The last time I saw Ahmed was the beginning of 2013. He was passing around an iPad in class to show off his recently born baby. We were meant to attend most of our Arabic classes together, but this was probably about the tenth time in two years that he had shown up. When he did manage to saunter in, late, he sat at the back of the class in silence and received a lecture from our teacher on taking his responsibilities more seriously and becoming a better role model for his children. I never knew why he studied Arabic. He was already fluent, demonstrated in the numerous videos on YouTube of him winning Quran memorisation competitions across the UK and in Dubai.
Before beginning the Arabic course at Manchester in 2011, almost everyone had their mind set on going to Syria for our year of study abroad. As the time approached, the country’s stability deteriorated and was taken off our school’s list of study abroad options, leaving only Jordan and Morocco. Most of us were disappointed, but saw Jordan as a strong second choice. Ahmed, on the other hand, would have none of it. He was so intent on going to Syria it seems, that he emailed our Arabic lecturer requesting a letter that would allow him to travel to Syria for his year abroad. Who knew that terrorist groups required letters of reference! Of course, our lecturer refused, but this didn’t deter Ahmed.
Upon arrival in Jordan in September 2013, we realised that someone was missing. Where was Ahmed? It was not long before we learned that he had travelled to Syria and met up with jihadists, before continuing on to Somalia to join the terrorist group al-Shabaab. He was definitely taking the ‘immerse yourself in a new culture’ purpose of the year abroad a bit further than the rest of us.
Although Ahmed’s case became a bit of a running joke among our Arabic class, the number of foreign fighters from Manchester alone is shocking. Three young men from Manchester, Raphael Hostey, Mohammed Javeed, and Khalil Raoufi, left for Syria in October 2013, followed by Ahmed’s younger twin sisters, Zahra and Salma Halane, in June 2014. They became known as the ‘terror twins’.
Recently, the cousin of Ahmed, Zahra and Salma, Abdullahi Ahmed Jama Farah, who also fled the UK in an attempt to join the Islamic State and who was also a student at the University of Manchester is facing jail time after he created an Islamic State ‘communication hub’ at his mother’s home. He is also guilty of having helped Nur Hassan, apparently known as ‘Lady Legs’ to his friends and also from Manchester, achieve his goal of travelling to Syria to fight.
However, the most unexpected part of this article is the part that claims Ahmed was also known as ‘Pie’ to his friends, apparently because of his size. Although I wouldn’t consider myself a friend of Ahmed, seeing as I normally try to disassociate myself with him these days, I never once heard anyone call him ‘Pie’ in the two years that I did know him.
Sometimes I wonder if it would have been possible to prevent Ahmed from leaving to fight with al-Shabaab. A year after he left, I was talking to my Arabic lecturer about him, and whether he had given off any hints of his plans to become a foreign fighter. My lecturer said he always knew Ahmed possessed some extremist views, but it is difficult to imagine someone you know leaving to do more than just ‘talk the talk’.
Ahmed’s emails to my lecturer should have triggered some sort of concern, and a response. We need to alert the authorities then. Perhaps if we would have been able to stop Ahmed from joining Al-Shabab, his two sisters would have stayed in England as well. As a society, as
teachers, as classmates and as friends, we can play a role in countering extremism.
Terrorist networks work through a system of ‘bad friends’. A person is more likely to join if he or she already has a personal link, usually a friend or family member. We need a network of ‘good friends,’ of responsible friends, who listen and act. We must familiarise ourselves with the different indications of radicalisation and have the courage to say something. This is not societal paranoia, but rather the cultivation of a proactive community; one that understands the different risks of young people who are beginning to sympathise with global terrorist organisations and are willing to safeguard against it. We must seek to understand what makes these individuals vulnerable and why. Are they searching for revenge? To elevate their status in society? For an identity and somewhere to belong? Or maybe are they simply searching for a new adventure? Then we can begin to reach people in need, convince them that leaving to join a terrorist group is never the right choice, and helping our peers find an alternative that is – a sense of purpose that fits.
Our school could have done more to help vulnerable students like Ahmed. Talks from former extremists who realised that they were being led down the wrong path could reach the student body. In-school counter radicalisation prevention programmes could reduce tendencies to become radicalised in the future. As Ahmed’s peers, we could have reached out. We could have asked why he was always absent and made him feel valued.
Ahmed is now living freely in Denmark, where he was born and where he lived until aged nine before moving to Manchester. Although Ahmed has not been arrested for crimes relating to terrorism, intelligence services are closely monitoring him. He has enrolled in the Danish Government’s de-radicalisation programme. It is a new initiative and only time will tell whether it will be successful.
I hope that Ahmed finds a new life that brings him meaning and that he uses his past experience as a foreign fighter to help dissuade others from following the same treacherous path as he did.
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