On a cold night in March, two British men died in a hail of bullets on a Syrian mountainside.
In the days after their deaths Nassim Terreri, 25, and Walid Blidi, 26, were denounced as foreign terrorists by the Syrian Government and lauded as courageous freelance journalists in the Western press. Those who knew them in their final months say that they were both and neither.
Their story is of young men struggling to assimilate in Britain who found identity and meaning in religion, but who were also drawn towards the orbit of extremists who preached violent jihad and venerated martyrdom.
They are two among a growing number of British men reported to be travelling to the civil war in Syria and whose motivations have caused concern within the intelligence services. Those concerns led to the arrest of two people on Wednesday, allegedly linked to the kidnap of Western journalists in Syria by jihadists with “South London accents”.
Nassim Terreri was brought up in a council flat on Portobello Road, in West London, while his friend, Walid Blidi, grew up in another council flat in Southwark, South London. Both were of Algerian descent.
The Terreri family paint a picture of a kind young man who worked hard at school. But both struggled to find direction in their lives.
Blidi’s family and friends declined to comment on his life and death. However, in 2007 he was convicted of dealing in crack and sentenced to two years in prison.
Terreri, meanwhile, dropped out of a university course and drifted into short-term restaurant work. His family say that it was not until his early twenties, when he found religion, that he felt his life gained purpose. “That was what changed him,” said a family friend nominated to speak on his mother’s behalf, who asked not to be named. “He felt that he did not fit into life in the West. He believed that in Islam he had found peace and an aim in life.”
Terreri visited Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, grew a beard and began wearing traditional Arab dress. He showed a flowering interest in Islamic charity work, joining a convoy to take aid to Gaza led by George Galloway, now MP for Bradford West.
Towards the end of 2011 the Terreri family wondered if his religious fervour had all been a phase. He seemed “back to normal”. He shaved off his beard, went on a diet and fell in love with a girl. Then, two weeks after he left on a supposed holiday with Blidi to France, he phoned his mother to say he was on the Syrian border. “He told her he was going to find out what was really happening in Syria,” said the family friend.
Mrs Terreri heard no more until two weeks later, when she received a curt phone call informing her that her son was dead. The two died from gunshot wounds. Both are buried in Damascus.
The Syrian Government later named the two men on a list of “terrorists” sent to the UN. It was cited as evidence of its claim that the uprising in the country was the work of foreign insurgents. The allegation incensed the Terreri family. “That is rubbish,” said the spokeswoman. “It is true that he was not an accredited journalist but he was never a terrorist.”
But through interviews with rebels in Syria who knew the two men, and by delving into their online activities, a more complex picture has emerged.
Members of the Hisham Haboub brigade of the Free Syrian Army remember Terreri and Blidi well. They said that on the night of March 26, nine men died in an area close to Darkoush, a few miles from the Turkish border.
Waseem Sabbagh, a rebel activist, blamed the wholly untrained Britons for initiating a gun battle in an area where government patrols were deliberately left alone.
“Our group was responsible for securing the route for wounded and supplies,” Mr Sabbagh said. “We had no intention to fight. Those [British-] Algerians, as soon as they saw the government vehicle [of a patrol] started shooting. They didn’t tell anyone.”
Another surviving fighter, Ahmed, said: “They started shooting with no orders from the group.”
The gunshots in the darkness caused panic, he said. Two nearby rebel groups thought they were under attack, leading to a chaotic four-way battle. Blidi and Terreri were killed.
Rebel activists put out the news that the two young men were journalists, and the unverified claim was reported in media outlets around the world. A third Briton who was with the two men, known to the Syrians only as Hamza, was dragged back across the border.
The brigade that the young men were with does not appear to have Islamist inclinations. Named after a rebel from Idlib who died under torture, it is free from the religious overtones of groups with al-Qaeda links. Some members of the group, including Mr Sabbagh, were Syrian Christians.
Nevertheless, the interests that the two young men cultivated online would make many in Britain uneasy. A YouTube account in Terreri’s name, last accessed in January, offers links to videos. Some are by extremist preachers who advocate violence against the West, while others are sectarian in tone. One particularly violent English language film is shot by al-Shabaab, the Somali affiliate of al-Qaeda.
A Twitter account in Terreri’s name is followed by two British men of Arab descent whose messages mix street slang with Koranic verses, along with links to videos of radical indoctrination and Islamist-inspired violence.
Dr Usama Hasan, from the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think-tank, said that the rhetoric and videos were typical of the posturing of a “quite large” sub-culture among British Muslim adolescents.
“These men were probably not terrorists but did believe in fighting for a noble cause,” he said. “Some people grow out of these ideas. Most people don’t. I would estimate it is a problem affecting 1 per cent or 2 per cent of British Muslims, but among a population of three million that is still a problem.”
If Terreri and Blidi had hoped for acclaim for their sacrifice, they did not receive it from the rebels they fought alongside, who were bemused and angry at their apparent desire for martyrdom. Their relatives were left to mourn their deaths. Terreri’s family said that they could not comment on the claims by the rebels, but rejected the notion that he was violent or an extremist. “He was a kind man with a big heart,” their spokeswoman said.
Among Nassim Terreri’s “favourited” YouTube videos, one features the extremist Australian preacher Sheikh Feiz Mohammad and is devoted to the supposed failure of modern Islamic youth to rise to the challenge of martyrdom. “Look at our situation,” intones the cleric. “We are the most humiliated nation on the face of this earth. Why? Because martyrdom to us is not appealing; it is not as appealing to us as it was to those ancestors — the great warriors … Open your eyes and look at the massacres.”