When 17-year old Saajid Badat first moved to London in 1997 he was given a cassette tape – still a popular medium then – by some new friends he had made in Tooting. Called ‘In the Hearts of Green Birds’ and produced by Azzam Publications, the tape relayed the stories of jihadist warriors who had fallen fighting for the Muslim ummah in Bosnia. An impressionable young man who had attained the status of hafiz (memorised the Koran) by the time he was twelve, Badat was moved by the stories he heard on the tape and ‘tried to meet with different people with similar view in respect of jihad.’ Within a year, he used these same contacts to go and train, setting him down a path which in 2001 led him to agree to be deployed by al Qaeda as one half of a ‘shoe bomb’ suicide mission targeting transatlantic flights. In the event, Badat backed out at the last minute, while his co-conspirator Richard Reid attempted to bring down a Paris-Miami flight.
Stories and myths have always been important in the history of Britain’s jihad, be they delivered by cassette, video or in written form. In the 1990s at Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park mosque, young men would crowd around and watch videos from the front in Algeria or Chechnya. Up in Beeston, young Waheed Ali, who later attended a training camp in Pakistan with Mohammed Siddique Khan (one of the four men who carried out the 7th July 2005 London bombings), recalled getting videos of fighting from a friend at the Iqra bookshop in Beeston and taking them round to his friend Shehzad Tanweer’s house. ‘Watching the brothers fighting in Chechnya against the Russians…was really inspirational.’ As he later told a courtroom, ‘it really brought a sense of brotherhood to a different level [….] if you get a Chechen Muslim or you get a Russian civilian you can’t tell the difference, they both look the same and you’re getting one people who are annihilating another people and you’re getting Muslims from all round the world, Arabs, you’re getting Pakistanis, you’re getting Africans going to Chechnya, a foreign land, to help their Muslim brothers and it was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. I thought ‘this is beautiful’. Ali was eventually jailed for trying to return to a training camp in Pakistan in 2007.
Others found motivation in books, like that written by Dhiren Barot, a convert who in the mid 1990s left his job working for an airline in London to go and fight alongside Kashmiri jihadists. He later wrote up his experience in a book called The Army of Madinah in Kashmir that has featured repeatedly among the collections of men jailed for terrorism in the UK. Clearly impressed by the author’s experiences, the anonymous editor Abu Umamah tells readers in the preface, ‘what is most unusual about this book is the author himself. It is so rare for people in our age to take on the struggle for the sake of Allah. So imagine someone who comes from a non-Muslim background, struggling first against himself, then those around him from friends and family to take on the most noble of duties in Allah’s cause’.
The importance of these narratives has not shrunk and extremist groups abroad have become adept at producing accessible material that tell glorious hagiographies and of a united ummah fighting against oppression. Al-Shabaab has become particularly good at this, producing videos that look professionally made, highlighting what the group has achieved in Somalia. Most recently, they released what promises to be the first in a series called ‘The Life under the Shade of Islamic Sharia in Somalia.’ Produced by al-Khataib (which translates as the person who delivers the sermon), the film was made in the style of a documentary about what life was like under sharia law in Baidoa, a city Shabaab used to control. In the film we see the English-speaking narrator (with a slight foreign accent, but clearly someone who has spent considerable time in the UK), acting like a documentary narrator on the BBC ‘travelling back to find out’ more about how Baidoa fared under al-Shabaab rule. He talks to the camera, poses against the backdrop of scenes of battles he is describing, and conducts on-screen interviews with citizens. Preceding his trip to Baidoa with a brief history lesson, we hear about dictator Siad Barre whose socialist republic collapsed in 1991, leading to a period in which, he tells us, the country descended into tribal conflicts and warlordism with Ethiopian funding.
Animosity towards Ethiopia is something that pervades the video and the more general Shabaab narrative; a majority Christian country that is repeatedly accused of being a crusader army come to oppress Somalia’s Muslim community – either with outside support or simply for its own nefarious reasons. Talking to a Somali social worker in Ealing on the topic of Shabaab a few years ago, I was surprised to hear first-hand about the strength of the Ethiopian invasion as a narrative that spurred anger among young Somalis. The importance of this narrative to Shabaab in particular can be seen in a recorded telephone conversation from August 2010 between two Somali-Swede’s accused of fundraising and recruiting for the group: ‘the diaspora helped us before, when the Ethiopians came, so that we could drive them away…because they hated Ethiopia so much…when they left, then came the Ugandans….but they hate the Ethiopians more than the Ugandans…they have never heard of the Ugandans…and now we get no help because they do not know what the war is about.’ Without this narrative to tap, the men were having difficulty raising money from the community in Scandinavia.
Hence the need to produce videos explaining their narrative and highlighting successes, and the narrator’s trip to sharia-governed Baidoa to show what Shabaab are achieving. In the video, he goes around like a reporter interviewing shop owners (one of whom breaks off during the interview to go to prayer) and asking locals what they think of sharia rule. We visit madrassas filled with eager children learning the Koran and see teams of religious police wandering around the city during prayer time to make sure everyone has closed business and gone to pray. At other times we see a bustling city apparently thriving under the group’s control with markets and new construction sites, all courtesy of foreign investment that has supposedly come to the city in the wake of the stability al-Shabaab had brought. A big point is made of talking about the role that women play in the markets – in supposed contrast to the evil democratic narrative that says they are oppressed under sharia – though at no point are we shown any women’s faces.
This particular narrative may be new and unique to the Somali situation, but there are universal elements in the video and other Shabaab productions that hearken back to earlier videos. The Chechen and Bosnian videos were infamous for their depiction of butchered civilians and while the Shabaab videos are not quite as gruesome, we see a Shabaab warrior showing us a selection of skulls that are purportedly civilians beheaded by Ethiopian soldiers. In contrast to the earlier Chechen videos, however, these ones are less bloodthirsty. In ‘Russian Hell’ – also an Azzam production – it is relatively common to see mujahedeen fighters cutting the throats of Russian prisoners and executing them for the camera. Shabaab chooses a tamer version of the violence, something likely learned from the experiences of other groups where the excessively visible spilling of blood had a negative effect on the general perception of the group.
We also see clips of heroic fallen fighters – Abu Ayyub, Britain’s first suicide bomber in Somalia, is venerated in the video and we see a clip from the film he recorded prior to driving a truck bomb into an Ethiopian checkpoint in October 2007. And throughout the documentary we see footage of fighters talking to the camera, some of whose names are followed up with ‘may Allah accept him.’ This is an almost exact replica of earlier videos and cassettes where we see and hear footage of fallen fighters with a brief description of where they are from and their victorious actions. Supposedly the first in a series, the film is one of a number the group has produced, though it is of unusually high quality.
But heroes are not only conjured through film. In much the same way that Dhiren Barot wrote his story as a warrior in Kashmir, young American Omar Hamammi wrote an autobiography which he self-published online. Telling his life story as a young American in Alabama who found religion and then ran away to Egypt with his Canadian-Somali wife and then on with a friend to Somalia, the book is intended as an inspiration to others to follow in his path. He does not stint from telling about the difficulties encountered, but it is all painted in the manner of an exciting adventure in which our intrepid hero gets by on his wits. At the end of the text (which promises sequels by calling itself ‘The story of an American Jihaadi Part One’), Hammami undertakes an interview with a fellow extremist looking in some depth at some of the questions raised in the text and the justifications of what he is doing. He also reveals himself during the book to be a prolific strategist, claiming to be ‘Abu Jihad al-Shami,’ the author of four previous texts about jihad in Somalia.
The impact of these narratives is hard to judge in absolute terms. Looking back at the 1990s and the impact of the videos from Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya, it is easy to see the influence they had in helping inspire young men to go and find out what jihad was about and how they could participate. Bosnia in particular had a transformative effect on the British Muslim narrative. Nowadays the narrative of jihad and fighting for the Muslim community in faraway lands is fairly well known, with most having at least a cursory knowledge of what it is about simply by looking in the media. But stories with heroic figures are important and showing potential fighters that what they are signing up for is a righteous adventure in a foreign land rather than an anonymous death by drone strike is essential if these groups are to maintain the flow of support and attention from the affluent west.
The importance of such material was highlighted recently in a series of cases in the London where Shabaaz Hussain from Stepney pled guilty to sending more than £9,000 to a group who had gone to fight in Somalia. According to the prosecution, his home was ‘practically dripping’ with radical material, including jihadist manifestos, speeches by Osama bin Laden and recordings of hook-handed preacher Abu Hamza. A pair of identical twins, Mohammed Shabir Ali and Mohammed Shakif Ali, were later convicted on similar charges. They had sent £3,000 to Somalia through Hussain. For these two, the narrative of what was going on in Somalia was particularly personal, as their brother Shamim Ali had gone to fight in Somalia in 2008. Among their possessions was a recording of a call he had made to them from abroad appealing for money – according to the prosecutor, he told them ‘the need is relayed by their brother for fighters to dedicate their lives to jihad, and if needs be to sacrifice life.’ Ali is believed to still be in Somalia, while his two brothers face another year of incarceration for sending him money to fight the war. The story of jihad in Somalia appealed to these men, something reinforced in the twin’s case through the direct involvement of their brother.
The threat from new battlefields like Somalia is one that keeps British security services awake at night. As MI5 head Jonathan Evans put it in June, ‘al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel have become more dangerous as al Qaeda in Pakistan has declined….in back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here.’ These individuals are motivated and inspired by stories from the battlefields, either as books, videos or recordings. In the religious conflict these groups see themselves at the vanguard of, epic stories and myths are essential to maintain support and draw others into the fray. And while the stories may come from new locations, their underlying intention remains the same and their impact can be measured in the continuing arrests and convictions we see in Europe and North America. As long as jihadi stories find an audience, radical groups will find a voice and weave mythical legends for young Britons to emulate. Stories will remain a crucial part of the British jihad.