5 Feb 2014

Our brother died a martyr fighting in Syria’

Home Affairs Correspondent

British Muslim Iftikhar Jaman died fighting in Syria. He has gained a cult following and his death is being eulogised by some in his community. His family speaks exclusively to Channel 4 News.

“Hold on a minute, my hair’s a bit messy … and my forehead looks really big. It must be the camera making it look big.”

Iftikhar Jaman laughs as he sweeps his long hair off his face with a red comb. As he discusses various hairstyles, the 23-year-old from Portsmouth seems no different from any other young man his age. But he goes on to say this: “I love Osama bin Laden, I think he looks kinda cool … “

Last summer, Jaman left his job in a call centre and signed up with the deadliest rebel group in Syria. Isis are accused of savage atrocities – and yet, Jaman’s death is now being eologised by some British Muslims. For the first time since he was killed, Channel 4 News has spoken exclusively to his family.

His brother Mustakim told us: “He died protecting the people. He fought for his God and the people itself. In our religion, there’s nothing better you can do than to fight in the path of Allah. His martyrdom is such a noble way to go out and just the best way someone can go out.”

Just how did this British-born child end up dying on the streets of Syria? And what does some reaction to his death tell us about why some young Muslims are still prepared to die in the conflict?

Jaman had grown up in Hampshire, which he called home. His parents owned an Indian takeaway. When he was around 12, his parents sent him away to board at a madrassa, or Islamic school, in London.

Passion for Islam

He returned after about a year, having developed a curiosity and passion for his religion. After finishing college, Jaman was often seen in the town centre volunteering for a Portsmouth dawah, or proselytising group. His family say he became increasing concerned about the plight of Syrian civillians caught in the conflict.

He had never been to Syria before and he never spoke a word of Arabic. But last summer, he left behind everything he knew to joing Isis – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Of all the rebel groups, Isis is the most brutal – so brutal that even al-Qeada’s leadership has formally distanced itself.

Isis has been accused of carrying out savage attacks of civillians and on other rebel fighters. The group have posted hundreds of videos online. The images are used by recruiting sergeants, to lure foreign fighters to their ideological cause.

Jaman’s family admit he did spend hours online, but they deny he was brainwashed. In fact, they say he made an informed decision to help the oppressed. It is an argument that some in the commuuity will have sympathy with and presents a huge challenge for the security services.

His brother Tuhin said: “I would say that he’s done an honourable thing … he’s sacrificed his life, he’s done something for the oppressed people.”

War by social media

Many of the young Britons fighting on Syria's streets have been documenting their experiences using social media. Their dispatches from the frontline give a fascinating insight into the conflict.
"There are people who think that the jihad in Syria is 24/7 fighting, but it's much more relaxed than that. They're calling it a 5 star jihad." Ifthikar Jaman's description of the life of a foreign jihadi soon gained a cult following. He was extremely adept at using social media and he posted regular updates on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr."

People here think the whole of Syria is a ghost city, but there is life. Sweet shops, ice cream, vegetable markets ... and all quite cheap." In a series of tweets, he explained that British fighters were given food, shelter and clothes by the rebel group Isis and even a weekly allowance. "No money is required of you when you come."

In some tweets, he discusses his ideological justification for waging war. "A man leaves his home to fight for the oppressed people ... sounds heroic until you add in 'Muslim man'. Then he's a terrorist /extremist." This tweet went viral after his death.

Jaman became something of a "celebrity jihadi" and he was often contacted for advice by other young Britons thinking of travelling to Syria. Their conversations are telling, revealing the attitudes of young men towards the fighting. In one conversation he's asked what it's like to hold a gun "Ha ha, honestly?" he replies, "it feels so cool."

He was often contacted by women asking whether it was permissible for them to travel to Syria, whether any brothers were looking for wives - whether Jaman himself would like to get married.

Jaman's posts are believed to have encouraged at least five other Britons to join him. One, Abu Layth, was to become his close friend. We understand that Jaman helped Abu Layth over the border. In one post, Abu Layth compared being on the frontline to a scene from the film Star Wars. But as Channel 4 News reported this week, Abu Layth has also now been killed.

Jaman’s journey, via Turkey, shows just how seemingly easy it is for a young man with no experience of Syria, to join the jihad. In his first few weeks, he was given weapons training.

Like all new recruits, he then had to spend a period of time on guard duty. He started to blog online about his experiences – and soon gained a cult following. In one tweet, he wrote: “There are those who think that the Jhaad in Syria is 24/7 fighting but it’s much more relaxed than that. They’re calling it a five star jihad.”

His brother told me he used social media – Facebook and Twitter – to propagate his religion.

Jaman even ran an advice column for would-be recruits, young men and women from the UK who would regularly ask him about joining the jihad.

Through his use of social media, the charismatic young man is believed to have encouraged at least five other young Britons to join him. One of them, Abu Layth, whom he helped across the border, has also now been killed.

UK national Abu Layth who died fighting in Syria

Abu Layth: “It was like a scene from star wars with all the ‘zing’ noises and red lights.”

Comparing his experiences of the Syrian front line with a scene from a film, the man known as Abu Layth frequently wrote about his experiences.
He is the seventh recorded Briton to have died in the conflict, although sources believe the numbers may now be in double figures.

Abu Layth spoke with a northern accent and unconfirmed reports suggest he may have been from Manchester: “because of Abu Layth, I learnt more northern slang than arabic” a fellow fighter tweeted after his death.

Like many British Muslims, he went to Syria to join the fight against President Assad’s regime. But it’s understood he died in the fitna, or in-fighting between different rebel groups. According to others tweeting from Syria, Abu Layth died after being shot in the head.

But when we asked Jaman’s family, they denied he had ever recruited anybody else to join his cause.

Fitna

We reported on Monday that Abu Layth did not die fighting Assad’s forces, but instead in a battle between Isis and another rebel group. This in-fighting, or fitna, has claimed hundreds of lives already this year, with many foreign fighters caught up in the complex crossfire.

According to Jaman’s posts, he met dozens of other fighters from the UK, the youngest aged just 19. The security services believe that if any of these men return to the UK, with their training in explosives and deadly weapons, they could pose a threat to our security. But Jaman’s famiy say the authorities are wrong.

There are many who have tried to justify the involvement of foreign fighters in Syria, who believe that just like the thousands of British who left to join the Spanish civil war, they should not be criminalised for taking part in the conflict.

Iftikhar Jaman’s story shows the level of support within some sections of his community and the challenge this presents for the security services. His death has been eulogised online, with pages and pages of internet tributes to him. One of his brothers told us for many young Muslims, Jaman is an inspiration “They see him as a hero.”

Like Jaman, Abdullah Anas once joined a foreign war – he went to Afghanistan to help fight the Russians. He is a veteran fighter with impeccable credentials.

Aman is the son-in-law of Abdullah Azzam, mentor to Osama bin Laden. He has now turned peacemaker and advises young Britons not to go to Syria.