How McJihad Ensnares Young British Muslims

The trial of two brothers for terrorism offences served as a window on the way digitally globalised terrorism exploits the vulnerable

Features Islam
The lure of jihad: Two British members of Islamic State in one of the organisation's YouTube recruitment videos

Brothers Mohammed Saeed Ahmed and Mohammed Naeem Ahmed sat slumped, heads in laps, in a musty courtroom at the Old Bailey where they were being tried in November 2013 on charges of conspiring to attend a terrorist training facility, which they denied.

They had earlier pleaded guilty to counts of possessing “information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism” contrary to section 58 of the Terrorism Act. The trial of the two Yorkshire-born young men of Bangladeshi descent lasted for several weeks and ended in a hung jury. I observed the trial from the judge’s dais as his marshal.

In September this year, because of a combination of the prosecution counsel’s decision to quit the Bar at one day’s notice and community “decontamination” treatment of Saeed, the judge elected not to retry the brothers. He imposed suspended sentences for their guilty pleas to the other charges, meaning they avoided prison.

The trial was a strange manifestation of multiculturalism and consumerism in contemporary Britain — or indeed, anywhere. The prosecuting counsel played the court a video that the police had found on Saeed’s computer. He described it as a “jihad rap”, but it was plainly just a hysterically expectorated sermon dubbed over footage of jihadi warfare.

A journalist asked the judge to lift the court-ordered media ban on printing the brothers’ home address. He reasoned that not pinpointing the culprits was dangerous, given the prevalence of individuals named “Mohammed Ahmed” in the Bradford area. The judge declined to lift the ban, heeding counsel’s warnings about the activity of the anti-immigrant vigilante English Defence League in the area.

The case against the Ahmeds was a strong one, at first sight. Prosecutors introduced into evidence a voluminous amount of material found on the brothers’ computers, Kindles and memory sticks, ranging from multiple issues of Inspire, Al-Qaeda’s English language magazine aimed at recruiting Muslims in Western countries to “either leave for the lands of jihad or stay and fight”, to classics like The Anarchist Cookbook and 21 Techniques of Silent Killing. The prosecution also showcased the fruits of a year-long police investigation focused on the brothers’ older cousin Mohammed Shafaraz Ahmed, who pleaded guilty last April to charges of planning a terror attack with three others. There was footage of the three young men climbing the rugged hills of the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia. The prosecution claimed that these trips were not for leisure but to prepare for jihad. There were shaky audio recordings of car rides to and from the climbing trips in which the boys discussed the logistics of saving money, obtaining visas, sidestepping parents, and travelling abroad to join “the brothers”. 

Perhaps the most incriminating aspect of the prosecution’s case was what the police found when they executed a search warrant in the Ahmed home two days before the whole family was set to travel to Bangladesh. In the boys’ bedrooms were rucksacks packed with heavy-duty military clothing, thermal kit, knives, extreme-weather sleeping bags, boots, water purifiers, and night-vision goggles — hardly what would think appropriate for a family visit to humid Bangladesh in March, but well suited for the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan, Google inquiries to the embassies of which were recovered on Saeed’s computer.

In the close-up it gave of how Islamic extremism bubbles up in young men in Western countries, as well as the jury’s inability to reach a verdict, the trial was a symptom of the rift between dominant theories of the nature of jihadi culture — namely, that it is a resurgence of pre-modern tribal passions and a rejection of globalisation — and the observable phenomenon of committed insurgents, from those who merely flirt with fantasies of jihad, as the Ahmeds were doing at a minimum, to the increasing numbers of Western-born Islamic State fighters who are distinct products of such a culture. Jihad v. McWorld is a fantasy, but McJihad is real and happening right beneath our noses.

In the summer of 2011, Saeed Ahmed met “Cookieman” (a Microsoft Messenger username — Cookieman’s real name was not disclosed at trial) through his cousin Shafaraz. Saeed, the older brother, and Naeem idolised Shafaraz; he was five years older and had a car. Cookieman seemed to spend most of his days committing credit card fraud. He and Shafaraz directed the pious Saeed, an imam’s son, to a fatwa in Inspire which held the fraud to be legitimate according to sharia law. The extraordinary ruling appears in the winter 2010 issue and is written by Sheikh Anwar Al-Awlaki, a radical cleric born and raised in New Mexico to educated Yemeni parents; his father was a Fulbright scholar. The fatwa relates to an exposition of the following hadith:

The Messenger of Allah said: I was sent before the hour with the sword and sustenance is under my spear, and humility and belittlement is the destiny of whoever defies my commands.

Al-Awlaki explains that “sustenance is under my spear” means that “the income generated from booty taken by force from enemies is purer and more virtuous than income generated from being a businessman, an engineer, a physician, or a farmer.” The cleric concludes that Muslims living in enemy nations, or any Western nation participating in the occupation of Muslim land, can “seize money . . . in entirety by themselves”.

Apparently content with this, Saeed and Naeem began a flurry of online shopping using stolen credit card numbers. The prosecution centred its case on the rucksacks packed with the gear the day before the trip to Bangladesh as evidence of the brothers’ preparation for a jihadi training expedition, particularly as many of the specific products were listed in an Inspire article entitled “What to Take on Jihad”. The prosecution also glossed over the fact that the brothers were actually ordering all sorts of things which had nothing to do with jihad. Saeed ordered £150 worth of Jordans granola cereal (“My brother and I, we usually split a box every day,” he explained sheepishly), toy guns, cheap jewellery and trinkets and sex toys (Saeed was so humiliated when his lawyer alluded to this during examination-in-chief that he covered his face and refused to discuss the ostensibly exculpatory fact). These purchases could not aid the prosecution’s case, but to my mind, they are important in any attempt to understand the precise nature of jihadist propaganda’s appeal to the Ahmeds.

It’s a platitude to say that the appeal of fundamentalism, with its strict rules and narrow worldview, lies in its relief from the burdens of excessive freedom. Narrowed horizons soothe the modern decision-fatigued psyche. Here, though, we find exactly the opposite mechanism: not a fundamentalism of restriction but one that grants extreme permission. Al-Awlaki’s exegesis of the hadith does not mandate submission to a stringent regime but is, on the contrary, highly permissive: you can steal and deceive by any means necessary in basically any circumstance. Al-Awlaki writes: “We as Muslims should seek the wealth of the disbelievers as a form of jihad on the path of Allah.” In other words, stealing from non-believers is not merely halal but a noble form of jihad itself. 

This propaganda explicitly approves a shockingly broad range of misbehaviour and crime: lying (including to one’s parents, if they prove resistant), stealing and even killing. The fact that its permissiveness is framed by a concrete worldview and urgent mission in a world without structure makes it doubly seductive. English law’s strict criminalisation of the simple possession of Inspire and its like is indicative of the state’s current level of anxiety over the circulation of this explosive material.

Intriguingly, Saeed’s susceptibility to this new abundance of freedom formed the bulk of his legal defence. In cross-examination, when asked why he purchased such technical and specific gear, he explained how, being unemployed in a poor family, he “never got to have whatever he wanted”, he “just Googled ‘stuff to buy’, it was free”, and when pushed, explained his particular interest in military gear as deriving from his only pastime besides school and the mosque, playing violent games like Call of Duty and Halo on his Xbox (“there’s a special version of Call of Duty that you play with night vision goggles, and I always wanted that version”).

Whatever one makes of this defence and its obvious lacunae, it does bear an important ring of truth and lends insight into the mechanism by which Westerners become ensnared in fundamentalist ideologies. There’s no doubt to me from reading the chatlogs between Cookieman and Saeed that the two were enjoying themselves in a manner instantly recognisable to most of us, and apart from any putative terrorist preparations. They are enjoying themselves in a way that is typical of how the digital era and capitalism have collided and suffused all our daily lives.

The two young men chat throughout the day, every day, from their bedrooms in drab Luton and Bradford, sending each other anashid (religious musical chants) and links to cool products, running up and down the stairs from the kitchen with snacks, gossiping about sisters and mums (just prior to his arrest and incarceration, Shafaraz married Saeed and Naeem’s sister; Saeed told the court that he felt “ashamed of what Shafaraz did to my sister”), teasingly calling each other “n00b”, reporting new package deliveries and tracking numbers.

Some of those tracking numbers, it must be recalled, were for military kit identical to that prescribed in “What to Bring on Jihad”.  Still, at first appearance, Saeed and Cookieman were engaged in some version of the banal enjoyment that we all, with varying degrees of self-reflection and disgust, experience through capitalist cyberspace. Bill Gates famously hailed the internet age as ushering in the possibility of “friction-free capitalism”. The obverse of that is the dearth of capitalism-free life: no friction means no escape.

The brothers and their lawyers parlayed Saeed’s account (Naeem was less talkative on the wiretaps; his lawyer wisely chose not to have him give evidence) that the online purchases were more frivolous than strategic into a broader exculpatory theory of a terrorist fantasy life. Saeed’s sins existed only in the ethereal realms of video games and online shopping. It is almost implied that, were the boys to have bought (or stolen) the incriminating military gear from a bricks-and-mortar shop, there would be more of an actuality to their putative preparations. The brothers immersed themselves in jihad multimedia, combat video games, and “free” online purchases of military gear as diversion and relief from their dreary daily lives. If they were involved in terrorism, it was only in a solipsistic sense. 

And who could blame them for needing an escape? The lawyers frequently reminded the jury of the brothers’ unfortunate circumstances, producing grim-looking photographs of the hole carved out of a wall of their house by their father so that the family could pop into the adjacent mosque in seconds. (After Saeed’s lawyer gave his closing speech laying on thickly the portrait of the poor, isolated brothers, I noted that this was a risky play; such isolation is also prototypical of budding terrorists.) They chastised the police for waiting until the day before the Bangladesh trip to make their move and search the boys’ bedrooms rather than intervening more constructively earlier, implying (correctly, no doubt) that the police were playing a long game in the absence of clear incriminating evidence to build the strongest possible case.

The defence thus shrewdly focused the necessary question at trial on the narrow and intangible issue of the gap between fantasy and action. They conceded the brothers’ ideological radicalisation while denying their readiness and ability to act by highlighting their ineptitude. These were experienced Queen’s Counsel, and it was a clever legal strategy: it’s inherently near-impossible to pinpoint the moment when fantasy crystallises into readiness to act, and in any event the question of whether the threshold has been crossed is inherently open to a reasonable doubt, the presence of which mandates an acquittal. The jury’s inability to reach a verdict, then, is not surprising.

What should we make of the defence theory that the Ahmeds were idle daydreamers, anesthetised by the distractions of violent jihad videos, internet commerce, and Xbox games? Having observed the two for a month and heard Saeed give evidence for three days, it strikes me as being at least as viable as the prosecution’s portrait of two deliberate would-be terrorists. The two explanations are not mutually exclusive, and as befits our adversarial fact-finding legal system, the truth is probably somewhere in between.

But there is a broader delusion about fundamentalism’s character that emerges from the stark dissonance between the prosecution’s portrait of the Ahmeds as hardened terrorists and the meek boys encountered in the chatlogs and witness box. This dissonance prompts us to refine our notions of how the fits and starts of home-grown terror might appear. It is an iteration of the ideology that attempts, with dwindling coherence, to divide the world into liberal universalists and fundamentalists. In the case of the Ahmeds, and indeed many other Western nationals who are drawn towards extremism, we find that the would-be jihadist is, in a mundane but important way, both totally like us — constituted by consumer culture, living from screen to screen, cynical — and still, in some important way, totally different, in his ideological sympathy with and perhaps commitment to violent jihad.

Islamic extremism in its current manifestations is more accurately understood as a direct consequence of the digitised, multicultural, global world era than a throwback to Middle Eastern cultures and conflicts or tribalism, as Samuel Huntington’s old “Clash of Civilisations” trope, or Benjamin Barber’s “Jihad vs. McWorld”, would hold. The astonishing recent ascendance of Islamic State across the oil-rich fields and cities of Iraq and Syria represents the zenith of this postmodern jihad and a sombre lesson that such jihad remains ever murderous and brutal. The US State Department has estimated that 12,000-15,000 foreign nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join IS. They attract these individuals, mostly young men but women as well, via professionally edited videos with sophisticated logos and graphics which showcase the Kalashnikov rifles, mines, and IEDs its young soldiers are armed with (one Western IS fighter told the New York Times that fighting with IS was “better than Call of Duty“). The videos are edited as though mimicking video games, with the camera’s point of view pitched identically to first-person-shooter games such as Call of Duty, Halo, and Gears of War.

IS’s public relations department Al-Hayyat also publishes Dabiq, its English-language magazine which eclipses Inspire in production values and, more importantly, ambition. While Inspire mainly aims at equipping its Western reader to plot one-off terror attacks abroad, Dabiq spells out a purposive worldview with a concrete, time-bound demand. Its first issue’s cover features a menacing, storm-besieged ship flanked by the words “It’s either the Islamic State or the Flood.” The message is clear: board IS’s ship or face imminent destruction. Dabiq — named after the city prophesied in the Koran as the site where the Day of Judgment will come, after the Muslims defeat the infidels — implores all to make hijarah (flight or emigration) for the re-establishment of the caliphate. Dabiq is articulate, clear and strategic. In aesthetics and style it follows the conventions of Western glossies (to a great enough extent that internet conspiracy theorists have pointed to it as evidence that the CIA is funding IS), and includes commentary on as well as point-by-point refutations of IS’s portrayal in English-speaking media. In short, it is obviously produced by individuals with Western upbringing and education.

The phenomenon of Islamic terrorists who, when viewed up close, are thoroughly Westernised in education and upbringing magnifies the implication of the postmodern West in Islamic fundamentalism. The French political scientist Olivier Roy claims that religious fundamentalism — in all of its forms, encompassing American fundamentalist Protestants as well as Islamic Salafists — is a consequence of secularisation and globalisation, sustained by the very forms it denounces. When religion ceases to be moderated by cultural practices, as in secular and immigration-heavy societies, individuals turn to “objective” versions of religion which are suffused by dogma and scripturalism and aimed at personal spiritual rebirth rather than social and cultural tradition, continuity, and authority. 

IS insists on literal readings of the Koran, while its moderate Muslim opponents cite later scholarly interpretations. Dabiq discusses Koranic verses in support of expelling, mutilating, and beheading its enemies (Koran 5:33: “The penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land”) and to enchant its soldiers with the paradise they will inherit in the wake of jihad’s victory (Koran 47:15). This literalism gives IS’s ideology a geographically impervious resonance: a Canadian IS fighter called Abu Osama recently told Vice News: “No one recruited me, actually no one spoke or said a word to me, all I did was open the newspaper, I read the Koran — very easy.” On the ground, IS’s political and religious extremism in consequence of its lack of local roots: unlike Hezbollah or Hamas, it is not formed by a consolidation of tribes but by a top-down method of rule which requires terror in the form of public executions in conquered cities.

If contemporary Islamic extremism emerged from the same historical and societal conditions as Protestant fundamentalism, and is structurally more similar to it than traditional Muslim cultures, an uncomfortable question arises. Why is our era’s religiously-motivated terrorism overwhelmingly committed by Islamic extremists (with some devastating exceptions, such as the Norwegian Christian Anders Behring Breivik)? Some have constructed arguments relating to the demographic and thus political decline of Islamic civilisations: they are flailing and adopting desperate, death-glorifying tactics in the face of imminent extinction.

But, inevitably, we must admit that the violence of a given religion in its fundamentalist incarnation is related to something fundamental to the religion itself. Strangely, the postmodern decoupling of religion and culture has made it possible to witness the expression of major religions in a textually ‘pure’ form. Fundamentalist Judaism, as practiced in the streets of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, is marked by fastidious adherence to family purity, dietary laws, and ritual practice. Fundamentalist Buddhism is centred on a sort of righteous self-abnegation, a cloistered monk’s life. Fundamentalist Christianity emphasises living in constant communion with God, evangelising, and missionary work. As for fundamentalist Islam, it has been likened to Marxist-Leninism for its strict insistence on a revolutionary purification of the entire world, in the former’s case according to a strict interpretation of sharia law.

To return to Naeem and Saeed Ahmed: we might speculate based on what we know that their fantasies of jihad mushroomed because of a particular alchemy of consumer alienation, social marginalisation and fundamentalist Islamic ideology mingling in their Bradford lives. The dissatisfied aftertaste of endless consumption provides the sulphurous residue which ignites with the friction of Islamic fundamentalism’s narrative that the Western world is Babylon, teeming with sin and devoid of virtue. It is impossible not to notice that this is, at root, both a reaction to Western postmodernity but also an emanation of it: an act of reasserting one’s subjectivity as a virtual member of worldwide jihad, visibly buoyed by open markets, a secular climate and individualism. Any attempt to reckon with Islamic fundamentalism must start with disabusing ourselves of the notion that it is not of our time.