Generation Jihad

Violent images are harming young Muslim minds

It is so good to see Peter Taylor, a serious journalist, back on our screens. Not for him the flapping arms and shouty manner of some other documentary hands. Taylor's style is quiet and even-handed, and when we see him writing in a notebook, as we sometimes do in his new series, Generation Jihad (Mondays, BBC2, 9pm), we can assume that his scribblings are not only for the benefit of the camera.

When he is meeting interviewees in sushi restaurants (I'm not sure whether this was his director's idea, or whether top contacts in the world of global jihad have a particular fondness for raw fish), Taylor mostly considers his chopsticks with some bemusement, as if to say: "In the old days, it was a pint and a bag of scratchings, if you were lucky." I find all this hugely reassuring - which can only be a good thing, given his latest subject matter.

Generation Jihad is about young, radicalised Muslim men: the kind of men who like watching body parts fly on YouTube. When I say body parts, any nationality will do. It is a curious and repulsive kink of this particular group that it seems to get the same satisfaction from watching Palestinians being blown apart by Israelis as it does, say, American soldiers by Iraqis. In the first programme of the series (8 February), Taylor went north, to West Yorkshire, to talk to two men who, thanks to their fondness for gore tapes and al-Qaeda's nonsensical dribblings, had fallen foul of Britain's anti-terrorism laws. I'm not qualified to say whether they should indeed have served prison sentences for their activities. But they were loathsome: ignorant, boastful, utterly lacking in imagination or - and here's the irony, given their belief in the umma - any kind of empathy.

In the second episode (15 February), Taylor spread his net wider, showing the role that the internet had played in the formation of a cell with members in Toronto, Atlanta, Sarajevo, Bradford and Shepherd's Bush. In every case, I found the motivation of these men impossible to understand. They were middle-class; they had loving parents; they had money and mobile phones. In the case of the Bosniak member, Mirsad Bektasevic, there was also the small matter of Nato's intervention on behalf of his Muslim compatriots against Serbia. At the very least, you might have thought that this would have muddied the waters for him.

But, no. It's those videos, you see. They do something to the jihadists' (possibly rather small) brains. One expert told Taylor that such men suffer from a kind of "self-inflicted, post-traumatic stress", brought on by the violence that they watch all day, every day, in the privacy of their fetid bedrooms. Aabid Khan, from Bradford, the man responsible for radicalising the group, specialised in particularly gruesome films. He is now serving a 12-year sentence. Taylor tracked down his father, Sabir Khan, a former textile worker. Did he know what his son was up to on his computer? A blank look. Was his son a terrorist? Of course not. "He couldn't kill a fly," said Sabir. "We're not talking about killing flies," said Taylor.

It was left to other Muslims to suggest that it would be a good idea if parents found out a little more about their children's so-called politics in future. The trouble is that these voices, however loud, are shouting into a void. As Taylor pointed out, Britain's anti-terror legislation, the most comprehensive of its kind in Europe, has created an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia. It has made whole communities, rightly or wrongly, feel as though they are under attack.

I thought back to the first part of the series, to the two cocky young men in their nylon tracksuits and flashy trainers, newly released from prison. Taylor asked them how their communities had welcomed them back. Cue wide smiles all round. The food, the presents! The money, the visitors! No one thought that they were terrorists, or anything like terrorists. It was more a case of: "Hail the conquering heroes!" I think we have a problem on our hands. The truth is that not even Peter Taylor's furrowed brow can stop me from feeling frightened by it.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN