Johann Hari on ex-Jihadists

Here, on the other hand, is a great story on British jihadists.

For his summer vacation in 1990 – as a break from studying physics at Cambridge University – he went to wage jihad on the battlefields of Afghanistan. He arrived with two friends from Jimas at an Arab-run training camp in the mountains of Kunar in Eastern Afghanistan. It was a sparse collection of tents and weapons left behind by the CIA in the snow and blood. They spent the days running up and down mountains learning how to fire Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers. “When you fire a Kalashnikov, it echoes all around the mountain,” he says. “After this boring life, you feel the adrenaline pumping.”

Did you get that? Studying physics at Cambridge is boring; surely there must be a more interesting line of work.

Usama’s job was to persuade people to go to fight in Afghanistan and, from the mid-1990s, Bosnia. He was one of the best – and he says, again very fast, that one of his successes was to radicalise Omar Sheikh, the man now on death row in Pakistan for beheading Daniel Pearl. “I set him off on his path to Jihad,” he says. He looks a little excited, and a little appalled. The first thing he remembers about Sheikh – who he met at a Jimas study circle – is the fresh lemonade he made in his university rooms. “It was delicious. And we drank and drank. My first impression of him was that he was a clean-shaven, well-educated British public schoolboy. A lovely bloke.”

But shit happens:

He says the 7/7 bombings detonated a theological bomb in his mind: “How could this be justified? I began to wonder if parts of the Koran are actually metaphor, and parts of the Koran were actually just revealed for their time: seventh-century Arabia.”

Once the foundation stone of literalism was broken, he had to remake the concepts that had led him to Islamism one-by-one. “Jihad has many levels in Islam – you have the internal struggle to be the best person you can be. But all we had been taught is military jihad. Today I regard any kind of campaigning for truth, for justice, as a type of Jihad.” He signed up to the pacifist Movement for the Abolition of War. He redefined martyrdom as anybody who died in an honourable cause. “There were martyrs on 9/11,” he says. “They were the firefighters – not the hijackers.”

He says he found himself making arguments he once thought unthinkable – like arguing that women should be allowed to show their hair in public. Jihadi websites run by his old friends started to declare him an apostate, a crime that under their interpretation of sharia is punishable by death.

Conversions go in all directions.


  1. Very interesting story. But your title link points to an article by Bruce Anderson, not Johann Hari — am I missing something?

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