Repentant ‘godfather of British jihad’ recalls extremism's lure

A former radical Islamic preacher recalls the moment he decided to turn his back on extremism

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Abu Muntasir, a former radical Islamic preacher who once enjoyed a large following in Britain, sobs uncontrollably as he recalls the moment he decided to turn his back on extremism.

While waging jihad in the jungles of Myanmar, Abu Muntasir came across two fighters - teenage brothers - who begged to be taken home with him, saying they only wanted to go to school. He imagined his son and daughter in their place.

It was only then that the man described as the "godfather of jihad" in Britain - who confesses to recruiting, training and raising funds for jihadists - realised the futility of fighting "for a false ideal and an unwinnable war".

The story of his transformation is told in "Jihad", a documentary that seeks to explain why so many Muslims are abandoning their lives in the West to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Charting the involvement of foreign jihadists in previous conflicts from Afghanistan to Bosnia and Chechnya, the film also features the stories of other British Muslims, who, like Abu Muntasir, eventually renounced extremism.

"The biggest lesson is that change is possible," the documentary's Emmy Award-winning director, Deeyah Khan, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.

"We must not give up on people because many of the people in my film, including Abu Muntasir, are proof that it is possible to be that extreme and still find one's way back out again, and move towards non-violence and compassion."

Personal Jihad

Thousands of male jihadist volunteers have left for Syria and Iraq, where ISIS militants have imposed sharia on the large swathes of territory they have captured.

More than 500 women from Western countries have also left to join ISIS, according to research last month by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College, London.

Khan said common factors that leave individuals vulnerable to radicalisation include racism, low self-esteem, isolation from the opposite sex, problems in the family and identity crisis.

One British woman interviewed in "Jihad" said she joined an extremist group after being sexually abused. Although the matter was reported to the police, the case was dropped because of a lack of evidence.

The lack of justice fuelled her desire to see sharia implemented, she said, adding that she wanted the "pleasure" of seeing her perpetrator "executed in front of my very eyes".

In another interview, a former follower of Abu Muntasir described being subjected to racist taunts growing up.

"I heard that religiously, like the five calls to prayer, for the first 16 years of my life," Munir Zamir said.

Born with a physical impairment that made him feel doubly emasculated and isolated, Zamir said his struggle for self-acceptance was his biggest one in his life.

"My greatest jihad is coming to terms with me," Zamir concludes.

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