How a group of young men from Portsmouth, bored and desperate for change, transformed into terrorists with alarming ease and speed
One of them worked in a BSkyB call centre while another was a Primark shop assistant. The third man was a one-time council official turned swindler with a £200-a-night addiction to prostitutes.
All three were close friends from Portsmouth. Along with a further three associates from the city, they vanished from Britain 10 months ago, before reappearing as fully-fledged jihadists in Syria.
Now, the Portsmouth cell may hold the key to discovering the identities of the terrorists behind the beheading of James Foley, the American journalist whose murder has prompted a worldwide manhunt.
It is understood security services are keen to re-interview Mashudur Choudhury, the oldest member of the Portsmouth gang, who is languishing in a British jail, the first Briton to be convicted of travelling to Syria to receive terrorist training.
One security expert said on Saturday night: “MI5 will be hoping that prison has had a sobering effect on Choudhury. As a British jihadist, he may well have rubbed shoulders with the gang behind James Foley’s murder.”
Other reports on Saturday, so far unsubstantiated, have even suggested the Portsmouth jihadists might be directly responsible for Mr Foley’s kidnapping and murder. It is not inconceivable. This ragtag bunch of young men gave up mundane lives in Hampshire and have become hardened veterans of a bloody civil war in Syria that has spread to Iraq. Two of them are reported to have died in fighting, although security services treat such claims with scepticism.
An investigation by The Telegraph, based on transcripts from Choudhury’s trial as well as information posted on Twitter and other websites, paints an astonishing picture of just how easily that transformation took place. It is a tale that will terrify the authorities unable to keep a lid on home-grown jihadists.
Choudhury, 31, who once ran a Muslim youth group, has been accused of being the ringleader, blamed for recruiting his friends. Others suggest he was simply a willing volunteer, a married father with two children, aged five and two, who was disaffected with life in Britain and desperate for a change of scene.
He had worked for an insurance company and then his local council as a racial awareness officer. But he was also a con artist, who had tricked his own family out of tens of thousands of pounds.
In 2010, he conned them out of £25,000, under the false pretence of needing treatment for cancer, to go to Singapore, not once but twice for surgery.
Once there, Choudhury, who was in perfect health, spent the money on prostitutes costing £200 a night, his penchant for young women revealed in text messages discovered by police.
Back in Portsmouth, he resumed the habit. He went on what he called “lads’ holidays” to Morocco three times and twice more to Singapore in 2011 and 2012, while at the same time downloading lectures by extremist preachers, extolling the virtues of an Islamic caliphate. To atone for his sins, Choudhury decided to embark on a holy war.
Bangladeshi Bad Boys
Calling themselves the “Britani Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys” – until one of the members pointed out the title was too long and should be ditched – Choudhury was aided by Ifthekar Jaman, 23, the first of the Portsmouth jihadists to go to Syria. From there, Jaman coaxed his friends to join him.
Jaman was killed in December while apparently taking part in an assault on a major arms depot in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour. It was said to be the first battle in which he had fought.
Among those he recruited was Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, 25, who had worked as a supervisor in his local Primark until being sacked in September last year, a month before leaving for jihad. From the photographs taken at home, Rahman looks just like any everyday sales assistant, a sharply-dressed, good-looking, fresh-faced young man.
Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, 25
Rahman, it has been reported, died in a gun battle only a month ago. Before he died, he spoke over the internet to Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London. “We are not here for the Syrian people. This land belongs to Allah, not the people,” declared Rahman, selling the idea of jihad just as he presumably would once have sold a pair of trousers to shoppers in Portsmouth city centre.
The whereabouts of the other Portsmouth jihadists who flew to Syria with Choudhury, named in court as Assad Uzzaman, Mehdi Hassan and Mamunur Roshid, is unclear. They are all thought to be fighting with Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
Uzzaman, 25, whose family lives in a council flat, was a fan of both Michael Jackson and Liverpool FC; Hassan, then aged 19 and the youngest of the group, was a former pupil at a Roman Catholic fee paying school in Portsmouth. When President Barack Obama said last week that he was considering the use of military drones to combat Isil, Hassan tweeted: “America wants to drone, Dawlah [Isil]? Inshallah [God willing], you will receive many more 9/11s.”
It was a close-knit group. Choudhury knew Rahman, whom he called “Hamz”, through his sister and they would spend time at a café called Sammi’s. Uzzaman was a friend of his younger brother and Hassan was a more recent acquaintance, whom Choudhury met in 2012 during prayers at their mosque at the end of Ramadan. Roshid was on the fringes of the group.
The journey to jihad
CCTV images obtained by The Sunday Telegraph show the five men at Gatwick airport, bound for a flight to Turkey. To the authorities they were a just a group of friends going on a fortnight’s holiday to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
CCTV footage of five men, Mashudur Choudhury is 2nd left in the group
Rahman booked cheap tickets on a Thomas Cook flight for himself and the four others from Gatwick to Antalya, Turkey, on October 8 at 6.50am, returning – at least theoretically – on October 25.
At 4.34am, Rahman along with Assad Uzzaman and Mamunur Roshid were seen on CCTV boarding a train at Fratton Station in Portsmouth, arriving at Gatwick just before 6.30am. Choudhury wanted to keep a low profile and arrived at the airport separately by car. Mehdi Hassan also made his own way and all five sat together on the flight.
One key figure was missing: Jaman, a former worker in a Sky customer service call centre, whose parents owned an Indian takeaway restaurant in Portsmouth. He had studied at an Islamic boarding school in London, but life in a call centre proved boring and un-demanding. In May last year, he went to Syria and began recruiting his eager friends. In messages posted on Twitter and other internet sites, he painted a romanticised version of life on the front line, boasting of a “five star jihad”.
A month before he went, Choudhury asked Jaman what kind of gun he could buy for £50. “I had a hand gun but it’s not a great one. I bought it [for] $30,” replied Jaman in messages seized by British police while building up their case against Choudhury.
Over the ensuing weeks they discussed how much training Choudhury and the others should expect – the answer was six weeks – and whether he could find a new wife and what clothing to bring. “For training, light running shoes,” advised Jaman, “You’ll do a lot of running in training then after that, casual boots which you should be able to pick up from here or even sandles [sic]. Combats, but light ones so you can run in it and you can do the little course without your trousers ripping. A jumper and decent jacket, clothes you can buy from here but a quality jacket get from UK.”
On October 3, Jaman wrote: “There may be a chance for us all to learn sniping together, battlefield training, but weapons, I’ll see when they come… But sniping requires patience, a lot.”
Choudhury responded: “Yeh man that sounds sick,” adding: “Do the mujahideen play footy and that?”
Life in syria
Once the men landed in Turkey, they were met by an intermediary who took them overland to the Syrian border. From there, they crossed the border easily and were driven straight to an abandoned hospital in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, and scene of ferocious fighting.
“You could tell it was an abandoned building with broken pipes and wires,” Choudhury said at his trial at Kingston Crown Court. “No one spoke English. We had a meal of pasta and whilst eating, the table was shaking from the shelling.”
He said he was made to do the cooking and washing and look after children in a makeshift nursery. He had gone with grand ambitions.
In a series of tweets on September 16 and 17 last year, he wrote: “Leaving wife & kids behind for Jihad… All my life I strived to be something, someone, but isn’t being a Muslim something, someone. Isn’t being a Muslim the best thing ever?… The life of this world is nothing but a sweet poison that quenches the thirst of desire and drags the ungrateful soul deeper into Hell!” But in Syria he had become quickly disaffected.
Security services believe that Choudhury failed Isil’s training selection process and was sent home. He told police that he had got “really emotional” and “really scared” after a terrorist fired at him in a mock training exercise.
Less than three weeks after he left for jihad, Choudhury was back in Britain, arrested at Gatwick on his return. Somebody in the local community had tipped police off about his activities.
Now in jail and awaiting sentencing, Choudhury has time to ponder on his circumstances. Security services will hope he is more forthcoming about what took place in Syria.
With hundreds of British jihadists fighting with Isil, the need to collect information is ever more pressing. While Choudhury was caught, the fear is other returning jihadists will have slipped the net, wandering Britain’s streets with murderous intent.