London: Even if Abu Rumaysah does turn out to be the new “Jihadi John”, shown on video this week presiding over the murder of five innocent men, I’m not sorry I encouraged him to go to Syria and join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The last time I saw the 32-year-old Briton (born to a UK Hindu family as Siddhartha Dhar) was at a BBC studio in London. He was one of a group of people who had been central to the extremist group Al Muhajiroun and its offshoots for years. In 2009 they had, through a front organisation, lured me into a set-up with more than a hundred Islamists which soon became violent and from which I was extracted by the police. It was unpleasant, but it did lead to the then Labour home secretary finally proscribing Al Muhajiroun. Since then I have been advised not to be in the proximity of any of their members or affiliates.
So 18 months ago, when the BBC asked me to discuss “What should be done about British Islamic extremists” on their Sunday Morning Live programme, I said yes. When they said that the other guests would include not only Fleet Street heroine Dame Ann Leslie and ISIS expert Shiraz Maher but also Abu Rumaysah, I explained that I wouldn’t and couldn’t be in the same room as him. And so on the day itself, while the rest of us broadcast from one studio, Abu Rumaysah broadcast his views from the studio next door.
As usual, Rumaysah didn’t exactly cover over his beliefs. This British-born man told us: “As a Muslim I would like to see the UK governed by the Sharia. It is far superior to democracy. I don’t really identify myself with British values. I am Muslim first, second and last.” When we got onto the subject of ISIS, he was full of praise and defensiveness. Videos of journalists being beheaded by the group were “lies”, he said. Accounts of the massacre of Yazidis and Christians were “exaggerations”. This led to general incredulity and also anger in the studio.
The presenter asked if Rumaysah would leave to join ISIS. Dame Ann said she bet he wouldn’t because he was a coward. He insisted that “of course” he would join if he could. At which I and others repeatedly asked: “Well why don’t you?” At one point I even suggested we would do a whip-round in the studio to get him a one-way ticket out of the country that very night.
I can’t speak for the others, but I did feel a slight pang weeks later when I heard that Rumaysah had indeed gone to join ISIS, taking his young family with him. There was also some amazement. At the time he put himself and his family on to a coach at Victoria station, Rumaysah was on police bail for membership of a proscribed group (Al Muhajiroun). Yet he made his way unhindered to Paris, and from there onwards to Syria. Once there he posted a photograph of himself on Twitter holding his newborn (fourth) child in one hand and a rifle in the other. “What a shoddy security system Britain must have to allow me to breeze through Europe to Islamic State,” he tweeted.
And then this week he appeared to have filled the shoes of the late Jihadi John (Mohammed Emwazi). Two months since ISIS’ most famous executioner was killed in a drone strike, here was another video with another set of executions (this time of five alleged “spies”) and another British accent doing the presenting.
Is it my old sparring partner, as much of the media is reporting? I don’t know. It could be. It sounds like him. True, a balaclava conceals a thinner face than that of my chubby fellow studio guest. But who would be surprised if weight loss is not one byproduct of time spent in the caliphate?
Whether it is him or not, the Rumaysah story remains jarring. Not least as a reminder that he and his British friends are always vaguely comic figures until they turn up in an execution video with a knife or gun to someone’s head. The British tendency to treat such people as jokes has its benefits. It also has its limitations. Obviously if it does turn out to be him, then the home secretary and border police should hang their heads even lower. Who could possibly trust the government to secure our borders when it can neither keep extremists out nor in?
ISIS have no dearth of willing executioners, though having one with a British accent is certainly a propaganda score. But for my part, I don’t regret that I taunted Rumaysah to leave. People like him have benighted and burdened our country for years and it seems to me that neither our domestic government nor our societal defences are remotely up to the task of dealing with such people here. We can only really address the matter abroad.
(By arrangement with the Spectator)