8 Jul 2014

Two Birmingham men plead guilty to Syria jihad

Home Affairs Correspondent

Two men plead guilty to travelling to Syria to join al-Qaeda militants, after they were turned in to police by their worried parents. Home Affairs Correspondent Darshna Soni reports.

Last year, their families spoke exclusively to Channel 4 News about their concerns. One of the men, Yusuf Sarwar, had forged a flyer from his university to dupe his parents into letting him leave but left a handwritten note behind in which he explained that he planned to die as a martyr.

The two men, from Handsworth, Birmingham, eventually returned to Britain after pleas from their families, bringing with them a digital camera from which they had deleted thousands of images taken in the war zone.

But police were able to recover the pictures to prove that they had travelled to Syria to take part in fighting rather than going on holiday to Turkey as they claimed.

The parents of Yusuf Zubair Sarwar, who was born 6/6/1992, contacted Steelhouse Lane police station in Birmingham on 19 May telling them that their son was missing.

Read more: How do we engage with young UK Muslims on jihad?

Sarwar’s parents were “visibly upset” and showed officers a letter, written in pencil, which had the words “please read” in large letters on one side.

In the letter Sarwar said he had gone on holiday to Turkey but added that the “real purpose is to do jihad for Allah”.

“Jihad has been declared [obligatory if] the oppressor [advances] one inch into our lands,” he added.

“When the kuffar [non-believers] attack a Muslim country, the ummah [Muslim world] is endangered,” he wrote.

He said he had settled his debts and financial affairs and made it clear his intention was to die as a “martyr.”

Leaving the UK

Sarwar told his parents he was planning to join up with a group called Kataib al-Muhajireen, a part of the militant group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is allied to al-Qaeda.

Both groups are proscribed organisations in Britain.

He told them not to get the “kuffar authorities” involved and added: “The Taliban and al-Qaeda are not bad, but the west portrays them as bad.”

Sarwar had laid the ground for his disappearance by telling his parents he was going on a university trip to Istanbul in Turkey and producing a flyer, complete with a false email he had set up in the name of Edward Duncan.

He had joined Mohammed Nahin Ahmed, born 17/6/1992, to catch a coach from Birmingham to Heathrow on 14 May where they checked into a Premier Inn near the airport for the night.

Both men were from Handsworth in Birmingham. Sarwar was studying computer science on a part-time basis at the City of Birmingham University, and Ahmed was unemployed. They knew each other from their schooldays.

In the early hours of the following morning, CCTV showed the two men as they left the hotel and were met by a taxi which took them to the airport. Ahmed had trimmed his long beard and shaved his head to look less conspicuous and both men wore baseball caps.

The men were on a one-way ticket which they had booked online a week earlier on 7 May in their own names, using Sarwar’s family address. Sarwar and Ahmed had booked a previous trip on 20 March and then cancelled it, for a reason that is not clear.

Police searched the family homes, with their agreement, and examined the men’s computers, accessing their emails and social media.

Both men had set their privacy setting on Facebook so that only the front page could be viewed by others. Sarwar’s included a picture of a gun and the two men appeared to share another account. Police gained access to that account and found they had written: “Very hot in Syria, but another day in the blessed land.”

Investigations revealed that it was Ahmed who was the “driving force” behind the trip and Sarwar had initially been lukewarm, police sources say.

‘Can’t tell anyone I’m going to do jihad…’

In February 2012, Sarwar had written to Ahmed on Skype: “So tell me what things would you take?”

Ahmed, using the nickname Neon Salam, replied: “Clothes, money, that’s all. Can’t make tings too hot.”

Sarwar told Ahmed that Sanaa in Yemen had been assessed as the third cheapest place in the world.

“Sounds good, [but] no al-Qaeda,” Ahmed replied.

Sarwar asked Ahmed how he planned to get there and Ahmed joked: “Swim there, but need your help,” adding, “Can’t tell anyone I’m going to do jihad because I’ll get arrested the next day.”

Sarwar told him: “I’m going to miss you but it’s for a good cause… Inshallah [god willing] if we die, I’ll see you in jannah [paradise].”

It is clear that Ahmed was planning to sacrifice himself in a suicide attack, because he wrote: “Suicide is not bad if it’s the last thing you choose.”

He declared: “America is a clear enemy, Nato is a clear enemy, Muslim governments allied with the west are pure enemies.”

Ahmed had been influenced by a Danish extremist he had contacted over the internet using his email.

The Dane seemed to be encouraging Ahmed to launch a suicide attack in Britain. On 9 March 2012, he wrote: “You can be a mujahid [fighter] wherever in the world you are. Look at 7/7 from your country.”

You can be a mujahid wherever in the world you are. Look at 7/7. Messages to Ahmed

He also mentioned suicide bomber Taimour Abdulhwahab from Luton who blew himself up on a Christmas shopping street in Stockholm, Sweden.

But Ahmed seemed to want to go abroad and the Danish man added: “I understand why you would want to go to Yemen or Afghanistan. If I got the chance, I would go there.”

Ahmed replied: “Your words are very inspiring to me.”

By January 2013, Ahmed had switched his sights to Syria, writing in response to once picture: “Those tanks look harddd…Taliban stylee.”

By March he had made contact with an extremist from Sweden, telling him: “I come to join you soon.” To which the man, calling himself Abu Sulaiman, replied: “Inshallah.”

In April he wrote: “Brudas [brothers] changed their unit to Kataib al-Kawther.”

Developing extremism

Sarwar’s computer revealed his developing extremism in a series of search terms types into Google: Nasheeds [songs], rape, mujahideen, jihad, Koran jihad, Chechnya, Turkey weapons shop, AK-47, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda training.

Ahmed’s computer had a photograph of him pointing skywards in a gesture common with fighters seeking martyrdom, posing with a gun and with the flag of the Islamic State (formerly Isis).

He had pictures featuring images from Syria and quotes from Abdullah Azzam – mentor to Osama bin Laden – and the al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki.

They had copies of extremist books including Punishment of the Grave, The Sealed Nectar and Conquests of the Sahabah, along with a leaflet called “Worst Case Scenario Travel.”

The men had bought gloves, balaclavas, binoculars, walkie talkies, a rucksack and a Lumix digital camera.

Police did not expect the men to return, but their families re-establish contact with them and persuaded them to return.

“The families were in a very difficult position,” Marcus Beale, Assistant Chief Constable Security at West Midlands Police, said.

I have no doubt they were influenced by their families to come back. Marcus Beale, assistant chief constable at West Midlands Police

“When they found out where Sarwar was, their main concern was for his welfare. They assisted them in returning but did not tell us they were coming back. I have no doubt they were influenced by their families to come back.”

On 13 January, the two men arrived back in Britain and were promptly arrested on suspicion of conduct in preparation for carrying out terrorist acts under section five of the Terrorism Act 2006. They have now pleaded guilty to actions in preparation for terrorism.

Tests on Ahmed’s top, shoes and glasses revealed traces of military grade explosives including nitro glycerine, TNT and RDX, a plastic explosive, while Sarwar had traces on his top and rucksack, showing they had almost certainly been in a war zone.

From the Lumix camera’s storage card were recovered thousands of deleted images showing masked men, snipers, children with assault weapons and both men, posing with rifles.

Using satellite imagery, investigators identified the location for the photographs in the war-torn city of Aleppo in Syria.

Arrests and a plea

Both men maintained they had been on holiday to Turkey, in apparently co-ordinated stories.

“They had clearly spoken about this and anticipated their arrest,” according to police.

Ahmed denied travelling to Syria over the course of eight interviews but when confronted with the photographs he refused to answer any more questions. Sarwar refused to answer any questions but submitted a written statement denying traveling to Syria.

In later defence statements, both men admitted travelling to Syria but said they had done so to help with humanitarian work, giving first aid and clearing collapsed buildings, and had not joined the armed struggle.

“We found no evidence whatsoever that they had done any humanitarian work, they seemed to have travelled to a war zone where they had been carrying guns and improvised explosive devices,” Assistant Chief Constable Beale said.

The two families were assigned a “contact officer” and Mr Beale said: “They were never going to be happy that their sons were arrested but they haven’t disengaged with us and the officer will provide whatever support they need.

“If they had come in early enough, if they had found out about their sons’ comments on Facebook, we could have referred them to our Channel Project where they would have been assigned a mentor and had the opportunity to talk to a theologian. We want to encourage early reporting and for families to be intrusive around their children’s computers so that they can identify some of the language they are using.

“There can be no guarantees that they won’t be prosecuted but it gives us the opportunity to try and help pull them back before that is necessary.”

West Midlands Police have received a number of similar tip-offs from families concerned about their children travelling to Syria but at least one case has seen the individual referred to Channel rather than being arrested.

Assistant Chief Constable Beale said a number of scholars and imams were now telling young people: “This isn’t our war, stay at home and help in a different way.”

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