‘Police betrayed me,’ says mother of imprisoned British jihadi
The distraught mother of a young man sentenced to 12 years for going to fight against the regime of president Bashar al-Assad in Syria said that she felt betrayed by the police and courts over the length of his prison term.
“This is not justice. They said I was doing the right thing, that when my son came back they would try to help, but this terrible sentence – all they have done was to set me against my son.”
Majida Sarwar, from Birmingham, went to the police when she realised her student son, Yusuf, had left for Syria in May 2013. She said she was told they would help her get her son home.
With Mohammed Ahmed, a former postal worker who was struggling to find work, Yusuf Sarwar had spent months planning the trip, buying one-way tickets and paying off debts. He had wanted to finish his studies, but Ahmed persuaded him that they should go, and they flew to Turkey in May last year. From there they moved to Syria, although in all they spent only weeks inside the country.
Sarwar, a computer science student at Birmingham City University, faked a leaflet for his family saying the trip was part of his studies. He then left a letter to his mother, admitting that he had gone to Syria to help “the oppressed and to fight the enemies of Allah there”. She showed the note to officers at West Midlands police, and when the two men returned to Heathrow in January this year they were arrested and detained in Belmarsh high security prison.
“The police say ‘mothers come forward’, you can trust us, we will help. But now they will see what happened to my son. What kind of person would go to the police if they think their son will get 12 years in prison? Nobody wants to do that. I did not want that.”
Sarwar and her family are devastated at the harsh sentencing. “My husband just sits silently most of the time, crying a lot.” She pointed to the sentence handed down last month to British soldier Ryan McGee, from Greater Manchester, an English Defence League supporter, convicted of making bombs filled with shrapnel. McGee was in possession of knives, axes and imitation guns; he was sent to prison for two years.
The family had been told that Yusuf, whose grandfather served with the British army, might expect a similar kind of sentence after their pleas of guilty.
“He told me many times he wanted to come home,” she said. “I wanted to go to Turkey, to go to the border and find him, bring him back. The British Foreign Office and the police said ‘you must not go’ but they then did nothing to get him home. They did nothing. My son is not a terrorist, he didn’t make bombs, he didn’t kill anyone, he tried to help. He did a stupid thing and when he realised this he wanted to come home.”
Yusuf told her he had been assigned as a kind of ambulance driver in Syria, picking up dead bodies.
On Friday at Woolwich crown court Judge Michael Topolski QC praised Mrs Sarwar for “extraordinarily brave conduct” before sending Yusuf, 22, and Ahmed, also 22, to prison for 12 years and eight months each, saying they had “willingly, enthusiastically and with a great deal of purpose, persistence and determination embarked on a course intended to commit acts of terrorism”.
The family intend to lodge an appeal against the sentencing.
The government’s response to jihadi returnees has caused controversy, with many experts insisting they pose little or no threat to the UK and that heavy-handed punishments will only alienate and further radicalise what are often thrill-seeking, naive and bored teenagers.
Mrs Sarwar points out that Yusuf was so non-religious that he and Ahmed had bought the books Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies.
“It was the pictures everywhere, on Sky News that he was watching, of people being raped and children being killed, which inspired him to go,” said Mrs Sarwar. “These images were everywhere. He went to Syria to help the Free Syrian Army.
“When the Queen’s son went to Afghanistan to fight he was patted on the back. Our sons are going out for a cause that the British government also supports, they support the rebels fighting in Syria, he is sent to jail for 12 years.”
Security services estimate that up to 500 young Muslims have left the UK to fight in Syria and Iraq, conflicts that have captured the passions of young Muslims around the world. Richard Barrett, former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, said that up to 300 radicalised British jihadis could already have returned to the UK. Since the beginning of the civil war, about 2,500 people from non-Arab countries have travelled to Syria to fight, according to the Soufan Group, US security consultants.
Volunteers are encouraged by online propaganda and by payments from well-funded jihadi groups such as Islamic State. Many experts believe only a programme of de-radicalisation for returning fighters will ensure the returning men pose no threat to their home nations. UK police statements saying there is “no threat to the British public” have accompanied almost every Syria-related terrorism arrest in the UK.
“Yusuf went about trying to help the wrong way, but he had realised that. If this young man wanted to come back then he needed to be put on a programme, like Denmark and other countries, to make sure they are rehabilitated,” Mrs Sarwar said, adding that she was worried that prison would only entrench radicalisation.
After the court hearing, detective chief superintendent Sue Southern, of West Midlands counter-terrorism unit, said: “This case typifies the challenges both police and families are facing when it comes to young people being influenced to join the conflict in Syria or Iraq.
“These two men had no previous connections to extremist organisations and no police record. They were not known to us,” she said. “However, one of them was clearly being influenced by extremists he was talking to online, and he in turn was radicalising his friend.
“We had no choice but to arrest and charge the pair on their return.”
The Sarwar family say they have been left feeling they have paid too high a price for doing the “right thing”.
“I miss my son so much. I want him back,” said his tearful mother. “I want proper justice. What kind of justice is this?”