The last time Abdul Waheed Majeed spoke to his family, it was on a crackling telephone line from Syria at the end of January. He had arrived six months earlier on an aid convoy organised by his local mosque in Crawley, and had been working in refugee camps along the Syrian-Turkish border, laying pipes and delivering food to those displaced by a grinding civil war.
Waheed told his family that he missed them all very much and loved them, and thanked them for looking out for his three teenage children and wife. His father, Abdul, was perplexed by his youngest son’s vagueness about when he would return and insisted on getting a date out of him. Waheed said he’d be back by April.
But he never came back. Six days later Waheed, at 41, became the first British suicide bomber in Syria and the 10th UK national to die on the Syrian battlefield. Since that last call home, Waheed had joined the al-Qaida offshoot Wahabi/Deobandi Jabhat al-Nusra, fighting against Bashar al-Assad.
He had driven HGVs for two decades in Britain in his job with the Highways Agency. Now he got into an armoured dump truck laden with explosives and slammed into the gates of Aleppo central prison, alleged to be a torture chamber for 4,000 imprisoned rebels. Waheed’s mission hit its mark. Hundreds of prisoners escaped, but 300 people died in the ensuing firefight between the Syrian air force and the rebels. In the competitive world of performance terrorism, al-Nusra released a 43-minute video showing the truck’s journey, to publicise its triumph.
Over cups of tea in Crawley, the West Sussex town where the Majeeds have lived for decades, Waheed’s elder brother Hafeez says they missed the clues in his last call. “With hindsight, we should have sat up when he said, ‘I love you guys and look after the children.’ But we just wanted him home.”
A day after the attack, the news on Twitter was that the bomber was British. Waheed’s wife Tahmina rang a few of the women she knew whose husbands were in Syria, and they said he had joined al-Nusra. “But we had no concrete proof. Frank Gardner [the BBC’s security editor] said on the news that the bomber’s name was Abu Suleiman al-Britani. We didn’t know the name. It was only when the video was released three days later that we saw him.”
In the video, Waheed is wearing a white dishdasha and headband. Surrounded by Chechen militants, he is asked to say something but declines because he cannot speak Arabic. When the cameraman insists, Waheed says: “I don’t want to try. It should come from the heart and I can’t do it.”
Hafeez says the first time the family saw the video, “it was hard. We all cried. Until then Mum and Dad did not want to believe it, but then it hit home. The phone calls stopped, too. We knew he was not coming home. It is a horrible thing to say but we wanted it to be someone else’s son.”
Piecing together his brother’s final days, Hafeez says Waheed had been shaken by a defector from Assad’s regime, who provided evidence of industrial-scale killing to senior war crimes prosecutors. “After speaking to his friends, we think what made up his mind was those pictures of 11,000 torture victims that came out in late January. He was deeply affected by that and we think that made him join al-Nusra.
“We feel that if he hadn’t got a beard and was white and wearing a uniform with a crown on his arm with a regiment number, he would have been awarded the posthumous Victoria Cross. Instead Waheed is called a terrorist. How can that be? He gave his life to save people from that prison.”
Raised in Crawley by Pakistani-born parents, Hafeez and Waheed grew up like many of their peers: playing football in the park and eating fish and chips. His mother Maqbool, 70, opens the family album to show a young boy with a bike, or a teenager with a smile stealing across his face.
Waheed with his mother. His brother says the family tried to talk him out of it. ‘He said Assad was not letting aid get in and people were being bombed, families torn apart. He said he had to go.’ Photograph: Courtesy of the Majeed family
His family had ties to the British army: Waheed’s grandfather and great-uncle served in the jungles of Burma during the second world war, and a cousin is currently in the Parachute Regiment. Waheed had Muslim, Jewish and Christian friends. He loved sci-fi movies and when his elder brother took up boxing, he joined the local karate club. What set them apart from their English friends was that, from the age of seven until 16, both boys went to the mosque for Islamic lessons for two hours every weekday. “Waheed took his faith more seriously than me,” Hafeez says. “I went to parties where there were women and alcohol. I had girlfriends. I went to the student bar. He would be learning Arabic.”Waheed had an arranged marriage with a woman from Pakistan. He got a job with the Highways Agency, often working in emergency crews repairing carriageways after motorway accidents. He began attending seminars on Islam
. “We saw that Omar Bakri Mohammad, leader of al-Muhajiroun [the extremist organisation that claimed to have links to Lee Rigby’s killer Michael Adebolajo], said my brother was his driver
. Waheed did attend two talks organised by them and he picked up Mr Bakri from the station twice, but he stopped attending their meetings because he said they were too extreme.”In June last year, when the Syrian conflict filled television screens, Waheed told his family he was leaving his job to go on an aid convoy to Syria. “We tried to talk him out of it. His wife did, too. We said, you didn’t go to help before, in Afghanistan or Bosnia, why are you going now? He said Assad was not letting aid get in and people were being bombed, families torn apart. He said he had to go.”
In the days after the video was released, the police raided the home he shared with his wife and children, producing a search warrant under anti-terror laws. Camera crews caught his father and youngest son being pulled out of the house. The Daily Mail “were ringing up every 10 minutes. They even tried to get my nephew, who was 15, to talk about his dead father. We were being labelled terrorists. The effect was real for us as a family. Tahmina lost her job as a cleaner in the local cinema after the media frenzy. She’s been abused in the street, had death threats. A few months ago someone drove straight into her car while it was parked outside the house. The council has had to put an alarm in. She’s got three children to support.
“The kids of course miss their dad, but they say they feel no shame about what he did. None of us is ashamed, but we do wish we could have stopped him. He martyred himself for people he did not know.”
Free Syrian Army fighters in a gun battle. ‘War is scary,’ Abu Jamal says. ‘Bullets flying over your head, people trying to shoot you.’ Photograph: Reuters/Malek Alshemali
Last year, Abu Jamal was blown up alongside troops in his rebel unit. Knocked out and laid up with a head wound in a field hospital near Idlib, he was desperate to locate the British jihadis he had been fighting with.”The days that followed were the worst,” he says via Skype. “You had to tell the families their sons had become martyrs. One guy who was with us, his family had been asking for him every day, but we didn’t know what had happened in all the chaos. He wasn’t even supposed to come with us. He was new to fighting and we became friends – he said if I was going to fight, he’d come along. I didn’t convince him. But he didn’t make it. Having to tell his family was the hardest thing I’ve had to do.”Abu Jamal [his Islamic nom de guerre] is fighting in Syria, with a bushy beard covering his face and bullets strung across his chest. His journey from Lancashire to the Levant is one of startling transformation. Growing up in Britain, he says, he was not a “good Muslim”. He smoked, drank, went clubbing, had girlfriends. “I wasn’t practising, you know, not praying every day.”
As a boy, his religion was Manchester United: the divine presence in his childhood was Eric Cantona. “He was the guy back then. I was really into it. Still am. Follow all the news about the team.” Although his family is rooted in an observant British Pakistani tradition, Abu Jamal refused to conform. He went to sixth-form college but not university. Instead he got a “well-paying job” in the music industry. Race and religion played little part in his life. His best friend at work was a white atheist.
But five years ago, this lifestyle began to grate, especially the drinking. “I was around drunk people a lot. I felt sorry for them and didn’t want to be like that. I had to leave that job and at the same time I stopped smoking. I began praying, grew my beard. Still doing some wrong things, for sure. It was gradual, you know. It was not suddenly, bam! I’m a practising Muslim.”
The long retreat into his spiritual heritage was aided by council-run seminars and mosque lectures he began attending. “I’d go to classes and slowly my knowledge of Islam built up. You can get a translation of the Qur’an online, and that helps.”
Abu Jamal says becoming a good Muslim did not mean a wholesale rejection of the west, more a way of dealing with it on his terms. “I’d play two football matches a week, but now we’d organise tournaments and raise money for charities that were helping Gaza, or victims of the Pakistani floods. I still played football, but with a purpose.”
He was shocked by Syria’s increasingly bloody civil war, in particular a 2012 video purportedly showing a Syrian rebel being buried alive. “There were other videos, too, of women and children suffering. I’d ask myself if that was our family, our sisters, would we be sitting here doing nothing? The man being dug into the ground got into my head.”
His mind made up, Abu Jamal, then in his early 20s, began to work out how he could get to Turkey and make his way across what was then a porous border. Syria was at the time comparatively easy to get to: you just flew to Turkey and linked up with a group who’d get you over the border. “It’s harder now. I bought the ticket three days after I decided to go. I flew over and remember thinking how hot Turkey was. I had to shower as soon as I got there. I waited in a guest house for a day, then was driven out to fields near the border. There were five of us – Russians, Germans – and we had to wait until nightfall, then just walked across an empty field to a waiting car in Syria. They drove us to our base camp and that was it: I’d left my old life behind.”
A single man who still lived with his parents, the hardest part for Abu Jamal was leaving his family. He left England two years ago, and even today is not honest with his mother about what he’s doing. “I made up something about laying bricks [in Turkey]. But when I didn’t return for my sister’s wedding a few months later, they were furious. I can remember being on the phone to them and my whole family shouting at me. I don’t say I am here fighting, but they are not stupid. I think they know but we don’t talk about it openly. My brothers and sisters know, but they don’t tell Mum.”
He stresses that this secrecy is not to protect his family from the police, but rather his and his mother’s sanity. “This sounds a bit fucked up, but it’s going to affect me if she is stressing out. No matter how old you are, you are still a baby to your mum. I know what she is like and I don’t want her to be thinking about me every day – because I am not going to come back.”
In June, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police Cressida Dick said that British-born jihadis returning from Syria would pose a lethal security threat for “many, many, many years”. Many are Sunni extremists fighting President Bashar al-Assad. They are also part of the rebel coalition that Britain has long supported. But they are now considered more dangerous than the Syrian regime and the government says it will jail those involved in fighting if they return, and strip the citizenship of those who stay.
“When I left, Britain was on the side of people fighting to remove Bashar. Now Britain is against them. I’d love to come back for a week or two and see my family and friends. I miss having a shower. I miss the food. I’d love fish and chips with curry sauce. Here tinned tuna is a luxury.”
Though he admits being involved in some “action” on the streets back in the UK, in Syria Abu Jamal’s weapon of choice is a “Klash”, the AK-47 assault rifle favoured by guerrilla groups around the world. He can operate a rocket-powered grenade and fire mortars. He openly admits killing “Bashar’s boys” and has come up against Lebanon’s fearsome Hezbollah brigades.
“War is scary. You have bullets flying over your head, people trying to shoot you. You cannot get used to a tank firing at you. If you get hit, that’s it. You have to know that is what you came here for.”
While Abu Jamal is not aligned to Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamists of Isis, he has fought with both, as well as the secular Free Syrian Army. “If an attack happens, we group together, otherwise we can’t take on Bashar’s tanks and heavy weaponry. But some of them go too far. The leader of Isis says he is leader of a caliphate but I don’t think the whole Muslim world supports him. It’s not right.
“I heard that guy from Isis saying we want to raise the black flag over Buckingham Palace, but I don’t. I lived in Britain for more than 20 years. I was born there. Why would I do something like that if I ever returned? It’s my home.”
The aid worker
‘Reem. Legs blown off but still smiling’: aid worker Tauqir Sharif posted this picture on Facebook Tauqir Sharif remembers clearly the moment he decided to live in Syria rather than in Britain. It was a rainy winter’s afternoon in southern Turkey in November 2012 and the 27-year-old east Londoner was heading to Hatay airport to return home. He’d spent the last few weeks in Aleppo, trying to help ferry the wounded out of the city.
“I was sitting there thinking about what I had been through. There was a downpour and the driver lost control of the car. It skidded off the road and we spun around. I thought, we are going to die here in Turkey, when all that time I was in a war zone with bombs dropping on my head in Syria. As a teenager I’d come close to death when I was stabbed and robbed. I ended up in hospital. I thought, you can die in the UK easily. Or you could die in a road accident in Turkey. Or you could die in Syria doing something you believe in. That was the turning point for me. I decided I would stay.”
Sharif returned home and told his wife, Racquell Hayden-Best, a Muslim convert, that they would be moving permanently to what was then the Middle East’s most deadly conflict. “She didn’t take much convincing. She is a political activist and doing this kind of work is one of the reasons we got married. I just came home and said, ‘Right, pack your bags, we are going to Syria.’ She didn’t take much convincing. We live in a hut near the Turkish/Syrian border now, with a metal roof. I could afford to rent a nice house but we want to be humble like those around us. ”
The pair now help to run a refugee camp and two Islamic schools in northern Syria, soliciting funds and help through their aid organisation, Live Updates From Syria. Its Facebook page has 12,000 likes. A school for orphans has raised half of the £60,000 it needs. “We’ve driven ambulances, set up field hospitals. Our refugee camps are like shanty towns with block buildings, which is better than when we arrived. We have a generator for electricity and satellite internet for our campaigning. These days the border with Turkey is littered with these sort of shanty towns. When we arrived it was just olive trees.”
Once in Syria, the couple decided to start a family and now have a 10-month-old daughter, who was born in Turkey. But they have lost friends and colleagues. “I had a Syrian friend shot by a sniper in Aleppo. I was standing next to him, we were evacuating the injured. And I lost a good friend last year, Dr Isa Abdur Rahman. He was a British doctor, killed when the army bombed the hospital he was working in in Idlib. He was a lovely guy, young man. Gave up work to come here.”
Although he grew up in a pious family, in his youth Sharif was “a rebel, the black sheep”. “I was not religious at all. I was a normal British middle-class person, 100% integrated. I loved extreme sports: skiing , scuba diving, bungee jumping. I was an adrenaline junkie, in your face, always out. My parents complained I was never at home.”
He began a degree in quantity surveying at Nottingham Trent University, where he continued “sinning”. Then a friend convinced him to start fundraising for George Galloway’s aid convoys to Gaza. Sharif ended up joining one, landing in Gaza in January 2010. There he rethought his life, he says. Living in the most densely crowded patch on earth, in the shadow of a hostile neighbour, brought him “closer to religion”. A few months later he was on the Mavi Marmara, as part of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, when Israeli commandos stormed the vessel and killed nine activists. “I saw people shot in front of me. I carried them down to the deck. We were processed in a special facility. I was strip-searched, spat on by guards. UK and US citizens were the last to be freed. No one was coming for us. I had this sense of dismay when I realised the government was not going to support me or any of my ideals. Not just me but the middle-class, white people who are my friends today, who believed in what I did.” He left university, ostensibly to join his father’s gas fitting firm, but in reality to spend more time as an activist.
Today he admits he was naive in coming to Syria. “I didn’t know anything about the Arab spring really. Not like I do now. My family don’t like the campaigning. My dad says, ‘You will make trouble for us.’ My parents are afraid, not for my sake, but that they will get blowback from the British government.” A lot of people who are aid workers out here have had their families harassed by the police and the security services. “I told Dad that if I don’t speak out, fewer charities will want to work here, fewer people will give money. At the end of the day, the people who will suffer are the Syrian people.”
Since last year the UK has made it clear that British aid convoys and humanitarian relief workers in Syria are a potential national security threat: either by unwittingly aiding Islamic militants or, worse, radicalising Britons who return home prepared to launch attacks against their own country. “I first came on an aid convoy of 11 ambulances in March 2012. We were carrying baby food and nappies, and the ambulances were stopped at Dover, but no one really asked where we were going. It took two weeks to get to Syria. It’s much more difficult now.”
Sharif accepts that jihadist groups operate in plain sight in the patch of “Free Syria” that he works in. Isis draws on cosmopolitan jihadist networks and engages in bloody rivalry with other groups, which means a growing suspicion of any foreigner in Syria. “Certain commanders who have fought against Isis now think any foreigner is a threat. You need to have relationships to get things done. But that does not make you a fighter.”
Sharif’s British bank, and his wife’s, have closed their accounts. “We use Turkish banks now for donations. A lot of Muslim aid organisations are being investigated by the Charity Commission. People are worried they can go to prison for helping the Syrian people.”
The Foreign Office now says no one should travel to Syria “under any circumstances”, adding that those who do go risk losing their passports. “We have passports but my baby daughter doesn’t, and I am not going to leave her behind. As it is, we could not go home because of the threats made by the British government. We have to get used to the fact that we are stateless refugees in Syria.”