YOUNG Muslims from Portsmouth heading to Syria to fight for a group linked to Al-Qaeda have been condemned amid fears more men from the city could follow in their footsteps.
As reported in The News yesterday, Ifthekar Jaman, from Southsea, is fighting with the Levant group, called ISIS, against the Syrian government.
Other men from the Portsmouth area, who worshipped at the Jami Mosque in Southsea, are also in Syria.
Mr Jaman has spoken publicly about his experiences as a soldier in the jihad, saying he is prepared to die in the war against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime – and the fear is that more may follow him there.
But the Portsmouth community has rallied to criticise the actions of a ‘minority’ who do not represent the views of most Muslims.
A Muslim in the city approached The News because he wanted to encourage the authorities to act before more young people are radicalised.
The man, who did not want to be named, said: ‘When I found out what was going on I was outraged.
‘It cannot be allowed to carry on. I am desperate for the authorities, the police, the council, to do something to stop this from happening to anyone else.
‘This is a real problem and something needs to be done.
‘Some of the parents of these people had no idea what was happening until it was too late. It is shocking.’
Dr Usama Hasan, senior researcher in Islamic studies for Quilliam, the world’s first counter-extremism focus group, was formerly a jihadist with the Mujahideen, opening up routes into Afghanistan for young British fighters in the 90s.
He lived in Portsmouth around that time and says the actions of Mr Jaman could inspire others – but that he should not be seen as a hero.
Dr Hasan said: ‘I love Portsmouth and Southsea, it’s a lovely place but it’s fairly quiet, relatively speaking.
‘This young man, the lure of getting military training and to escape the anti-Islam feeling in Portsmouth, it’s almost a no-brainer.
‘There is a network of jihadists in Britain. Al-Qaeda. After 9/11 their profile increased and they have been recruiting regularly. They’re known to the people who want to know about them, and they’re called the Brotherhood.
‘There isn’t a hub in Portsmouth that we know of but they might have recruited more in Portsmouth. A lot of the Muslims in Portsmouth would have been horrified by this.
‘But I wouldn’t be surprised by other young men who would be interested in this.
‘There will be perhaps a small number who wish to join him (Mr Jaman) and they might try to get in touch with his brother.’
Dr Hasan said wars are fought by jihadists not country against country, but more to try to spread the word of the Quran further – even fighting other Muslims who, in their opinion, do not follow the teachings of Islam correctly.
He said: ‘People have become very devout about Islam and very politicised.
‘They feel very strongly that although they’re British, their real allegiance lies with Muslims everywhere and it’s essential that they must fight for Islam.
‘It’s Al-Qaeda thinking.
‘They’re fighting as jihad wherever possible against non-Muslim forces, or in this case against Assad regime, which in this case is regarded as non-Muslim, even though they would say they were. It’s a minority sect.’
Dr Hasan said his time as a jihadist lasted only 10 days, but what he saw and experienced means he knows what attracted Ifthekar to fight.
He said: ‘I went for a short trip. It wasn’t an idea of staying there long-term. I was tempted, though, because it was all training, fighting and studying the Quran.
‘I fear for this young man. I feel he may well try to come back.
‘When I fought with the Mujahideen jihadis we won that war and there was an expectation, like in Syria, that it would be the start of peace and justice, but what happened was the various Muslim groups fought each other and there was a vicious civil war for the next four years.
‘This is actually already happening in Syria. This young man might get killed in the fighting or would want to come back and he’s made that very difficult for himself.
‘The reality and the harshness of war will jade him.
‘The hope is that this man would come back peacefully.
‘But if he did he would be arrested because membership of Al-Qaeda is illegal.’
FAMILY ‘IN THE DARK’ ABOUT TRIP
A CLOSE relative of Ifthekar Jaman has told The News his family thought he was going to Turkey.
The relative said the man’s parents have had to accept there is nothing they can do.
‘When we found out where he was we had to come to an acceptance,’ the relative said. ‘We found out a few weeks ago when it was getting more heated in the papers. He contacted us and we found out. He left about five or six months ago.
‘When we found out it was a big shock, we didn’t see it coming one bit. He Skyped us and told us through there.
‘It is one of the hardest things a mother can bear but we had to come to an acceptance. He isn’t planning on coming back.
‘There’s nothing they can do about it, they can’t complain to him any more.
‘I have to accept it, I understand the morals of it – I understand he’s aiding people but that’s about it.’
The relative said it was up to Ifthekar to reveal what he has done in Syria.
‘A BETTER KNOWLEDGE OF ISLAM IS NEEDED’
PORTSMOUTH’S Muslim community has been reacting to news that men from the city have travelled to Syria to fight.
Abu Yassa, 31, worships in the Jami Mosque on Victoria Road North, where Ifthekar Jaman also attended.
He said: ‘I have heard that there are some of the brothers who have gone to Syria.
‘I believe they’re not mature yet and have been pushed by passion and not by reason and that’s it.
‘I have talked to them and I have spoken to them about acquiring knowledge in Islam and understanding.
‘Unfortunately they did whatever they have and went without letting anyone know.
‘If they had more research and understanding about what is required by Islam, they wouldn’t have gone.’
Another worshipper at the mosque, Shahed Gani, 41, said it was not for others to judge the group’s actions.
He said: ‘Everybody has their own opinions on the matter and everyone supports what they want.
‘At the end of the day it is his business to do what he wants and to support who he supports.
‘I make my prayers, and it is in that way in which I practise my religion.’
It’s quite easy to get into Syria, by flying quite cheaply to Turkey and getting in from there.
Members of Portsmouth’s other mosque, the Portsmouth Central Mosque on Somers Road North, also spoke to The News.
Rashad Omar, from Landport, said the situation in Syria is too complicated for people to make light comments.
The 43-year-old said: ‘A lot of groups operate in Syria so it is too complicated to talk about simply.
‘I disagree with any groups that use the Muslim religion to kill innocent people.
‘Killing women, children and innocent bystanders is completely wrong.
‘But there are different groups fighting different causes and it is difficult to say which is right and wrong when so much is happening out there.
‘They choose to fight in areas with little power because they can.’
Another, who asked not to be named, said: ‘Nobody knows what is right, only God knows.’
PUBLIC TOLD NOT TO OVERREACT
A RELIGIOUS leader who helps run a multi-faith group has asked the public not to overreact to the news of Ifthekar Jaman.
The Rev Tom Kennar, rector at St Mark’s Church in North End, is part of the Portsmouth Interfaith Forum – a group that represents a series of faith organisations in the city.
Mr Kennar has said that Ifthekar Jaman’s move to Syria to fight in an Islamic holy war is not typical of Muslims living in Portsmouth.
He said: ‘I hope people in Portsmouth won’t overreact to this story about a Portsmouth-based Muslim going to fight in Syria.
‘Religions and political parties can attract people who simply can’t live with uncertainty.
‘Some become so certain about their beliefs that they are prepared to kill or die for it.
‘But in my experience, the vast majority of Muslims just want to live in peace with their neighbours. I don’t think that Ifthekar Jaman is typical of the Muslims who live in our city.’
‘THERE IS NO THREAT TO THE LOCAL COMMUNITY’
HAMPSHIRE Constabulary has moved to reassure people there is no threat to Portsmouth residents.
The police force says it has held regular meetings with the Muslim community in Portsmouth to provide advice and reassurance.
A spokesman for Hampshire Constabulary said the force was aware of information about people joining the fighting in Syria.
He said: ‘We would like to reassure residents and visitors to Portsmouth there is no perceived threat to the local community.
‘The force is aware of information about people from the Portsmouth area joining groups fighting in the conflict in Syria.
‘Hampshire Constabulary has regular conversations and meetings with the Muslim community to maintain good relations built on mutual trust and respect.
‘Additional meetings have been held with the leaders of the Muslim community this month to provide advice and reassurance. We are continuing regular contact and meetings with the Muslim community to offer support on any issues or concerns.’
Anyone who has concerns about this situation can call Hampshire Constabulary on 101, and ask for a specialist ‘Prevent’ officer.
The police spokesman added: ‘The “Prevent” strategy explains the work that Hampshire Constabulary carries out with partner agencies and the public to stop people from becoming or supporting terrorists.
‘It also explains how the public can help us build stronger, safer communities who can reject terrorism in all its forms.’
People with concerns can also e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
More details about the Prevent project can be found by visiting hampshire.police.uk/internet/advice-and-information/general/prevent.
MP CALLS FOR UNITY AMONG ALL GROUPS IN THE PORTSMOUTH
WE need to work together to resolve this – that’s the call from Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock as concerns grow over the possibility of more young people leaving the city to join the war in Syria.
Mr Hancock said Portsmouth City Council, Hampshire Constabulary and the city’s three mosques must sit down and work out an action plan.
He fears the situation could become an excuse for the English Defence League to cause more trouble in the city.
It comes after members of the extremist group marched through Portsmouth against plans for an Islamic free school on Lake Road in August.
Mr Hancock said: ‘I am worried that young people are leaving this country and going out there and getting involved in this civil war. I am concerned about their families and the thought of others doing the same.
‘From my experience of talking to people in the community in the last week or so, it appears there is widespread concern in the Muslim community.
‘To my knowledge, very few of the families knew this was in the minds of their sons.
‘We have got to work with the community, and try and find where the radicalism of these men is coming from.’
Mr Hancock said relationships between all the faiths in the city need to be maintained to avoid tensions.
GROUP FIGHTS GOVERNMENT
IFTHEKAR Jaman says he is fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
The group is a jihadist group, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and active in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS has become one of the main jihadist groups fighting government forces in Syria.
The group took control of Raqqa, in Syria, in May.
It marked the victory by killing three men who were Alawites – the same sect President Bashar al-Assad belongs to.
Activists who have since left the city say many of ISIS’s opponents have been attacked.
Alcohol sales have also been banned and women have been made to wear Islamic clothing.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in Syria.
· Additional reporting: Ellie Pilmoor, Miles O’Leary, Ben Wells, Luke Baynes and Ben Fishwick.