March 2015

One Sunday in May 2013, two men arrived at Majida Sarwar’s red-brick terraced home in Birmingham. They were the father and uncle of Mohammed Nahin Ahmed, a friend of Majida’s 20-year-old son, Yusuf. They were worried. They had not heard from the boys since they left for a holiday in Turkey five days earlier.

“I got really panicked … I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do,” Majida recalls. She thought her son – the youngest of her five children – had gone to Turkey not with Nahin, but on a trip organised by Birmingham City University, where he was studying.

After the men left, she searched Yusuf’s bedroom. She discovered, in a drawer, an airmail envelope on which he had written, “Dear Mum Please Read”. Inside was a six-page letter, in her son’s childish hand, explaining that he was going to Syria, not Turkey. “The real purpose is to do jihad for Allah,” he wrote. He intended to join Kataib al-Muhajireen, a faction of predominantly foreign fighters allied to the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and made clear he was ready for martyrdom. “Make sure you don’t get any authorities involved. It’s a kuffar (infidel) government,” he told his mother. He apologised for hurting her, told her to cancel his mobile-phone contract, and enclosed a cheque for £4,845 so she could visit Mecca.

“I thought my life was finished,” Majida says as she sits in her neat but modest living room. She told Nahin’s family what she had found. Then – ignoring her son’s warning – she drove with her husband to Steelhouse Lane police station in central Birmingham, arriving shortly before midnight to report him missing.

It was a move she bitterly regrets. Yusuf and Nahin are now in Belmarsh prison, each serving nearly 13 years for terrorism offences. Both were “fundamentalists who became interested in and then deeply committed to violent extremism”, the judge declared when sentencing them last December. Yusuf’s mother insists on his innocence, but it is a hard case to make at a time when dozens of young British Muslims are heading to Syria to join the zealots of Islamic State.

As she tells it, her son simply wanted to help oppressed fellow Muslims but fell foul of Britain’s fear of Islamic extremism, its catch-all terror legislation and its radically altered view of Syria’s uprising. “He is a young, stupid boy,” Majida says. “Calling him a criminal is absurd. ‘Terrorist’ is the worst thing. At no point in my life would I believe he’d be called that.”

Majida Sarwar is of Pakistani descent, a fairly traditional Muslim wife and mother who covers her head, dresses conservatively and dislikes being photographed. Unbidden, she cooks a large Indian meal when I go to interview her – “We give food. It’s a blessing in Islam. You have to respect your visitors,” she explains.

As she talks at length, and for the first time, about her son, she cries frequently and readily lets her daughter, Saima, 29, a confident law graduate, take the lead.

Majida tells how her father served as a wireless operator with the British army in India in the Second World War, moved to Pakistan after India’s partition in 1947, and to Britain in 1958 when she was a young girl. After an arranged marriage in Pakistan she and her husband, Mohammed, settled in the predominantly Asian and black district of Handsworth, scene of several race riots in recent decades. She worked in a care home for the elderly and recently fostered two children, aged 14 and 3. Mohammed works as a traffic warden but speaks limited English, so takes little part in the conversation.

Together the Sarwars raised three daughters and two sons in what she describes as a moderately religious home. A framed verse from the Koran hangs on the kitchen wall and they celebrate Ramadan and Eid, but only her husband regularly attended Friday prayers at the mosque. “We know what’s right and wrong, but we’re not fanatics,” Majida says.

Yusuf was the youngest by eight years and the last one left at home. “He was very, very quiet and shy,” Majida says. He was overweight and bullied at school – “People used to take his money and kick him.” He spent hours on PlayStation: “He loved computer games. He had all the latest ones.” He looked after his five nephews and nieces, and helped with the foster children. Sometimes he went biking with his brother, Haroon, or to parks or a nearby reservoir to take photos. “He didn’t have too many friends. He didn’t like mixing.” He would come straight home after college, Saima adds. “He didn’t chill with friends.”

Although hardly academic, Yusuf secured a place at Birmingham City University in September 2011. “He wanted to do game designing, but couldn’t get into that,” his mother says, so he ended up studying information technology. Soon his family began to notice a change. He grew increasingly religious, attending a mosque and saying prayers five times a day. He grew a beard. “He was a bit more withdrawn, more reserved … He became a lot more serious,” Saima says.

He also stopped attending his course, although he continued to receive substantial grants and student loans. His parents were upset. “It turned into an argument. Mum would say, ‘Go, go.’ Dad would go to his room and say, ‘Why aren’t you going?’ ” Saima says.

Determined to lose weight, Yusuf bought a punchbag and cross-trainer and ate less. He worked out in a garage at the bottom of the garden with Nahin, who had been unemployed since dropping out of college, except for a Christmas shift with Royal Mail. Yusuf’s mother says he lost 3st. He took a part-time job as a car-park attendant at the Hawthorns, West Bromwich Albion’s football ground, earning £6.45 an hour. He spent a lot of time in his room, online, and deplored the Assad regime’s brutal repression of Syria’s rebels.

“He used to say everyone lives in their own little bubble and cares only about themselves, and ‘Who’s going to help them?’ ” Saima recalls. His mother says he gave money to Syrian charities, and offered to help. “They said, ‘You’ll be packing clothes.’ He wanted to be more hands-on. He asked, ‘Can I go?’ and they said, ‘You’re too young and will get into trouble.’ ”

If Yusuf had an imam feeding his deepening Islamic fervour, or pushing him to go to Syria, his family were unaware of it. “I think he made his mind up looking at the internet,” his mother says. “He didn’t chat or converse with anyone. It was all his own research,” his sister concurs. They attributed his moodiness to unhappiness with his course, and never suspected he would go to Syria without their knowledge. He did not speak Arabic, had never left Britain except for a couple of boyhood trips to Pakistan, and had led a protected life.

“She wouldn’t let him go to the corner shop by himself. He was wrapped in cotton wool,” Saima says, reproaching her mother. Majida agrees. “You know which children can protect themselves and who are vulnerable … He’s a very Simple Simon. He doesn’t know there are bad people around. Everyone is good.” Saima insists, “I knew he was upset about what was happening in Syria and wanted to help, but we never thought he would go there.”

They underestimated Yusuf. Early on May 14, he hugged his mother and left home in a taxi, dressed in tracksuit, trainers and a baseball cap. His mother had tied a lime-green ribbon round his bag so he could identify it. He said he was joining his university trip, but instead picked up Nahin, went to the coach station and took a National Express bus to London. After a night at a Premier Inn near Heathrow they flew to Istanbul – two underemployed young men searching for a cause and inspired, perhaps, by video-game heroics.

After Majida reported her son missing the police searched the two boys’ homes, and seized computer and phone records that showed they had been planning their trip for months. They had originally booked flights for March, but postponed their departure.

Yusuf had bought heavy-duty combat gloves, walkie talkies, “SAS-style” balaclavas, binoculars, fitness equipment, a head torch and camera mostly from Amazon. He had downloaded a wealth of extremist material including combat videos, tracts on al-Qaeda and “39 ways to serve and participate in jihad”. He forged a leaflet from his university, advertising an educational trip to Turkey, to trick his mother. Even then his older siblings had to persuade her that he would be safe. “At the start I said, ‘No,’ but they said he’s going with lecturers,” Majida recalls. “I wish I’d known. I’d never have let him go.”

By the time he left, Yusuf had developed a jihadist mindset, telling her in his letter that, “If a kuffar oppresses and steps on an inch of Islamic land, it is fard [obligatory] for every individual to destroy the enemies of Allah.” He added, “Taliban, al-Qaeda, et cetera are not bad but the West portrays them as bad,” and concluded, in capital letters, “WE STAND UP AND WOULD NEVER LET ALLAH’S RELIGION BE DEMONISED.”

Nahin’s messages showed he had once thought of going to fight in Yemen. He had contacted two Islamic extremists, “Usama” in Denmark and “Khaled” in Syria, but neither conversation led anywhere. He told Yusuf that “al-Qaeda are the best”, America and Nato are the “clear enemy”, and Shias are legitimate targets because they “aren’t Muslims”. In chats with three women he befriended online he boasted of becoming a “soldier”.

Later, in a WhatsApp message from Syria, Nahin told one of the women: “Yh I did go battle. Pray next one m shaheed [martyr].”

Further damaging evidence surfaced after they returned to Britain in January 2014. Traces of explosives including TNT and nitroglycerin were discovered on their clothes. Deleted images retrieved from two memory cards in Yusuf’s possession showed pictures of them posing with assault weapons or gunmen in Aleppo, and a Russian video demonstrating how to make an improvised explosive device (IED). They lied to police, claiming they had spent all eight months in Turkey.

Sentencing them at Woolwich Crown Court, the judge said they had “willingly … and with a great deal of purpose … embarked on a course intending to commit acts of terrorism”. He discounted a very different version of events proffered by Yusuf and his family.

Yusuf says he and Nahin were met in Turkey by Ali Begovic, a Swede living in Cairo whom they had befriended on Facebook and who had promised to smuggle them into Syria – the seized records show Yusuf paid £199 for Begovic’s flight from Egypt. A contact of Begovic’s took them across the border to the Syrian town of Azaz. There, they claimed, they joined not al-Nusra but a group called Nur ad-Din Zangi, which was linked to the more secular, mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The pair said they spent the next seven months in Azaz and Aleppo guarding buildings, distributing food, rescuing survivors from bomb sites and clearing rubble. In a WhatsApp message in August, Nahin told a female friend, “I have like 10 days guardin, n 7 days rest, guardin 80-20m from kuffar [sic].” They said they were shown how to use a gun but never fired a shot in anger – “I fired once in training only so as not to waste bullets,” Yusuf insisted. They claimed they avoided al-Nusra after hearing it conducted suicide and car bombings, and decided to leave Syria that autumn when the “brubarick” Islamic State (IS) surfaced.

“This scared me deeply and that’s why I came back to the United Kingdom. I also missed my family and I thought my leaving was upsetting them deeply,” Yusuf wrote.

“Jihad to me was to strive and struggle against the Syrian government because they were oppressing the poor, suffering people of Syria,” he continued. “I had no intention of picking up a gun and shooting somebody or blowing up a bomb or anything of that nature … My intention was solely to help … For us it was just an adventure. It was like another gaming episode, because Nahin Ahmed and myself are big gamers.”

Yusuf’s family and lawyers insist he went to Syria for humanitarian reasons. They argue that the traces of explosives found on their clothes came from the bomb sites where they were working, and that the photographs of the pair with guns were hardly surprising as everyone has weapons in Syria. They say he downloaded all sorts of material from the internet, not just extremist literature. Westerners misinterpret the word “jihad”, Majida argues. “Jihad is struggle … they think jihad is going and killing people.”

Reading the records, it is clear how naive the two men were. The equipment Yusuf bought from Amazon included Teach Yourself IslamArabic for Dummies and The Ultimate Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook, as well as a first-aid kit costing just £1.45. They found no Islamic organisation or rebel group to take them in to Syria. Three weeks before they left, having booked their flights, Nahin was still asking one of his female online friends, “Do u know anyone who can help us cross the borders.”

None of the hundreds of seized photographs shows the pair engaged in actual combat. In many they look like young men posing with guns to look macho, while in others they are horsing around or with children. Nahin’s messaging with female friends sounds like flirtatious bragging – “Ill find you a husband, u wont get real men outside jihad,” he told one.

Majida tried to get her son back. She thought of flying out, and even packed a bag, but the police dissuaded her. She sent photographs of him to the British and Pakistani embassies in Turkey. She wrote to the Queen, the prime minister and the foreign secretary, begging for help. Yusuf periodically sent messages on WhatsApp, and she claims that within a few months he wanted to return but did not have his passport, had run out of money and was afraid of being arrested if he returned. “He said, ‘It’s really dangerous out here, Mum.’ He was really, really scared.”

The pair finally left Syria in January last year, Yusuf having sold his trainers and mobile to pay for the journey to Turkey. His brother wired them money to fly home from Istanbul. Majida said her solicitor gave the police their flight details because she had been assured her son would not be arrested. “The police said, ‘We will question him and let him go. We just want to know what was he doing and why he went.’ ” She bought Yusuf new clothes and stocked up on his favourite sweets – Twix, Wispa and Snickers. She put his tiger teddy on his pillow. Saima spent £40 buying him Grand Theft Auto V. But Yusuf and Nahin were arrested at Heathrow. “I’m the mother.

I am the one who informed them. But the police just arrested him and took him away without my knowledge.”

The next day, Yusuf’s parents were allowed briefly to see him at Willenhall police station in Coventry, but they were divided by glass and unable to touch. “I could have died, he was so skinny,” his mother says. “He didn’t smile. He was mostly quiet. He was really shocked.” At their trial 11 months later, the two boys pleaded guilty on the advice of their lawyers. Yusuf “was told he was going to get less sentence … He wanted it over and done with. He didn’t want to stand up in the dock and fight the case against him,” Saima said.

The prosecution produced no evidence that the two men ever attended terrorist training camps or committed acts of violence – the judge said the evidence showed only that the defendants were “in very close proximity to combat”. Although the judge described the two men as dangerous, and called Yusuf’s possession of instructions on making an IED “deeply disturbing”, he also acknowledged that “there is no evidence of the contemplation (by the defendants) of an attack in the United Kingdom”. Yusuf’s mother says her son “loved this country and said he wanted everywhere to be like England”. But the charge the pair faced was not one of perpetrating terrorism, but the much looser one of “engaging in preparation of terrorism acts” contrary to Section 5 of the Terrorism Act of 2006.

Nor was there any evidence that the pair had joined al-Nusra rather than Nur ad-Din Zangi, and even if they had, there were mitigating factors. Al-Nusra is a hardline Islamist group, but less extreme than IS. The British government did not proscribe it as a terrorist organisation until July 2013 – three months after Yusuf and Nahin went to Syria and long before the conflict metastasised into a war against IS. Then, as now, al-Nusra was fighting alongside the FSA to depose Bashar al-Assad – a dictator whose removal the British government was demanding and to whose secular opponents it was giving non-lethal aid.

Nor, when Yusuf and Nahin left the UK, had any British citizen been prosecuted for going to help the rebels. Those going to Syria today do so mostly to help IS, but in early 2013 they wanted to fight Assad, as I witnessed on assignments in the rebel-held north. “There was a sense it was a good fight and it didn’t seem morally or legally ambiguous,” says Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. The British authorities didn’t start charging returnees until September, when IS began to surface.

But the 2006 Terrorism Act defines terrorism as “the use or threat (of force) designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation … for the purpose of advancing a … religious or ideological cause”. The judge deemed it irrelevant that Assad’s regime was the target, or that the defendants’ cause may have been just. He declared, “The penalty for an intended or indeed an actual act of terrorism cannot be mitigated by having regard to the identity, position or conduct of its victims.”

Majida stayed at home for the sentencing. “I didn’t want the media following me. Yusuf told us not to come,” she says. Her husband prayed at the mosque.

They and their lawyers expected a four-year sentence. That was roughly what Mohommod and Hamza Nawaz, the two brothers from London who were the first returnees to be prosecuted, had received the previous month for attending a terrorist training camp in Syria. It is what, on the same day Yusuf was sentenced, Mashudur Choudhury from Portsmouth received for travelling to Syria to join IS.

In the event the judge sentenced each to 12 years and 8 months’ imprisonment, with a five-year extended licence period, and ruled they should serve two thirds of their sentence before being considered for release. That was after he deducted 20 per cent for their guilty pleas, and praised Majida for going to the police.

When the sentence appeared on the Birmingham Mail website, Saima was appalled. She shouted at her mother, “Look what you’ve done. You’ve put him behind bars. It’s all your fault.” Majida was equally horrified. “I thought my life had ended,” she recalls, the tears welling up once more. Others shared their shock. “It was a somewhat draconian sentence … disproportionately high,” says Maher, who suggests deradicalisation courses are more appropriate than imprisonment for those who have not committed war crimes. He doubts other Muslim parents will now contact the police when their sons disappear.

Yusuf and Nahin are appealing, but for now they are Category A terrorist prisoners confined to single cells in Belmarsh. All phone calls are recorded. All visitors have to be cleared, a process that can take months. They are strip-searched before and after each visit.

Majida says it’s ruined her life. “I want justice for my son. He’s not done anything. He’s innocent from the day he was born,” she insists. “Our lives are at a horrible standstill. My name is tarnished and my family’s name is tarnished.” She used to foster, but has stopped – “Who’s going to give me foster children now?” She is 62 and in poor health, and fears that, “I’m not going to see him come home.”

She accuses the police of betraying her. She says her son has forgiven her for giving them his letter. “He says, ‘Mum, don’t blame yourself. It comes from God. You’ve not done anything wrong.’ ” But nobody else has. “Everybody blames me, and I blame myself,” she says. “They say, ‘Why did you do that silly thing, going to the police?’ ”

Who is “everyone”, I ask. “How many people do you want me to name?” she replies. “Everyone who hears about it.”