took the cattle prod and began electrocuting my friend in front of my eyes."

The British Embassy called looking for its citizens. The interrogation stopped suddenly, and transferred them to prison. Maajid felt no gratitude. "All I thought was – why did it take them three days to find us? They obviously didn't care about the rights of Muslims." He laughs now – a cold laugh, at his former self.

In Mazratora Prison, Maajid was held in solitary confinement for thee months. It was a bare cell with no bed, no light, and no toilet: just a concrete box. Then he was taken out suddenly and told his trial for "propagation by speech and writing for any banned organisation" was beginning in the Supreme State Emergency Court. But Maajid's Islamist convictions were about to be challenged from two unexpected directions – the men who murdered Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Amnesty International.

HT abandoned Maajid as a "fallen soldier" and barely spoke of him or his case. But when his family were finally allowed to see him, they told him he had a new defender. Although they abhorred his political views, Amnesty International said he had a right to free speech and to peacefully express his views, and publicised his case.

"I was just amazed," Maajid says. "We'd always seen Amnesty as the soft power tools of colonialism. So, when Amnesty, despite knowing that we hated them, adopted us, I felt – maybe these democratic values aren't always hypocritical. Maybe some people take them seriously ... it was the beginning of my serious doubts."

For the duration of the trial, he was placed in a cramped cell with 40 of Egypt's most famous political prisoners. There were row after row of beds with only a thin crack between them to inch through. Maajid was thrilled to discover two of the men who had conspired to murder Anwar Sadat – Omar Bayoumi and Dr Tauriq al Sawah – had recently been moved to this dank cell. "This is like meeting Che Guevara – these great forerunners and ideologues who I can now get the benefit of learning from," he says. But "they were very fatherly, and they had been spending all these years studying and learning. And they told me I had got my theology wrong."

After more than 20 years in prison, they had reconsidered their views. They told him he was false to believe there was one definitive, literal way to read the Koran. As they told it, in traditional Islam there were many differing interpretations of sharia, from conservative to liberal – yet there had been consensus around once principle: it was never to be enforced by a central authority. Sharia was a voluntary code, not a state law. "It was always left for people to decide for themselves which interpretation they wanted to follow," he says.