Two British men who travelled to Syria to join rebel fighters have been jailed for 12 years and 8 months.
Childhood friends Mohammed Nahin Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, from Birmingham, went to Syria in May last year intending to join Jabhat al-Nusra – an Al Qaeda affiliate group.
They were sentenced today after pleading guilty to engaging in conduct in the preparation of terrorism under Section 5 of the Terrorism Act.
Judge Michael Topolski said he believed that both Ahmed and Sarwar had shown “persistent commitment to terrorist activities” and are “dangerous”.
The two men faked documents to convince their families they were travelling to Turkey as part of a trip organised by Birmingham City University.
As part of their preparation for Syria, the pair ordered books from Amazon including “Islam for Dummies”.
Four days later, the families discovered they had been lied to and Sarwar’s mother discovered a letter where he described his intention to travel to Syria for “jihad” and fight the “kufar”(unbelievers). She took this letter to the police.
The judge said the men’s parents had shown great “courage” in reporting their own sons to the authorities. Channel 4 News spoke exclusively to the families about their concerns last year.
Both men returned after being encouraged to do so by their families and were arrested as they entered the UK in January. Upon arrest, the pair claimed to have travelled to Syria for “humanitarian” reasons, but were found to be carrying “thousands” of photographs showing themselves carrying guns.
They were also found with a memory card containing detailed instructions on how to assemble an improvised explosive device and anti-Shia material.
The judge said that while it couldn’t be proved that the pair intended to commit acts of terror in the UK, the fact they returned with such material was “deeply disturbing”. He described their trip as being planned in a “sophisticated manner” and said the material showed “a jihadist mindset”.
Officers also found social media and online messages between Ahmed and a Danish radical preacher, where Ahmed declared Al Qaeda as “the best” and regarded Shia Muslims as not being Muslim at all.
Ahmed also exchanged online messages with young women where he claimed to be metres away from the “kufar” and engaged in fighting.
Ahmed’s legal team argued this was a young man engaging in flirtation, boasting about his role and that it was not proven he had actually engaged in combat. But the judge said the messages showed he expressed a “sincere” commitment to the idea of “martyrdom.”
Lawyers representing Sarwar and Ahmed argued that the sentence should be reduced because both men were with a group fighting Syria’s President Assad, whom, their defence said, was “a man who one’s own government wished to remove”.
However Judge Topolski rejected this argument saying he would not be drawing conclusions on “just terror acts” and that “acts of terror cannot be mitigated by who their intended victims are.”
He said it was with “no enthusiasm the court sentences young men to significant terms of imprisonment” but “a grave crime has been committed” and both these “defendants are fundamentalists who are deeply committed to violent extremism.”
He said the purpose of his sentencing was to punish, deter and incapacitate. The men will serve at least two thirds of their prison sentence and spend a further five years on licence.
Campaign group CAGE have been highly critical of today’s sentence. The group’s Outreach Director Moazzam Begg says he “spent several months in prison with these two men” and he did “not consider them a threat to the British public in any way.”