On January 29, Abubaker Deghayes, a British citizen of Libyan descent, was drinking coffee in his large, white Saltdean home with its distant views of the Channel when his phone rang. His daughter, Aisha, 23, was calling from her mother’s house a few miles along the coast in Brighton.
She sounded alarmed. She said her brothers – Abdullah, 17, and Jaffar, 16 – had not come home the previous night. Their mobiles were off. Their passports and some clothes were missing. They had left no message. Their friends had not seen them. Abdullah had said nothing even to his twin brother.
Deghayes guessed immediately where they had gone. He knew instinctively that they had decided to join their elder brother, Amer, 20, who was fighting in Syria with Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamic jihadist organisation linked both to al-Qaeda and the Khorasan group, which the US bombed last month, claiming it planned to attack western targets.
“If they’d gone anywhere else, they’d have said so. The clue was they didn’t say where they were going,” he says. “I felt worried, scared. They were young and going to a war zone. They had little Arabic. They’d never travelled alone before.”
His alarm was justified. Within months Abdullah was dead. Weeks later counter-terrorism officers raided Deghayes’ house. Late last month Ibrahim Kamara, 19, another young jihadist with whom Abdullah and Jaffar had travelled out from Brighton, was killed in a US-led air strike on a Jabhat al-Nusra base. Amer and Jaffar now appear thoroughly radicalised and face almost certain imprisonment if ever they return from Syria.
“How has it come to this?” Deghayes asks. How has Amer, who not long ago posted a Facebook photo of himself playfully pretending to eat a starfish beside Brighton pier, joined a group of al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists? How did four students raised in seaside Sussex become Islamic foot soldiers in a war of singular brutality?
Those are questions western governments would love to answer as hundreds of their young Muslim citizens flock to Syria – raising the spectre of them returning home as battle-hardened terrorists. More than 500 are believed to have gone from Britain alone.
It was in Syria, while reporting for The Times in November 2012, that I first met Deghayes. He had just driven across Europe in a convoy of seven battered old vehicles loaded with food, clothes and medicine for the Atmeh refugee camp near the Turkish border.
A large, genial man, he said he could not stand idly by while fellow Muslims in Syria were suffering. He had joined similar convoys delivering aid to the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo in the Nineties. He expressed dismay when he saw the thousands of traumatised families in a camp lacking running water, electricity or basic sanitation. “It’s very little, but it’s the best we can do,” he said of the aid he delivered. He stayed on and helped to build a school, dispensary and storeroom.
He was still there when I returned the following January, and joined me on a hazardous trip to the frontline town of Salma in Latakia province. We crossed the border by wading across an icy river, then clambered over a snow-covered mountain to a contact waiting with a vehicle.
Flat-footed, overweight and hopelessly unfit, Deghayes had to stop frequently on the way up, and slithered most of the way down on his bottom, but never quite lost his sense of humour.
I got to know him well on that trip. He bore little resemblance to the dangerous extremist he has been portrayed as recently in the British press. He has been variously accused of attending a Brighton mosque that Abu Hamza once frequented, mounting a hardline coup against its moderate imam in the Nineties, and in 2006 calling Tony Blair a legitimate target.
I put these claims to Deghayes. He says Abu Hamza did indeed rent a room at the al-Quds mosque while studying in Brighton 30 years ago, but that he avoided the man. He says he opposed the imam because he was trying to sell the mosque for his own ends, and meant only that Blair was a legitimate target for political attack.
When I spoke to the current imam of his mosque and Tariq Jung, head of the Brighton and Hove Muslim Forum, they both denied that Deghayes was an extremist.
The man I travelled with was devout, but not fanatical. He chain-smoked, which some consider un-Islamic. Asked if he rigorously followed the teachings of the Koran, he replied with a chuckle: “I try to, but it’s not a simple task.”
He was and is strongly pro-Palestinian, but so are most Muslims. He carried no gun. He snored loudly, slept late. He laughed at himself. He was shocked by the destruction of Salma, and as he opened up I began to understand where his sympathy for the downtrodden came from.
Deghayes, 45, was raised in Tripoli, the son of a wealthy lawyer who fought for human rights and openly criticised Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. One afternoon in February 1980, a regime official arrived at the family’s apartment and took his father away. As he left, Deghayes’ mother asked if she should call some influential friends. Her husband replied: “This time only Allah can help.”
Deghayes never saw his father again. Three days later the regime claimed he had killed himself and ordered his uncle to collect his corpse from the morgue. Nobody believed it.
“I cried my eyes out,” says Deghayes, who still speaks of his father with awe. “He was a person who always helped the oppressed and believed in standing by the weak. He preferred to give up his life than become a Gaddafi stooge.”
Deghayes’ mother eventually wangled permission for the family to leave Libya. His father had invested in hotels and property in Britain, so they had money. They gained refugee status and settled in Saltdean, where Deghayes’ father had sent his five children to language school each summer.
Deghayes studied business at Lewes College, ran a nursing home, and later managed some property lets. He married a distant relative from Libya and they had six children in seven years – Aisha, Amer, the twins Abdullah and Abdulrahman, Jaffar and Mohammed.
Two years after we met in Atmeh, Deghayes has lost his levity. He is sombre as we drink green tea in his living room and talk for several hours about his children and how they ended up in Syria. He fingers prayer beads. He shows occasional flashes of sorrow, anger, bewilderment. From the window we can see the dilapidated Saltdean Lido, a reminder of happier times, and beyond it the sea glistening in the autumn sun.
Deghayes was a strict father, admonishing his children to work hard and be good Muslims, but they had fairly normal British childhoods. They watched television, ate pizza, drank fizzy drinks. They swam in the sea, played football for the Saltdean Tigers and supported Chelsea. They cried when England were knocked out of the World Cup. There were occasional family trips to London Zoo and Hyde Park.
The boys went to Meridian Community Primary School in Peacehaven, and to Longhill High School in Rottingdean. They had Muslim and non-Muslim friends. As teenagers they wanted cool clothes – on his Facebook page Amer says he once worked for Hollister.
“They always went for the expensive brand of football boots,” recalls Deghayes, who struggled to keep them going to the mosque and away from the more decadent temptations of western life. But he says he and his family loved Britain. “I am grateful to this country. It gave us refuge and protection, and drowned us with its generosity.”
Things changed dramatically in the late Nineties when Deghayes’ younger brother, Omar, visited Afghanistan while it was under Taliban rule and married an Afghan woman with whom he had a child. Following 9/11 and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 he fled with his family to Pakistan. There he was arrested, handed to the Americans, and sent to Guantánamo Bay where, he claims, he was abused, tortured and blinded in one eye.
Deghayes campaigned hard for his brother’s release. Omar was finally freed in 2007 without any charges being brought against him, and compensated by the British government, but there were consequences.
Although the campaign enjoyed wide support in Brighton, a few locals turned on the family. “The front window was smashed two or three times during the night,” Deghayes recalls. “There were mobs of youngsters – perhaps 15 or 20 of them – running after my young children.
“My sons reacted, especially the twins. They defended themselves. I told my sons: if a dog barks, you don’t bark back. I tried my best to get them to understand, not to be provoked, but as youngsters it’s hard for them to grasp this.”
Shortly after Omar’s release, Deghayes’ marriage collapsed. The children went with their mother to Brighton. He admits that social services accused him of violence, and of foisting his religious views on the boys, but insists that he merely tried to bring them up in the same disciplined manner his father raised him.
Deghayes lost control of his sons. They got into fights – particularly the twins. They were frequently in trouble at school and with the police, and were referred to youth workers. They embraced rap music and what Deghayes disparagingly calls “street language”. He suspects they experimented with alcohol, drugs and girls. “They were not angels,” he admits.
Amer was the most disciplined and serious of the brothers, and less often in trouble. “He wanted to be a writer, a football star. He was calm, wise, gentle, friendly,” says Deghayes.
After leaving school at 16, Amer began a business studies course at a Brighton college and found a part-time job at Specsavers. He went to a gym for body building. At 18, he began attending the mosque more regularly and posting religious strictures on Facebook. “He slowly became more interested in religion. I don’t know why,” Deghayes tells me. “He became more aware of world issues.”
He watched video reports online of President Assad’s atrocities in Syria. Reared on the story of his grandfather’s battle against oppression and aware of his father’s trips to deliver aid, he began pressing to go himself.
“He’d say, ‘How can people watch and do nothing? Why aren’t Muslim countries helping them? Why isn’t the West helping?’ ” Deghayes says he tried to persuade his son that he could help most by collecting humanitarian aid and lobbying the government here in Britain, but Amer persisted.
Eventually, late last year, Deghayes let him join an aid convoy to the Atmeh camp, thinking he would swiftly return after seeing the grim reality of life in Syria. “I thought I’d convinced him to stick to aid work,” he says. But within days of Amer’s arrival, friends in Atmeh phoned to say he had joined Jabhat al-Nusra, the pre-eminent rebel group in that part of Syria at the time.
Its ultimate goal was the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Syria, not freedom and democracy, but Syrian opposition activists had nonetheless welcomed its emergence. They regarded it as a group of brave, disciplined, well-equipped fighters who were carrying the battle to Assad’s regime in a way the more moderate but often shambolic Free Syrian Army was not. When the US branded Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organisation in December 2012, many moderate rebel groups defended it.
I contacted Amer via Facebook to ask him why he joined. He wrote that he chose Jabhat al-Nusra because it was successful militarily, loved by the Syrian people, and “the clearest and most fitting Islamicly [sic]”.
He came to Syria because he could not bear to see Muslims being killed and tortured by Assad’s forces, and to help establish an “Islamic way of life and society”. His parents did not know of his plan “and that’s the way it’s going to have to be as Allah and his commands come first and parents’ permission isn’t needed”.
Two months later, Jaffar and Abdullah and their friend Ibrahim Kamara, who had recently resat his GCSE exams, followed Amer, taking a cheap flight from Luton to Istanbul, then a bus to the Turkish border city of Antakya.
Deghayes suspects that Amer may have encouraged them and provided money. But the so-called “sea-hadis” may also have fallen for online propaganda accusing western Muslims of being cowards who will one day answer to Allah for not defending their fellow Muslims.
“I don’t think for a minute Abubaker encouraged his sons to go to fight in Syria,” says Tariq Jung. “I believe social media played a part. They are young boys who want to make a mark. They’ve been fooled, blackmailed, cajoled into doing something. They had made a pact. I think they were coaxing each other.”
Deghayes describes Jaffar as a smart, determined boy who read a lot and was studying sports and public services at City College in Brighton. He had been taking Arabic classes at weekends, regularly attended the mosque, fasted and even listened to religious lectures on his laptop. Above all, he admired his eldest brother.
Abdullah was less close to Amer. “I can only assume Abdullah discovered what Jaffar was doing and said, ‘I want to go with you’, ” reasons Deghayes. He did poorly at school and was wilder than his brothers. He stayed out late and did not take religion seriously, but he had begun a course in construction. Deghayes believes Abdullah may have tagged along purely for the adventure.
Deghayes was not surprised that Abdullah’s twin brother, Abdulrahman, stayed behind. Abdulrahman is concerned only with having “a good time... hanging out with his friends, playing and fooling about”, he says of a son from whom he admits he is estranged. “I didn’t ask him why he didn’t go out,” says Deghayes. “I didn’t want him to think about it.” Abdullah and Abdulrahman used to be very close, says Deghayes, but, in the six months before Abdullah left, they grew apart.
After Jaffar and Abdullah’s disappearance in January, Deghayes called friends in Atmeh who tracked them down. He flew out and confronted them in a cheap hotel in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. “I knew straight away I had to go. Their mother was in shock, very sad, very worried. Their sister, too.”
He says he begged them to come home and continue their studies, but they refused. “They were determined.” Deghayes recalls that Abdullah did the talking: “We want to see Amer. Now we’re here we must go in and help. Whatever happens, we’re not coming back with you.”
“It was a difficult meeting. At this age they can make you feel you have no power over them ... I had to keep a line of contact open. If I got angry and finished with them, after that, I wouldn’t be able to talk to them.” Since his return he’s been contacting them via Facebook, Skype and his mobile.
Abdullah was killed three months later, in April. Jaffar posted a photo on his Facebook showing Abdullah lying on his back in combat fatigues, eyes closed, mouth open. Deghayes seems close to tears as he shows me the picture on his phone. “I was devastated. I never expected my son to die at such a young age,” he says. Abdullah had celebrated his 18th birthday two days earlier.
Amer’s reaction was rather different. He said Abdullah was shot in the chest while the three brothers helped to repel regime forces near the town of Kessab in Latakia province. “He was killed for a really good cause and his death was a sign of martyrdom,” Amer told Vice News in June. “As he fell back he laughed and he smiled ... We believe our martyrs are still alive enjoying themselves in heaven.”
Weeks later officers from the South East counter terrorism unit arrived at Deghayes’ home. At 7.22am on May 20 they hammered on the door, brandishing a search warrant. They ordered him, his brother, his brother’s wife and their three young children to touch nothing. They said they were investigating Abdullah’s death, that no one could leave the property without being searched.
Deghayes says eight or nine officers spent that day searching the house and car as neighbours and journalists watched outside. The family stayed the night in a hotel. The police finally departed at 4.35pm the following day, leaving an 18-page list of items they had removed including Deghayes’ British and Libyan passports, the family’s mobiles, two laptops, a computer, memory sticks and various “papers with writing in foreign script”, including a Costa Coffee napkin. They took more than £3,000 in sterling, dollars and Libyan dinars which they have since returned. His former wife’s house in Brighton was also searched.
It was only later, when the police asked a court to extend the time they could hold the seized cash, that Deghayes realised he was a terrorist suspect. The police submission said he was “suspected of engaging in Islamist extremist activity by being a member of a proscribed organisation – the Al-Nusra Front, recruitment and radicalisation of individuals and, fundraising and financing of terrorist activities [sic]”.
“I was shocked. I can’t figure out how they could think of me like that,” Deghayes says. More than four months later he has not been charged. The police will not say whether he is still being investigated.
Since then the dramatic rise of Isis has made matters worse. Its executions of western journalists, slaughter of non-Sunnis and barbaric treatment of women have fuelled a perception in the West that the conflict is now a battle between Islamic extremists and Assad, with the Syrian tyrant the lesser of two evils.
“They [Isis] have messed up an honourable revolution,” Deghayes laments. “People can no longer distinguish between people fighting Assad and [Isis] criminals who are thirsting for blood. They don’t understand the difference, or have the patience to try to.”
Today, Deghayes appears anguished and conflicted. He wants his sons to return home. “I worry about them constantly. As a father I am selfish on this point. I want them out of danger. I want them to outlive me.”
He believes they are naive and misguided – that what the Syrian opposition needs most is food, money and weapons, not foreign fighters. But he admits, when pressed, to a certain pride that they want to help those oppressed by dictatorship – just as their grandfather did in Libya.
“They’re not terrorists. They’re fighting with the Syrian people against an aggressor who mercilessly bombs them day and night,” he insists. He compares them to Britons who fought for the Republican cause in the Spanish civil war, or with the Libyan revolutionaries who deposed Gaddafi in 2011.
“They all came back and lived here in a civil way. None committed any terrorist activity,” he argues. Above all, he points out that his sons are fighting to depose a dictator whose removal Britain has itself demanded on many occasions. “They are not fighting an ally state. They’re fighting an enemy of the British government,” he says.
However, his support for his sons has become increasingly hard to defend as they have been sucked ever deeper into the extremist ideology of Jabhat al-Nusra – an organisation which, having been bombed itself, is growing closer to its former enemies in Isis.
It is not hard to see why the British authorities would now regard Amer and Jaffar as a danger to this country if they returned. They have embraced the language of Islamic extremism. In one Facebook post Jaffar praises “the magnificent 9/11 attacks”.
They extol jihad and martyrdom. They denounce the US and Israel. They condemn music as “haraam – forbidden”. Amer now says Isis “are Muslims, and if the Americans and American allies come on the ground to fight Isis then they should expect all other Muslims will work with Isis against the enemies of Islam”.
Deghayes knows his sons may well be killed if they stay in Syria. He cannot go to them because his passports have been confiscated, or send them money because he would be accused of funding terrorism.
“I feel helpless,” he says. “It’s getting more and more dangerous. I prefer not to think what may happen.”
He also knows they will be imprisoned if they return to Britain. “There should be an exit channel, so that if they change their mind they can come back. This country has invested in this youth and the way we are criminalising them is not helping.”
Amer and Jaffar have no intention of changing their minds. Amer tells me on Facebook: “This work is not a holiday nor is it for tasters. It is a life commitment.”