"What is wrong with just praying, fasting, reading Quran, doing a bit of charity and being a good person?" said a member from Portsmouth's Bengali community when news of Mehdi Hassan's demise became known. Clearly for Mehdi Hassan and the others who left for Syria in October 2013, it was not enough.
Covering the Syrian conflict I have often been in contact with Mehdi Hassan or as he is known by his nom de guerre, Abu Dujana. In private, despite the bravado on his twitter feed, he presented himself as a thoughtful young man. But for a month my communication with Mehdi had stopped. I only learned the reason for this after news of the death of Abu Ibrahim al-Britaini (sic) or Mamunor Roshid trickled in, one of the boys who left for Syria from Portsmouth. Many Brits had become embroiled in the US led air strikes including what's left of the Portsmouth six. According to Cardiff born Aseel Muthana , Mehdi's comrade in arms and room-mate currently fighting with Islamic State, both Assad Uzzaman and Mamunor Roshid suffered injuries after rubble fell on them following a US air strike. Mehdi died from wounds received from a PKK sniper in Kobane and bled to death in hospital.
The family had the unfortunate fate of finding out through social media. Any one of South Asian descent will recognise their own mother, aunt or uncle in Mehdi's family; father, a dignified hard working cabbie and mother, a devout housewife. They had worked hard to raise Mehdi and his siblings. Mehdi was an 'A' grade student who had taken a gap year because he wanted straight As instead of the two As and one B.
Mehdi had a lot of spare time due to his gap year. Alongside Hamidur Rahman, Assad Uzzaman and Mamunur Roshid, Mehdi spent time in Iftekhar Jaman's house where Mashudhur Choudhury, a youth worker, held circles. Mashudhur was respected amongst them because he was unafraid to speak out on issues like Palestine and Syria. Some of the first generation Portsmouth Bengalis saw Mashudhur as a trouble maker who was a tad too vocal. He didn't keep his head down like the first generation had done. He didn't buy into the petty village rivalries from Bangladesh that afflicted some of the first generation Bengalis in Portsmouth. According to Mustakim, Iftekhar Jaman's younger brother, Mashudhur had caused problems when he tried to get both mosques, one controlled by Bengalis from Sylhet district and the other controlled by Bengalis from Nabiganj district in Bangladesh, to come together for communal Eid prayers. Many in the Portsmouth community blame Mashudhur Choudhry and Iftekhar Jaman for 'radicalising' their boys. Mehdi got involved with Islamic proselytization through the Portsmouth Dawah Project who made him aware of the tragedy in Syria. The organisation as their Facebook page suggests, also raised money for Syrian refugees. It seems that Syria, like Bosnia before it, was galvanising a whole generation into action.
The parents of Mehdi believe that only good would come from his new found religiosity. After all, many Bengali parents nag their children to do their five daily prayers and here were boys doing much more than just prayers. Mehdi's mother only worried about the heavy burden put on Jaman's mother who uncomplainingly fed her guests. Hamidur Rahman's father scolded him for visiting her home too often. But Hamidur always insisted that Iftekhar Jaman's mum enjoyed it. Unbeknownst to Mehdi's parents the five young men were planning to go to Syria. In October, 2013, following Iftekhar Jaman's lead they made their way to Syria via Turkey.
Mehdi's family were devastated; they couldn't understand how five good boys with "no criminal record" as Mehdi's mum puts it, could go over to fight in Syria. Members of the Portsmouth Bengali community knowing the amount of time and effort she had put into raising her children told her "if this happens to you what hope is there for us?" Another family member who didn't want to be named said that "[Portsmouth boys] forgot their obligation to their parents".
Mehdi's family desperately tried to get their boy back. Mehdi told them that he was only going for a three month stint asking his family to inform Surrey University to keep his place. They also cooperated with the police and, at one point even had police officers in the living room eavesdropping on the family's Skype conversation with him. According to Aseel Muthana, Mehdi was shot in the stomach and hospitalised in July. His mother believes it was during these times that Mehdi missed home intensely and told her of an old woman in Raqqah who nursed him and like her, would comb his hair. He would ask for her forgiveness saying "By God, mum I pray and cry for you, forgive me". His maternal uncle Ajmal, an imam and a former teacher of Iftekhar Jaman, used this period to challenge his views. The Imam believed he planted a seed of doubt in his head. "There were times when he didn't admit it but I could tell I had got through to him" he said.
It's unclear whether Mehdi was trying to leave or if he was trying to placate the worries of his mother. One Skype conversation runs thus "I can't leave and the border's very tight if I stay I have to fight unless I'm a doctor or I have a skill." Another says "now I know there's only one person who can help me and I have no clue where he is and also he is very strict". Another runs "I'm just spending lots of time waiting to get from one place to the other". Mother asks "where are you heading?" He replies, "a place to get permission to leave". The family believed that he was trying to leave and his parents flew into Turkey having informed the UK authorities of their intention to retrieve him. The UK authorities were willing to issue a new passport for Mehdi's return. Mehdi didn't have a passport because, according to his family, he had handed his passport over to Islamic State officials. Mehdi's parents established contacts in the town of Urfa and with border guards in order for him to return. Mehdi's mother believed he attempted to leave and managed to get to eight minutes of the border and then for unknown reasons was thwarted. It is not clear as to why he was unable to cross over; his family believe he was incarcerated for this attempt.
Aseel Muthana on the other hand, told me that "he did not want to go back- never. He used to tell me he was considering a martyrdom operation." He continues "I swear by God he was chilling with me. He used to show me his mum's messages and be like look she wants me back...once we were in Turkish border and I said "imagine you can go back and see your family for a little bit then come back to Dawla [Islamic State]...that would be sick. Just a little visit...would you do it?" Mehdi rejected Aseel's idea. Aseel Muthana denies that Mehdi was ever imprisoned and insists that Islamic State would facilitate his departure if they knew.
It's hard to make sense of what goes on in the mind and heart of a young fighter, certainly in conversation with him he never expressed a sense of wanting to return. Perhaps Mehdi began to miss home or perhaps when his strength returned he had changed his mind. We will never know for sure. What is certain though after he got well, hopes of return faded. In any case as his parents told me, the prospect of returning to prison for any young man was no incentive at all. Moreover he told them that leaving would be dangerous especially as he had to traverse across Free Syrian Army territory; if they found him they would kill him. According to him Raqqah was probably the safest place for the likes of him. In Raqqah at least, he was in the company of likeminded people, he referred to as "Lions".
Back in Portsmouth the departure of six devout boys had a ripple effect on the Bengali community. Many members I spoke to in the community blamed the internet and the lack of traditional knowledge. This was not the way their fathers had studied Islam where you either learnt your basics in the mosque and further study in religious seminaries like Bury or Dewsbury covering a structured curriculum with people of learning. Young men like these learnt Islam differently. They taught themselves from an array of sources from books to the internet.
Community activists say that they didn't have any tools to connect with young men like them. According to Mustakim Jaman, Fratton mosque committee would not allow them congregating there after prayer for fear that they might 'radicalise' other impressionable young men and bring undue media attention to the mosque following the death of his brother. The central mosque in Portsmouth put up signs inside saying that anyone wishing to hold meetings and lectures must be approved by the mosque committee. Discussions were held in the mosque on how to prevent more young men from going over to Syria. Parents who had previously worried about their boys not offering their prayers, now looked out for signs that their sons were becoming overly devout. Mr. Hussain who ran a local money exchange angrily said "Don't they realise the impact this has on our community? Is this even Jihad fighting other Muslims?" After the boys had left there was an increase in community tension symbolised by the EDL kicking in the mosque doors or scrawling obscene messages on the buildings. The Bengali community like many first generation immigrants, preferred to keep their heads down and could no longer do so. But the fear remains that their condemnation is not enough to stop their boys from leaving and that a chasm of incomprehension exists between them and their sons. Every parent worries that the news coming out of Syria, the limp corpses of Syrian children, will drag their son into the conflict with them powerless to stop it. It seems though that whilst the actions of six young men going off to fight in Syria has no doubt effected the Portsmouth Bengali community it is likely that this is a scenario that other communities will face all over the UK as the conflict in Syria drags on. It seems that as Assad bombs fall and US led air strikes continue for many young men the advice given by their fathers to pray, fast, read the Quran, give in charity and being a good person will not be enough.
The report with Mehdi Hassan's family can be seen here on ITV news