Meet 20-year-old Hamza al-Britani who left Birmingham for Syria in June last year. The British Pakistani told me via Skype how he caught a plane to Turkey and simply "jogged" over the border to "the land of jihad." A family friend of Hamza had arranged this interview so he could clear up misconceptions about jihad and ISIS. Over three Skype conversations, I had managed to get deep into the mind of a Briton who migrated to Syria to topple the Assad regime, and establish an Islamic State. Over the course of two weeks, I had asked Hamza many complex questions to help non-Muslims understand the sentiments that have led to nearly 500 Britons leaving the UK for war-torn Syria.
Hamza said his reasons for going to Syria were solely to: "Help and fight for the oppressed Muslims because God ordered the Muslims to do so." He went on to narrate a verse of the Quran which he understood to be the divine order to physically assist his brethren: "And what is wrong with you that you fight not in the cause of Allah, and for those weak, ill-treated and oppressed among men, women, and children, whose cry is: "Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from You one who will protect, and raise for us from You one who will help." (Surah al Anfal)
The conflict in Syria which is entering its fourth year has resulted in nearly 200,000 deaths, and millions of displaced refugees. In the UK, Muslims of all theological, political and sectarian backgrounds have been affected by the death and destruction of their coreligionists. Muslims have engaged in various forms of activities to help the Syrians - fundraising, delivering humanitarian aid, protests, lobbying MPs and so forth. But according to Hamza, this was simply not enough. He said: "Anyone can drive an ambulance packed with aid and deliver it to Syria, then return to the UK to the comfort of their own homes, but that isn't going to stop the bombs dropping nor is it going to create an Islamic State that offers protection and security to Muslims...Jihad is the best deed and the only option." While most Muslims would agree with Hamza regarding the noble Islamic duty of jihad (if the Shariah conditions were fulfilled), prominent Islamist groups and conservative scholars in the UK have strongly opposed Britons leaving to fight in Syria.
Within the Syrian opposition, there are numerous rebel factions with different ideological and political leanings. Hamza clarified that the main reason he decided to join ISIS instead of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra or other independent Syrian groups, was because they were "the only group striving to re-establish a Caliphate, which is an obligation." Hamza added that the UK had underestimated the number of Britons in Syria fighting with ISIS. "In fact, the whole world has underestimated the amount of foreign fighters here," he added.
Hamza also rejected the reports circulating in the media that British fighters were arrested and charged with mutiny by an ISIS court for wanting to return home due to rebel infighting. He said: "If you don't want to fight groups like Jabhat al Nusra you don't have to. If you refuse to fight the rebels, all that happens is an Islamic jurist shows you evidence permitting to fight them. If you still refuse, they either put you on a front against the Syrian army or give you an admin role." Hamza clarified that fighters were allowed to leave if they wanted to, but senior advisors would discourage it. The jurists would present evidences pertaining to leaving "the land of Islam to the land of disbelief." He explained that, "if you leave, the sin falls on you."
I felt compelled to ask Hamza whether the stories of summary executions of Yazidis and Shias were true. Also, if ISIS forced religious minorities to convert to Islam, and in doing so, churches were destroyed and converted to mosques. He replied: "These are lies created by the media. We do not kill religious minorities. Christians and Yazidis live in the Islamic State and they are protected by the Caliphate as long as they pay jizya - a small tax. Only the men have to pay this tax, not women and children. If they pay this tax then we allow them to live here under certain conditions. Those that pay jizya can have their churches but they cannot renovate them, display crosses on them or ring bells, nor can they pray in public."
The beheading videos of US journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and British aid worker, David Haines by an ISIS fighter sent shockwaves around the world. Regarding their deaths and the threat to British aid worker Alan Henning, Hamza said: "They died because of the foreign policy of their governments. It's simple - if you attack the Islamic State, and fund groups to attack our citizens, then expect the same to happen to British and American citizens. Instead of pleading to the Islamic State to release Alan Henning, why don't people plea to David Cameron to stop attacking our state?" I was disappointed at the emotionless and cold response from Hamza, even though his foreign policy grievances were shared by most Muslims.
From my observation, Hamza seemed happy and content in Syria. He described how "life was good in the Islamic State" and the implementation of Shariah law was "beautiful." Hamza told me that married couples were entitled to free houses, furniture, gas, electric and water from the state, shops closed during prayer times, and crime considerably dropped. "There is no better place to live right now than here," he added.
From the frontlines of Azaz, a small town 20 miles north of Aleppo, the well-spoken and educated jihadist told me that he misses home but has no intention to return to the UK. He said: "Of course I miss my family but we have to realise that this world is temporary, and the Hereafter is not. We will all die one day and depart from our families, so why let a good deed [jihad] pass knowing you will inevitably leave your loved ones?"
I didn't probe Hamza about his past because I knew he wouldn't have shared his experiences as a non-practicing Muslim. He had humour, was easy to talk to, and with his strong Birmingham accent he'd crack the occasional joke. But in reality, I sensed that discriminatory Western policies towards Muslims worldwide was a major motivation for Hamza and others like him, to leave the UK to fight in Syria.
You can read my full interview with Hamza on 5Pillarz.