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From Portsmouth to Kobane: the British jihadis fighting for Isis

What motivates the young men who leave Britain to join the murderous fanatics of Isis in the Middle East? Shiraz Maher spoke to dozens of them inside Syria to find out.

Street preaching: Ifthekar Jaman (far left) and Mehdi Hassan (third from right) in 2013. There is no suggestion the others in this group are involved in extremism

Mehdi Hassan’s parents learned of their son’s death when a picture of his body was posted on Twitter on 24 October. Hassan was 20 years old and had gone to Syria with four friends from his home town of Portsmouth in September 2013 to join the jihadist group Islamic State (IS, or Isis). His clique became known as the “Pompey lads”. Of the men he travelled with, only one is still fighting: three are dead and another is in prison in the UK. For the past year, I have been in regular contact with the Pompey lads and their fellow British fighters in Syria to try to understand the motivations and mindset of western jihadists.

One of the first British fighters to join Isis was Ifthekar Jaman. He also grew up in Portsmouth; his parents were Bangladeshi immigrants who ran a takeaway restaurant there. Jaman had attended a private school and had started a job in customer services at Sky. He had seemed well integrated and was popular with his non-Muslim colleagues.

In May 2013, Jaman told everyone that he was going to learn Arabic in the Middle East but booked a ticket to Turkey instead. He had always intended this to be a one-way journey. By the time anyone learned of his true intentions, he had already slipped into Aleppo and joined IS.

Jaman was just one of several hundred British fighters who have made the journey, participating in one of the most urgent crises of our generation. The war in Syria has empowered the millenarian radicals of IS, who have revived a self-declared caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, runs a “state” that is larger than Lebanon or Israel, with tens of thousands of fighters from at least 90 different countries mobilising in his cause.

Jaman was part of an initial wave of jihadis who made the journey to Syria with no support, taking huge risks to connect with the fighters there. “I went alone,” he told me when we spoke over Skype. “I didn’t want anyone to come with me because I didn’t know where I’d be sleeping or what I’d be doing. I just thought I’d place my trust in Allah.” Once in Syria, he was among those who helped to establish a more formal and less perilous route for the hundreds of others who later followed from Britain.

That flow of foreign fighters has worried governments across Europe, from where more than 3,000 people are thought to have travelled to support jihadists in Syria and Iraq. The consequences of this mobilisation have been far-reaching. The Syrian crisis revived the fortunes of the global jihad movement and it has never been stronger. It is better manned, better equipped and better financed than at any other point in the past century. Indeed, despite limited western intervention, the sheer number of IS fighters – many of them foreign – makes it impossible to see how the group will be uprooted any time soon.

Writing on the wall: Ifthekar Jaman in Syria, next to a stencil reading: "Islamic State of Iraq and Sham". He was killed in December 2013

 

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I work at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), an academic research unit at King’s College London, where I co-ordinate a team of colleagues who chart the flow of foreign fighters into Syria. We began by trying to map the opposition – a slippery task, given the constantly shifting kaleidoscope of alliances on the ground. We were aware of foreign fighters but most tended to come from North Africa or the Gulf states and were not of particular significance to the west.

Then we stumbled across Ifthekar Jaman by chance: a British fighter tweeting about his experiences in Syria. It was a revelatory moment. In the following days, we realised that there were scores of Europeans in Syria, among them a Dane called Abu Fulan and a former Dutch soldier called Yilmaz. We began to focus on these fighters and wanted to interview them about their reasons for going, their world-view and experiences. We sent them a flurry of messages with uneven success. Most were suspicious of our intentions but we managed to establish a dialogue with several of them. Over time, these relationships have matured and more fighters are willing to talk to us now.

My research has long focused on the development of Salafi-jihadi theology, the ideology driving IS. This background has helped me talk to the fighters in a language they understand, discussing books and literature that they regard as important. Moreover, I grew up in the Middle East (I spent 14 years in the region) and, for a short while, dabbled with extremist Islamic groups. All of this has given me an insight into the radicalisation and motivations of the men I am talking to. All contact has to revolve around their schedule. Whenever they decide to talk, I make myself available, because I never know what information they have.

Jaman was my first interviewee. It was November 2013 and the weather was miserable as I made my way home from work. He had sent me a message to say that we could do an interview on Skype. This is very rare. Most fighters are happy only to text because of poor internet connections (and, I suspect, their own security concerns).

Several hours after the time he’d told me to expect him, I gave up. Jaman hadn’t called and it was late. I ordered a curry and resigned myself to Friday-night television. Then he rang and there I was – patched in from London to an IS training camp, somewhere in northern Syria.

Assalamu Alaikum, brother,” he said.

It was exhilarating: the start of a process in which ICSR began building relationships with fighters on the ground. I nibbled on poppadoms and chutney while he explained his motivations for going.

Jaman had been following events in Syria closely. Although the roots of Syria’s 2011 revolution were secular – the first protests were in response to the arrest of a group of boys for painting anti-government slogans on the walls of their school in Deraa – Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was quick to portray the uprising as a Sunni insurrection. YouTube clips apparently showing Assad forces torturing dissidents have provoked international condemnation but for Sunni Muslims, there was an additional cause for outrage. Many of the videos were accompanied by sectarian insults; in several, torture victims were forced to say a modified version of the Islamic testament to faith (“There is no God but God”) and declare: “There is no God but Assad.”

When Assad released hundreds of Islamist prisoners in 2012, they predictably began to frame the uprising as their own. They were supported by radical clerics from North Africa and the Gulf. Mohammed al-Arifi, a Saudi cleric whose father had previously been arrested by the Syrian regime, was among the first to call for jihad against Assad because of perceived insults to Sunni belief.

Syrian radicals in the diaspora followed.  One of these was Sheikh Adnan Aroor, who had been in exile following the 1982 massacre in Hama, when more than 20,000 demonstrators were killed on the orders of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. Aroor warned Alawites, the heterodox Shia sect to which the Assads belong, that they would be forced through meat-grinders and fed to street dogs when the Sunnis succeeded in overthrowing the Syrian government.

“I saw the situation in Syria but people said it was Muslim versus Muslim, it’s not jihad, so I backed off,” Jaman said of these events. That was the message coming from large sections of the British Muslim community, although it has failed to dissuade scores of young men from making the journey to Syria. For Jaman and many others, it was exposure to more extreme opinions online that proved more seductive than the message from their local imams. These fatwas Jaman found on the internet preached, for example, that Shias were not “true Muslims” and should therefore be fought. Jaman became convinced that the Syrian war was a battle over the future of Islam.

Jaman’s struggles to reconcile the opinions of his local imams and the narratives he read online reveals a broader trend. In many cases, British imams have grown up abroad and have a poor grasp of English. They can’t relate to their younger congregants or offer convincing counter-narratives to the hyper-empowering appeal of IS videos, filled with balaclava-wearing boys in smocks offering the promise of making history. Those drawn towards more radical interpretations of Islam have dismissed older members of their communities as cowards or religious sell-outs.

It also exposes how the British state is still failing to influence Muslim communities. The previous Labour government contented itself with grand gestures such as wresting control from the extremist cleric Abu Hamza of the once notorious Finsbury Park Mosque in north London – but then watched impotently as it was passed over to the control of people alleged to have links to the Muslim Brotherhood. The current Prime Minister, David Cameron, has launched an inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in Britain and may yet try to curb the group’s influence. The stakes could hardly be higher. There are more British Muslims serving in Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s army today than in our own armed forces.

 

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When Jaman joined IS, it was not as organised or powerful as it is today. The group was known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (the Levant) – Isis – and had not yet embraced the nihilism for which it has come to be known. Even the leader of its greatest rival, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani of Jabhat al-Nusra, initially downplayed their rivalries. During an interview with al-Jazeera in December 2013, Jolani likened their differences to that of a family dispute; bickering at the dinner table rather than the fratricide it has become.

Jaman had originally wanted to join Jabhat al-Nusra. The group dominated the first phases of the jihadist campaign against Assad and received much of the early attention from foreign fighters. “I looked around and I saw them raising the black flag everywhere,” Jaman told me, on Skype. “People think it’s the flag of al-Qaeda but, no, it’s the flag of Islam.” The humanitarian suffering may have inspired him to adopt the Syrian cause as his own but ultimately he was attracted to Jabhat al-Nusra’s doctrinaire interpretation of Islamic practice and its aim to establish a caliphate.

The problem is that Jabhat al-Nusra imposes high barriers to entry for foreigners. They must first be vetted and vouched for by someone already in the organisation in a process known as receiving tazkiyah. The system has worked well for Arabs with links to the group but it has made it more difficult for Europeans wanting to join.

The vetting procedure wasn’t well known to many of those who made the journey in early 2013. Jaman was unaware of it as he rode the bus to Reyhanli, a dusty border town in Turkey. Everyone is here for one thing: the Bab al-Hawa crossing into Syria.

Since the uprising, this has become the principal route into rebel-held areas and it was one of the first crossings to be seized by the Free Syrian Army. It has been the umbilical cord of the revolution ever since. The journey to Reyhanli proved fortuitous for Jaman, who was still lacking a plan for how to cross into Syria or what to do once inside. “The Turks are pretty secular so I didn’t see anyone with a beard,” he told me, “but then there was a guy who had one and I thought I should speak to him.” Jaman pulled out a small bottle of attar, an alcohol-free musk oil popular with devout Muslims. “I offered it to everyone on the bus but I made sure I got to him last.”

“Where are you from?” Jaman asked the man, while rubbing his hands with musk.

“Halab,” came the reply – the Arabic name for Aleppo.

The Syrian quickly saw through Jaman’s cover story of wanting to volunteer in refugee camps and asked him outright if he had come for jihad. A few hours later, the two of them jumped the border and Jaman was in the bearded man’s car, on the way to Aleppo. Once inside, the young Briton went straight to a Jabhat al-Nusra recruitment centre, where a Tunisian man with fluent English manned the desk and rejected him. He didn’t have tazkiyah. “I got teary. I was devastated. This is what I’d come for,” Jaman told me.

Jabhat al-Nusra was the only group Jaman had wanted to join and so he remonstrated with them, at one point telling them to imprison him while they did background checks. By way of compromise, the Tunisian offered to help him join Ahrar al-Sham, another Islamist group that helped to form the Islamic Front. Jaman rejected the offer because Ahrar al-Sham allows its members to smoke – a major sin in his eyes.

Disillusioned and dejected, he made his way to a coffee shop, where he met an Algerian from IS. “I hadn’t even heard of them at that point,” Jaman said, “but I checked them out and they were great.” IS had fewer reservations about accepting fighters without tazkiyah and vetted him for a fortnight before welcoming him into its ranks. It was a euphoric moment for the Pompey lad. “I thought, wow, I made it in dawlah [IS].”

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Jaman was an early adopter of social media in Syria and he used it both to share news of his experiences and to keep in contact with those back home. There was a clique of five friends in Portsmouth to whom Jaman had grown particularly close in recent years: his cousin, Asad Uzzaman; Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, a supervisor at Primark; Mamunur Roshid; Mashudur Choudhury; and, finally, Mehdi Hassan. The Pompey lads.

All were of Bangladeshi ethnic origin and lived within a few streets of each other in rows of anonymous, terraced housing in Portsmouth. In the months before travelling to Syria, they had joined the “Portsmouth Dawah Team”, a street proselytising group that preaches Islam to non-Muslims. Their social media accounts reveal only benign activity: stalls distributing free copies of the Quran, pamphlets explaining the position of Jesus in Islamic scripture. Quite often, they wore T-shirts that asked, “Is life just a game?”

They were all concerned about the Syrian conflict and were clear about who should win. “Why are Muslims supporting the secularist FSA?” Mehdi Hassan tweeted in November 2012. “We should be supporting the mujahideen who are fighting for Shariah, no to DEMOCRACY!”

Muhammad Hamidur Rahman expressed similar views. “I hate it when people say these mujahideens r the extremist [sic], at least they are not sitting behind closed doors and watching Islam fade away,” he tweeted.

Foreign fighters from across the world have harnessed the power of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Ask.fm to propagate their message. Jaman was among the first to realise their potential. “The reason why I share so much is to show you how it is, the kittens, the landscape, etc, hoping to make you see the beauty of it & come,” he wrote.

Jaman’s Twitter feed was filled with pictures of quiet moments and the seemingly ordinary: idyllic Syrian landscapes, comfortable living quarters, dispossessed children and fighters cradling stray cats (the latter being a particular favourite among jihadis, spawning several internet memes).

Skype calls are frequently used by those with personal connections with fighters to finalise plans. Choudhury spoke to Jaman several times before making the trip in October 2013, running through a checklist of what clothing to bring, how much money he should carry and logistics for crossing the border. “Please keep me in your duas [prayers] and help me to get across with all the necessary arrangements,” he asked Jaman.

Transcripts of these calls were eventually released in court when Choudhury returned to the UK – the only one of the Portsmouth boys to do so. In May, he became the first British citizen to be convicted of terrorism offences relating to Syria and he is currently awaiting sentencing.

In many ways, Choudhury was an anomaly in the group. He was older than the others and the trial revealed him to be a liar and fantasist, enraptured by the headstrong idealism of men half a generation his juniors. After his business collapsed, Choudhury constructed a series of lies to win the sympathy of his family. These included pretending to have stomach cancer, for which he told family members he needed £35,000 to fund pioneering treatment in Singapore. When the money was raised, he flew to east Asia and treated himself to a luxury holiday, a fast car and prostitutes.

Everyone was fooled. Jaman had offered to travel out there to help Choudhury recover from his treatment. He maintained the ruse throughout, telling friends that he wanted to participate in jihad because it was the only way to “repay my creator” for giving him “a second chance at life”.

By travelling to Syria, Choudhury was also abandoning his wife and two children but seemed content to resign them to fate. “I am leaving my wife and kids fisabilillah [in the path of Allah],” he told Jaman.

“May Allah provide for them,” Jaman replied.

The men began finalising their plans. “Exciting times ahead,” Choudhury wrote. 

Jaman’s reach extended far beyond Portsmouth. In Manchester, another group of friends – Anil Khalil Raoufi, Mohammad Azzam Javeed and Abu Qaqa (this is his nom de guerre; his real name is unknown) – were being drawn into his orbit. They did not know Jaman personally but were inspired by his accounts of life in Syria.

The use of the internet by jihadists is hardly new but the manner in which its potential is being harnessed has vastly changed. During the Iraq war, sympathisers of al-Qaeda needed access to password-protected forums, where they could learn about events on the ground. These forums were not easy to find and access was harder to gain. Crucially, most of the conversations were in Arabic, a language alien to most British Muslims.

Social media has changed all this, empowering individual fighters to become recruiting sergeants in their own right. What makes them so powerful is their sheer ordinariness. Indeed, most fighters tend to stress their unremarkable nature: “There’s nothing special about me,” they might say. “I just decided to come. If I can do it, you can do it.”

The effect of social media is to normalise the experience, while also motivating and inspiring potential recruits. Perhaps most significant is that the conversation runs two ways. In the past, al-Qaeda would issue unidirectional edicts and vague instructions to followers to “do something” at home. Today, you can talk to fighters directly and have a proper conversation.

These interactions help prospective fighters overcome lingering fears and emotional barriers. Fighters are asked, for example, how they broke the news to their parents and how their families are coping with their decision. Others ask what living arrangements are like in Syria, or how to cross the border safely.

Bizarrely, some have even asked whether hair gel is available in the IS stronghold of Raqqa. Lots of practical advice is forthcoming: bring good hiking boots, waterproof clothing and a warm coat; don’t pack radical literature; medicine for an upset stomach is also a good idea; and an iPad is recommended, for keeping in touch with family and inspiring others to make the same journey. (Hair gel, in case you were wondering, is available on the inside.)

What they saw was enough to move the Manchester boys. Javeed, Raoufi and Qaqa booked tickets to Turkey in September 2013 and headed for the border. The first Jaman knew of their plans was when they contacted him from Antakya, although he couldn’t offer them tazkiyah because they were unknown to him. But there was a way to overcome this and he told them to wait at the border for a few days.

Plans were already under way for his Portsmouth friends to make the same journey. The boys made their final arrangements, packed their belongings, said their goodbyes and wrote notes for their families. Days before he left for Syria, Mehdi Hassan tweeted, “The true Muslim is always a problem for the kuffar [infidel]. He can never be defeated. He is not afraid of death, torture, imprisonment nor exile.”

The group had booked themselves on a Thomas Cook flight to a beach resort in Antalya, a cover to get them into Turkey. From there, Reyhanli is just under 500 miles by road. They took circuitous and different routes to the airport. Rahman, Uzzaman and Roshid all took the train to Gatwick from Fratton Station in Portsmouth. Choudhury travelled by car, while Hassan made his way separately from Guildford. Another man – who cannot be named – was rumbled by his parents days earlier and had his passport hidden in a desperate (and successful) attempt to prevent him from going.

CCTV footage shows the Portsmouth boys meeting at Gatwick Airport and strolling nonchalantly through the terminal with the muted excitement of any other group of holidaymakers – all of them carrying heavy rucksacks, Hassan and Rahman sipping bottles of fizzy pop. Yet, this was to be a one-way trip to join Islamic State, a group that even al-Qaeda has branded as too extreme for its persecution of minorities and its revival of medieval slavery practices.

A few days later, an accomplice in Portsmouth delivered handwritten notes from the boys to their parents. “By the time you receive this letter, I will already have crossed the border into Syria,” they read. The parents were already aware of Ifthekar Jaman’s journey – it had caused outrage in his home town – but none of them had suspected that their own sons would be following in his footsteps. When they did, the community was deeply divided, with the parents blaming Jaman for radicalising their children.

Once in Turkey, the Portsmouth boys were instructed to meet and vet the Manchester group. “They had the chance to check us out and watch over us to see if they found our movements suspicious,” Abu Qaqa wrote in his memoir, which he posted online on his blog (it has since been removed). “By Allahs grace [sic] the brothers approved of us and that very next day we made steps towards the borders of Sham.”

It was an abortive journey, as Turkish border guards stopped the men and turned them back. Jaman then gave them details of a safe house further along the Turkish border and told them to regroup there. The next day, they tried again and, despite another encounter with border guards, were allowed to pass into Syria on foot. The boys walked aimlessly, stopping occasionally to pick tangerines, until a fighter from Ahrar al-Sham gave them refuge and helped them make contact with Jaman. “He jumped out [of the truck] at such speed,” Abu Qaqa recalled, “that he nearly toppled over . . . We were smiling so much the muscles in our face began to hurt!”

 

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Grim reality: dead Isis fighters in Iraq in October 2014

Hundreds of fighters were crossing into Syria around the time when Jaman’s cluster of friends arrived. We contacted as many as we could, hoping to build relationships wherever possible and, in the process, came to classify fighters in different ways.

There are those who are principally motivated by the region’s human suffering, whom we call missionary jihadis; there are martyrdom seekers, who regard the conflict as a shortcut to paradise; there are those simply seeking adventure, for whom the supposed masculinity of it all has great appeal; and, finally, there are long-standing radicals for whom the conflict represents a chance to have the fight they had been waiting for. These divisions are apparent even within Jaman’s cluster.

Mehdi Hassan was the adventure seeker. He was the youngest of the Portsmouth boys by several years and displayed a combination of youthful wonder and self-importance as a member of IS. “Will you write a book about me?” he asked. “Send me a copy please . . . address it to the big tent in the Syrian desert.”

Our interactions were often curt and difficult. He was aggressive and arrogant. I asked him what he thought of the condemnation of IS by al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Some of the global jihad movement’s most important theoreticians, such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi or Abu Qatada (who was recently deported from the UK to Jordan), have also chastised the group. “They’ve gone soft,” Hassan told me. He reasoned that they had either lost their way or sold out. He was seven years old when Zawahiri helped plan the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This cognitive displacement is typical of many of the fighters who dismiss or downplay criticisms from anyone not in Syria. Their thinking is that only those on the ground can understand what is happening inside the country and that much of the story presented in the media is skewed or biased.

Rahman was different – he craved martyrdom. “Life is for the hereafter,” he wrote online. “So if god has told me to go out and fight, and has promised us victory or martyrdom, then our life is only a small sacrifice . . . The main reason [to fight] is to please our creator by making his religion the highest.”

Speaking with Rahman was difficult. During our first exchange, he was deeply suspicious of me and recommended that I quit my job in order to join him in Syria. We didn’t talk for several months.

Then, one day, he resumed contact shortly after IS had swept into Iraq and taken Mosul. Despite his obvious excitement and pride, Rahman painted a sober picture of daily life. “One of the hardest things about being here is the waiting,” he told me. “We are trying to build a state. This is why a lot of ribat [guard duty] is required, so the area is secure.”

The downtime is something that a lot of foreign fighters complain about. The reality on the ground is a world away from the glamour of well-produced recruitment videos. Boredom is not just confined to those in IS. Foreign fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra and lesser-known, independent groups complain of the same thing.

At the same time, however, many use the phrase “five-star jihad” to describe their living arrangements on the camps. Some have taken to posting pictures of themselves online, posing with chocolate bars or jars of Nutella to prove that they can still access their home comforts on the Syrian front line.

A callousness towards the concerns of ordinary Syrians had also crept into the attitude of these fighters – the constituency in whose defence they once claimed to be acting. When asked what he thought of those Syrians who opposed Islamic State, Rahman conceded, “There are a number of them that dislike us. However, the lands belong to Allah’s [sic] not them. Also I [came] here to please my creator and not them.”

Other British fighters have displayed a similar attitude. One of them tweeted a picture of three captured Syrians with the caption, “Got these criminals today. Inshallah [God willing] will be killed tomorrow. Can’t wait for that feeling when u just killed some1 [sic].” Elsewhere, British fighters have been filmed executing prisoners of war and beheading rebels. Some have been pictured posing with severed heads. It is striking that not one of the jihadists we have spoken to have expressed concern at the ill-treatment of their enemies by fellow fighters. Beheadings are not seen as particularly cruel and victims are always dismissed as spies or traitors.

In recent months, British fighters have also been associated with the executions of western journalists and aid workers being held by IS. All of the fighters we speak to deny having any knowledge of those involved but most are broadly supportive of what they are doing. Only a handful have condemned the executions as wrong.

Islamic State’s decision to execute western hostages highlights another aspect of this conflict: our involvement. As the US prepared to intervene militarily, it provoked two very different reactions in foreign fighters. In one case, a group contacted me to say that they wanted to leave Syria. “People want to come back,” one British fighter told me, “not to attack but cos [sic] they found out jihad is not what they thought.”

He expressed disillusionment at the infighting among rebel groups, the lack of focus on removing Assad and Islamic State’s apparent goading of the US into confrontation. “I didn’t come for that,” the fighter said.

Others, however, have adopted a much more aggressive posture. One fighter I speak with regularly – and who I have come to regard as among the more thoughtful – has been radicalised by American intervention (he asked that I withhold his nom de guerre). Much of the old rhetoric that we were used to hearing in the aftermath of the Iraq war has returned: that the US is waging a war on Islam itself, not just on Islamist terrorism. What is most significant about this fighter’s animosity is that he is not a member of Islamic State and is allied with groups that have fought it in the past.

One of the unintended consequences of Barack Obama’s campaign has been the manner in which it has brought some of the various Syrian factions closer together. While this British fighter previously condemned those who wanted to attack the west and was critical of Islamic State’s decision to execute western hostages, he warns of reprisals back home. “An eye for an eye,” he told me.

“Muslims must defend Islam to the best of our ability,” he continued. “If the west wants to be free from such reprisals, they should back out [and] end the strikes.”

Western intervention has accelerated the rate at which foreign fighters are now dying in this conflict. At least four British fighters are known to have been killed by American air raids already while, overall, one British citizen dies every three weeks in Syria.

 

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Rahman was directly engaged in the persecution of ordinary Syrians when he was killed in July 2014. Locals from the Shaitat tribe in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor began rebelling against IS rule, forcing the group to withdraw from three towns: Abu Hamam, Kashkiyeh and Ghranij.

IS pushed back aggressively against the tribesmen, massacring 700 locals in the process. The Washington Post has described it as “the bloodiest single atrocity committed by the Islamic State in Syria since it declared its existence 18 months ago”. Several members of the Portsmouth cluster were involved in the campaign against Shaitat and Rahman died.

Roshid and Hassan were both killed earlier this month while fighting in the battle for Kobane. It is unclear exactly how they died, although Hassan reported seeing “between 20-40” air strikes from American fighter jets a few days before his death.

The first to die, however, was Ifthekar Jaman, who was killed last December in Ghazwa al-Khair, in a major IS offensive against Assad’s forces in Deir ez-Zor. Two months later, Anil Raoufi was killed while fighting the Free Syrian Army in Azaz. He is the only member of the Manchester cluster to have died.

The network of fighters taken to Syria by Jaman is one of the best known in foreign fighter circles today. The group became minor celebrities after Jaman gave a Skype interview to the BBC in November 2013 from inside his IS training camp. Several foreign fighters have told me that they were directly inspired by that interview and it has been such a successful recruiting tool for IS that the group has even used it in its own propaganda videos.

 

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The stories of the Portsmouth and Manchester boys offer a remarkable insight into the world of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. They also reveal the deep chasms within British society. Second- and third-generation immigrants of Muslim Asian  origin continue to feel a profound detachment not just from the country in which they were born and educated but from their own families and communities, too. Many of their local leaders are too old to counter the charisma of millenarian propaganda and their experiences are too remote from those of their congregants.

Their stories remind us how powerful social media can be. In October, officials from the European Union and the UK government convened meetings with the heads of social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They asked them to take a more proactive approach to closing down jihadist accounts. Yet it is no easy task: close down one account and another pops up minutes later. Remove a message from one platform and it will reappear on another. All of the Portsmouth and Manchester boys have had their social media  accounts shut down at different times.

Together with hundreds of other foreign fighters, the Pompey and Manchester boys have set in motion a process that is impossible to stop. A few weeks before his death, Anil Raoufi commented on a huge social media campaign surrounding Jaman’s death. Dozens of pictures turned up online eulogising him, often accompanied by inspirational quotes from the Quran, his statements or other motivational remarks. “Lol, he’s becoming famous,” Raoufi wrote, “and still inspiring others to come for jihad.” 

Shiraz Maher, a regular New Statesman contributor, is a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London and an adjunct at Johns Hopkins University in the United States

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

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“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

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Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

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As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.