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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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These one-time assassins taught Maajid that the idea of using state power to force your interpretation of sharia on everyone was a new and un-Islamic idea, smelted by the Wahabis only a century ago. They had made the mistake of muddling up the enduringly relevant decisions Mohamed made as a spiritual leader with those he made as a political ruler, which he intended to be specific to their time and place.

Maajid's ideology crumbled. "I realised that the idea of enforcing sharia is not consistent with Islam as it's been practised from the beginning. In other words, Islam has always been secular, and I had been totally ignorant of the fact." But he says he found this epiphany excruciating. "I knew if I followed these thoughts wherever they would lead," he says, "I would go from being HT's poster boy to being their fallen angel."

His trial was finally ending with the inevitable verdict: guilty. When he emerged from Mazratora Prison into the damp half-light of Britain, he was dazed. HT hailed him as a hero. "After four years of ignoring me, they wanted me to be their rock star ... I was asked if I wanted to be the leader." But in March 2007, he sent out a mass email saying he was resigning from HT, threw away his mobile, and went home to Southend.

He spent a long summer eating his mother's cooking, watching television, and seeing the school friends he had shunned more than a decade before. "It amazed me. These were ordinary British guys and they knew what I had become – that I had hated Britain. And yet when they saw me, they showed me such warmth," he says. "They remembered me as I was. They didn't care what I had done. They had time for me."

In September 2007, Maajid appeared on Newsnight – the BBC's flagship current affairs show – to announce that he recanted not just HT, but Islamism itself. "What I taught has not only damaged British society, it has damaged the world," he said.

With a small band of other ex-Islamists, Maajid decided to set up an organisation dedicated to promoting liberal Islam and rebutting Islamism. They named in the Quilliam Foundation after William Abdullah Quilliam, an English businessman who converted to Islam in the late 19th century and set up the first British mosque. They are taking the organisational skills and evangelical fervour of HT, and turning it against them. They are also taking nearly £1m from the British government – the only way, Maajid says, to do their work effectively.

The last time I speak to Maajid he is on the refugee-strewn North-West frontier of Pakistan, touring the country's universities. He is lecturing to huge audiences about his own experiences, and arguing against literalism in Islam. The massed ranks of the neo-Taliban are not far away. "People here and in Britain keep saying – we've been waiting for something like this for such a long time," he says over the telephone. "They're so happy people are starting to speak out. They're terrified to do it themselves, but this emboldens them."

A large audience of young Muslims is waiting for him. Maajid says assertively: "You know, back when I was an Islamist, I thought our ideology was like communism – and I still do. That makes me optimistic. Because what happened to communism? It was discredited as an idea. It lost. Who joins the Communist Party today?" I can hear the audience applaud him as he walks onto the stage, and with that, Maajid hangs up.