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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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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge