By Deeyah Khan
14 Jun 2015
In Exposure - Jihad: A British Story, I investigate the roots of Islamic extremism in the UK, speaking to many reformed extremists as well as ordinary young Muslims to answer the burning question of why some young British Muslims join fanatical Jihadi cults like ISIS. Why is the message of extremism and Jihadism appealing to young Muslims in the UK and Europe?
Although I come from a family with origins in South Asia, I have always struggled to understand the appeal of religious extremism.
For Exposure, I spent two years travelling the UK, interviewing British citizens, whose lives had been consumed by extremism.
One of these was a pivotal figure: Abu Muntasir. Now a reformed and moderate imam, he is tormented by his violent past. He has been described as one of the founding fathers of the British Jihadi movement. He fought in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Burma, and organised arms shipments.
He told me: “I inspired and recruited. I trained, I raised funds, I sent people for training, I went and fought myself, and it wasn’t just for a one-off - 15 to 20 years.” He worked to radicalise thousands of young Muslims and encouraged many young men to fight abroad.
I learned that Abu Muntasir created a movement of other young extremists, holding meetings and study circles across the UK, and preaching an extreme form of anti-Western Islam, promoting jihad and the idea of martyrdom.
Asked if he should be forgiven, he says: "If I've done those things which have terribly upset people or hurt people I should be forgiven, I should forgive others as well.
"I cannot hate, hate is not what Muhammad taught. I have been forgiven, I will forgive, that's the least I can do. You have the right to punish me if you think that's fair I will take all that."
Asked whether he has forgiven himself? He answered: "How you answer that? I don't know."
I went on to speak to a number of his former disciples, who describe how they were led into extremism - and reveal the inner workings of the jihadi movement.
I gained an in-depth interview with another former fighter, a direct student of Abu Muntasir, now devoted to spreading a peaceful and tolerant version of Islam.
He explained to me how young people can be psychologically vulnerable to the extremist worldview.
One young man gave me a chilling insight into the radicalised state of mind:
"I just had so much hate in me. I wanted to vent that so badly. I wanted to kill or be killed. So my wishes at the time were that I died on the field of battle. And I killed as many non-believers as I could who opposed me on that field".
But this was not the end of his story - in compelling testimony he describes how he slowly confronted his own extremist beliefs and managed to reclaim his life.
I managed to gain an exclusive interview with a young Bradford man, facing a retrial for terrorist offences (the charges were later dropped).
He and his brother pleaded guilty to downloading jihadi manuals from the internet.
He had, he told me, been inspired by videos of Muslim fighters, and had been groomed by his cousin.
I was told about how these vivid propaganda videos prey on impressionable young minds:
"It puts that image inside you that these are the true warriors… watching the Taliban and Al Qaeda, these kinds of videos, you'll think you have sympathy for them, these know how to fight, they are representing Islam, that’s how you feel. But obviously later on you start understanding that this is not how it is supposed to be."
I particularly wanted to understand the appeal of Muslim extremism to women.
One woman told she was drawn into an extremist group in the UK as an abuse survivor looking for a sense of justice.
She described the isolationist mindset that develops within these groups: “it was just like everyone was disgusting, everything was dirty.”
She eventually turned away from the group after she learned that her child was expressing her violent world view in school.
This became a moment of clarity that forced her to re-evaluate and change her whole belief system.
Through talking with former extremists, and hearing them share their innermost emotional conflicts and experiences, I learned about the anger many feel in being caught between extremism and a society which some feel rejects them.
Through these moving testimonies, I started understanding the complex reasons why men and women might turn to extremism.
We have to first truly understand the appeal of this movement in order to find ways to tackle this terrifying phenomenon.