What drove a gang of football-loving British teenagers to fight in Syria? In his powerful new book, No Return, award-winning journalist Mark Townsend pieces together their tragic story
Much has been written about Britons who fought in Syria, but little truly explains who these characters were, what made them tick. Or what actually happened when they disappeared into the byzantine politics of its brutal war. No Return tracks five teenage friends from Brighton who stepped into its chaos. All were killed except one. The survivor, Amer Deghayes, is the longest-serving Briton in Syria since the fighting began and offers a unique account of a ceaseless, shifting conflict.
Equally crucial are those he left behind. I learned that more than 30 Brightonians – the largest identified group of potential jihadists in western Europe – had discussed plans to join him. All were between 13 and 18 years of age, some were girls, most were white, working-class Islamic converts from the forgotten estates of east Brighton.
Investigating what had happened to these youngsters I discovered the Hillstreet Gang (HSG), whose members had converted to Islam in a makeshift gym. For several years the police considered them the most notorious street gang in Brighton. A hidden, violent side of the city revealed itself.
Throughout the summer of 2018 I tracked down prominent members one by one, knowing that approaching the group would mean instant rejection.
But like their friends who had disappeared in Syria, key figures would vanish from Brighton, often into prison. One central member of HSG who appears in No Return was jailed for 20 years, so I didn’t get the chance to interview him.
Soon after another of the book’s key figures, Amer’s brother Abdul, was killed in an alleged drugs dispute.
It was a death as sudden and savage as that of his friends who had entered Syria. But Abdul’s vulnerability, like the others, had been signposted long before, raising questions over how we view those seen as different. Do we try to understand or do we push them further to the margins, deeper into violence?
Extract from No Return: The True Story of How Martyrs Are Made
It was calm on Saltdean beach, the hum of the A259 drowned out by the surf. As a young teenager, Amer Deghayes would come here for peace and stand up to his ankles in the water, peering into the sea.
Peace was a fleeting concept when you lived with four younger brothers. The nearest in age to Amer were twins Abdullah and Abdul. Next came Jaffar. Mohammed, the youngest, was the quietest. Accompanying them would be their mother Einas, a timid woman whose parental strategy was geared towards kindness with as little confrontation as possible. Her husband, Abubaker, was a thickset alpha male with a prayer bump on his forehead that proved his piety.
Amer was named after Abubaker’s father, Amer Taher Deghayes, a lawyer who had pioneered trade unions in Libya, and decades later remained a celebrated figure among a slice of the country’s liberal intelligentsia. He was also co-founder of the Ba’ath movement that challenged Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi for power. It was a perilous, courageous move. And one that meant Amer never met his grandfather. Amer senior was arrested by Gaddafi’s security officials 14 years before his grandson was born, and died in custody. Amnesty International said he was “believed to have been extra-judicially executed”.
The family fled to the UK and claimed political asylum. They bought a house in the Sussex village of Saltdean, a conservative place of net curtains and neat flowerbeds a short walk from the beach. They were its only Muslim family. Abubaker studied business at Lewes College, ran an old people’s home and married his cousin, Einas Abulsayen.
Abubaker’s brother Omar, inspired by their father, became a lawyer with ambitions to represent the oppressed. After graduating in law from the University of Wolverhampton, Omar, 31, travelled to Afghanistan on a round-the-world trip to experience Islamic cultures. There he was embroiled in the US invasion that followed the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Captured by mercenaries and sold for a reported $5,000 to US intelligence, he was deported to Guantanamo Bay in a case of mistaken identity, confused with a Saudi jihadist who was later killed by Russian forces.
Omar spent almost 2,000 days inside the gulag, where he was tortured and lost the sight of one eye. By the time he returned to Brighton in 2007 his wife, whom he had met on his travels, had divorced him. He had lost everything.
Abubaker, who devoted years to getting his brother released, and remained traumatised by the loss of his father, was a figure who corroborated the thesis that violence flows down generations. Einas felt her husband had unaddressed mental health issues. Whatever the truth, documents from police and social services suggested that for years the family privately endured his volatile temper.
Things came to a head in November 2010 when the emergency helpline of a local charity for victims of domestic abuse received a call from a friend of Einas, gravely concerned for her safety and that of her five sons. In detail, the caller recounted how Abubaker had that weekend become “very physically aggressive, smashing up mobile phones and other items. Family had to lock themselves in one room and call the police,” stated a summary of the call.
Three days later police received another call; the details were macabre. Amer and the others were allegedly lined up and “whipped with electrical leads or computer cables” by their father, who contests the claims against him.
In light of these allegations, the five boys received a child protection order forbidding Abubaker contacting them. But their troubles were far from over. At Longhill school the four younger boys were subjected to racist comments and bullying. The attacks were daily, merciless and unrelenting. Water was lobbed over the twins as they queued for lunch in the canteen. Bread buns were hurled at them as they ate. Taunts of “Paki” and “terrorist” followed them around the playground. They were cornered and beaten on the school bus back to Saltdean.
Even when they made it to home turf, there was no respite. Anti-Islamic graffiti began appearing on the quaint seafront promenade, 200 metres from the family home. Adjacent to their house lay Saltdean Oval, the park where the Deghayes boys played football on summer evenings. It was their favourite pastime, until the bullies from Longhill began targeting them there. They stopped playing football, a decision that upset all the brothers. At night, their attackers would mass at the Oval and creep up the hill towards their home where they would stand in the small front garden, shouting obscenities, the familiar favourites of “Paki” and “terrorist”. Bricks would hit the house. Some of the gang would start kicking the front door. When they grew bored, they would leave. Then the family would quietly shuffle to bed, too petrified to venture downstairs.
According to local activists, police gave the impression they were happy to abandon the family. The twins in particular felt the police did not respond to the racism and that reports of harassment and antisocial behaviour against them were not investigated, according to one of their case workers. Behind Brighton’s progressive image of green politics, veganism and tolerance was a competing, ugly reality.
During the spring term of 2010 the twins made a pact that the bullies wouldn’t win. They installed boxing equipment in their parents’ Saltdean garage and spent hours pummelling punchbags they pretended were the torsos of their adversaries. They worked out every night, buoyed when their arms and necks started to thicken.
Their transformation from bullied children to ringleaders was rapid. Those present at the Deghayeses’ third child protection conference in mid-July 2011 were startled. Though the meeting had been convened to determine if the boys were safe from their father, it became evident that the tables were turned. Officials were alarmed by the speed of the power shift. “The five boys would now take on their father and not be abused by him. They have become both a powerful group in the community and in the family home,” their assessment concluded.
Over the next couple of years, while Amer remained a diligent student, Abdullah, Abdul and Jaffar were routinely excluded from school. The twins enrolled others who were ostracised from mainstream education and formed the Hillstreet Gang, which Jaffar also joined. HSG quickly became notorious for violence, dealing weed and troublemaking throughout the city, resulting in a blanket ban for all members from most of the city’s shops, bars and public spaces in May 2012.
Around this time Amer set up a rudimentary gym at the al-Quds mosque, where Abubaker had just become a trustee. And, in part because their reputation meant no other gym in the city allowed them entry, HSG joined a cohort of teenagers who were gathering there daily
The police monitoring the Deghayeses and others viewed the popularity of the mosque gym – dubbed the Brothers’ Gym by the gang – as an unequivocally positive development. Jaffar’s attendance at the mosque had, after all, coincided with an abrupt fall in his offending.
Amer, who was now commuting daily to London’s Oxford Street to a job in Specsavers, was delighted that so many of his brothers’ friends were turning to Islam. The converts learned how to prostrate themselves, kneeling with their foreheads pointing towards Mecca. They were taught Arabic phrases, such as “As-Salaam-Alaikum”, meaning “Peace be unto you”.
Twelve months previously the twins had seldom identified as Muslims; now Islam became the gang’s identity. By March 2013 at least 20 of the group called themselves Muslim. For many in the gang it was the first belief system they had.
But the largely positive energy inside the gym was about to change. The group often watched videos on their phones and a film about the Syrian civil war had electrified Amer. A German film-maker had spent weeks inside Aleppo, documenting its civilian population under siege.
Screened on Channel 4 News on 25 March 2013, it followed a group of exhausted kids working in a makeshift hospital. They attempted to keep other children, pale and bloodied, from death. One boy was no more than 12, a doctor’s coat drowning his frame. He had an 11-year-old friend, Yusef, who helped him tend to the wounded. The film closed with Yusef lying dead, open-mouthed, in the place where he once helped others. He had been killed by a Syrian army bomb.
Amer was overcome with a sensation that felt unusual: rage. Others were asking how Bashar al-Assad could get away with killing his own people, the country’s children. Even the twins, preoccupied with their own combat zone on the streets of Brighton, railed against Assad.
Something else in the Channel 4 film caught Amer’s eye. Standing against Assad in the absence of western intervention was an Islamist group called Jabhat al-Nusra. The programme followed them handing out food and clothing to Aleppo’s stranded civilians, giving spiritual guidance, relaxing after a firefight by playing Fifa. Amer began investigating al-Nusra, watching grainy footage of men carrying AK-47s marching behind tanks and shouting Allahu-Akbar after every victory.
March had been the bloodiest month of the Syrian war with 6,000 deaths. Amer said it was obvious the ummah – the community of Muslims – needed defending. He said that every Muslim in the group, including the converts, had a duty. The gang agreed there was a need to fight back. One Islamic concept was starting to appeal: jihad.
Over the summer he spent hours studying the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who two years earlier had been killed in a US drone strike in Yemen’s tribal badlands. Al-Awlaki lived on in more than 70,000 YouTube videos, and part of his potency was that he preached in English. With no Arabic required, just internet access, it gave him enormous reach to Muslims in the west – and all those in the Brothers’ Gym.
In one video, shot in Yemen in 2010, Awlaki warned: “The west will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens.” The horrific experiences of Omar in Guantanamo Bay were familiar to everyone in HSG. They all knew what was possible.
On 29 August 2013 the British parliament rejected a plan for military strikes against Assad. Then Barack Obama asked Congress to postpone a vote to authorise a US military strike on Syria. It seemed clear to the Brothers’ Gym that doing something was the only option. “I didn’t want to be the person just standing on the sideline and watching,” said Amer. He knew what his grandfather would have done.
“Each day, more refugees arrived, all with fresher, more brutish accounts of Assad’s men”
Amer’s father had maintained connections with the Muslim humanitarian sector since the Bosnian war. One charity was called the Albayan Foundation, based in the predominantly Muslim area of Sparkhill, Birmingham. The organisation had been among the first to deliver aid to Syria after the conflict began two years earlier. Albayan’s next convoy would be heading for Syria soon, in less than a month. Amer told his father that he needed to help Syria’s beleaguered civilians. His schoolfriend, Mo Khan, was also keen to come along for the ride.
On the eve of their departure, Amer told his mum that he was going to Libya to see relatives and she let him have his passport. Mid-afternoon the next day, 8 October 2013, two white lorries that had travelled from Birmingham picked him and Mo Khan up, along with Abubaker, sucking a Rothmans cigarette.
Two hours later they reached Calais and from there headed south-west into Germany. After six days and 3,000 miles they reached the Turkish border. On 14 October, the two white lorries entered Syria via the Bab al-Hawa crossing.
Close up, the Atmeh refugee camp was wretched. Recent rains had ravaged the site and its paths had become quagmires. Amer watched families struggling uphill, slipping in mud mixed with excrement. The camp’s 25,000 occupants had been forgotten. Winter approached, but it had no running water, no electricity, no heat, no sewage systems and no UN relief convoys. Each day, more refugees arrived, all with fresher, more brutish accounts of Assad’s men.
Armed men, AK-47s slung over their shoulders, could be spotted outside the camp. The refugees called them “the spicy crew”. They were the jihadists, Jabhat al-Nusra. The surrounding hills belonged to them. From Atmeh, Amer could see their black banners, trembling in the breeze. Amer and Mo Khan planned to join them. But the charity workers wouldn’t let them out of their sight. After a week, their tasks almost done, they were no closer to becoming jihadists. Finally, the Birmingham charity workers said they were finished. They were all going home. Reluctantly, Amer and Mo helped pack up and climbed in a van. On 22 October they left Syria.
As they drove towards Turkey’s Hatay airport, Amer and Mo Khan hatched a yarn about flying to Libya to see Amer’s family. Outside the departure terminal they said goodbye to the charity drivers and watched them trundle off in the direction of Birmingham. The instant they disappeared Amer and Mo turned towards the taxi rank. “The border please,” said Amer.
Crossing the border was effortless as it was controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra. Amer and Mo Khan simply told the border guards they wanted to join the jihad against Assad. They were escorted to a truck and taken south to an al-Nusra training camp.
The camp was highly professional. Not only were there huge stockpiles of weaponry, but massive reserves of manpower. Foreign fighters were flooding in from across Europe, most arriving via humanitarian convoys.
Training began with a dawn prayer and an hour run led by a Chechen special forces officer. Then it was tactical tutorials, ambush training and simulated attacks, followed by prayers and lectures by Islamist teachers. Amer and Mo learned basic firing techniques and assault tactics, how to clean a rifle, tie a tourniquet and clean a deep flesh wound. In two weeks, they learned how to be jihadists.
Back in Sussex, on the morning of 11 November, a meeting of senior police, counter-extremism chiefs, youth justice bosses and representatives from Prevent gathered to ascertain if Jaffar was at risk of being radicalised following a recent diatribe he had made in public about Americans being terrorists. During the meeting, the family’s former social worker revealed that Jaffar’s oldest brother, Amer, was now in Syria. The revelation prompted little urgency. Not a single expert at the meeting believed the 16-year-old was vulnerable. “There are no risks of radicalisation,” was the final, unanimous verdict.
Had they taken even a cursory look at his phone, they would have quickly learned that Jaffar was in frequent touch with his 19-year-old brother. From there, they would have rapidly discovered that Jaffar and a large number of his friends were discussing travelling to Syria.
At the start of 2014 there was a major Brothers’ Gym meeting to discuss who was prepared to make the journey. Jaffar was driving the plan. His friend Ibby had already put his name down and Abdullah decided to go too. Like Jaffar, Abdullah felt he had run out of rope in Brighton. “They were thinking that they couldn’t do anything with their lives, there was no point in staying, that they couldn’t get a job,” said Abdullah’s friend Bill.
They bought three one-way £59 tickets to Istanbul, sitting together. They half-expected to be raided by police in the hours following the transaction. Nothing happened.
The security staff on duty at Luton on 28 January 2014 could not have missed the three teenagers; the towering pipe-cleaner figure of Ibby framed by the squat physiques of Jaffar and Abdullah. Everything was against them. Ibby was carrying the passport of his 15-year-old brother, a person who looked nothing like him and who was not allowed to fly without an authorised adult. Jaffar was on an extremist airport watchlist. Abdullah, 17, one of the most notorious faces in his force area, was not only on bail but due in court in several weeks. Police also had intelligence that Abdullah and Jaffar’s eldest brother was currently fighting for an al-Qaida-affiliated group in Syria. Finally, they had bought one-way tickets, at a stroke compromising their cover story of a sightseeing trip to Istanbul. A rookie mistake.
Shortly after 2pm they checked in and approached passport control. They waltzed through. It was the same story at Istanbul Atatürk airport. As the number one arrival point for foreign fighters headed for Syria in early 2014, the airport’s border officials had received instruction to profile Muslims arriving from the west – especially those with no return tickets. But the three teenagers from Brighton skipped through security without a hitch.
They could never have envisaged how straightforward it would be to enter Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra had seized control of the crossing six weeks earlier and the three boys, including the youngest British jihadist who would enter the Syrian conflict, were almost dragged over by the welcoming guards.
On 5 April 2014, Abdul and Abdullah spent their 18th birthdays three time zones apart. For Abdul it was a fairly low-key day at the mosque gym. Abdullah celebrated his arrival to adulthood at the frontline of the al-Nusra offensive, occupying a trench south of the village of Salma in Syria’s Latakia province. Most of the rebel fighters were weary and cold; supply lines were stretched. Syrian artillery had started shelling their positions, but Abdullah had boundless energy. The more they were targeted, the more he seemed invigorated.
Over the days that followed the fighting intensified. At least 40 foreign recruits died. The Brighton contingent found themselves three-quarters up Mount Chalma. Their unit commander took them aside. A force of enemy troops had gathered on the other side of the mountain. “He just said: ‘Let’s go around the army and surround them’,” said Amer. They set off, the Mediterranean glittering below them in the late afternoon sun.
A ferocious burst of firing erupted from a line of trees just ahead. The al-Nusra fighters crouched as the weight of fire intensified. To his left, Amer noticed a figure moving ahead, Abdullah, out on his own, chasing the regime troops down the scree of the steep mountainside. He could hear his younger brother shouting, pursuing the enemy like he once chased rival gangs along Marine Parade. Then Amer heard a sharp crack, a sniper rifle. He watched his younger brother tumble heavily to the ground. By the time they reached him, it was too late. Abdullah Deghayes was dead. He was 18 years and six days old.
Einas was the first to receive the news. She initially refused to believe it. Soon after, an image surfaced on Facebook. Shot at dusk and taken from the chest up, it showed Abdullah lying on his back in a combat jacket. He looked serene, as if he was sleeping. Abdul and Mohammed, who had been lugging the belongings of their three brothers in Syria into their new temporary council home in Portslade, heard their mum’s wailing. Abdul broke down uncontrollably when he learned his twin was dead.
“What made me angry was that nothing was done about it. My son was just another dead jihadi. They let them go to die” – Khadijah Kamara
Within six months another brother and two friends were also dead. Mo Khan had been killed by a Russian explosive, Ibby by an American cruise missile, and Jaffar by Syrian army regulars. His body was never found.
Ibby’s mother, Khadijah Kamara, wrote to the Home Office asking why her eldest boy had been allowed to travel using not just the wrong passport but that of a 15-year-old. “As a mother I feel that I am owed an explanation,” she wrote. But no explanation was forthcoming. “What made me angry was that nothing was done about it. My son was just another dead jihadi. They let them go to die.”
The city put a lid on the case, hoping that no one would pry too closely. Within the council and police, the fact that the scale and scope of the extremism had not been exposed was a source of relief. Rather than drilling down into the issues – the injustices and ignorance that caused the problem – officials walked away, keen to move on.
Abubaker’s temper landed him in trouble again. In the summer of 2018 he faced trial for assaulting his wife. He was found not guilty of assault, but sentenced to 18 months in prison for attempting to prevent Einas testifying against him. Abubaker joined his youngest son in jail. Four months earlier Mohammed had been sentenced at Lewes crown court. The court heard that he was caught in a catch-22. The teenager was trapped in a cycle of dealing to repay the debts he had accrued by using drugs as “a much-needed escape from everything going on around him”.
Meanwhile, Abdul, the twin who had stayed at home, is alleged to have evolved into a serious criminal, with a string of convictions for violence, robbery and drug-dealing. In September 2017, he was jailed after police raided the home where he lived with his mother and found scales, deal bags, burner phones, wads of cash, even a safe. And a lot of drugs: cocaine, ketamine, MDMA and amphetamines with a combined street value of £2,250.
Amer spoke to him from Syria shortly after he was set free the following summer. Abdul sounded contrite, almost remorseful. He promised his older brother he had changed his ways. But the 22-year-old, who had come so close to travelling to fight in Syria, embraced the only life he knew. He fell back into leading Hillstreet.
In February 2019, Abdul is said to have met up with a cocaine dealer known as Frank. What happened next is the subject of a murder trial. Abdul was stabbed eight times. A knife sank nine centimetres into his body, skewering a kidney and slicing the femoral vein and artery in his left leg, a grievous wound. For eight hours doctors at the Royal Sussex county hospital fought to save Abdul. But at 6am, the sky still black, specialists agreed his injuries were “untreatable”. Abdul Deghayes was dead.
His brother Mohammed was allowed out of prison to attend Abdul’s funeral. Abubaker addressed the mourners. His son was venerated, he said, recounting his recent spell in prison when he was afforded hero status by so many inmates because he was “Abdul’s dad”. But Abubaker’s central message was that Abdul’s death must act as the catalyst for his friends to mend their ways. “It’s time to turn the corner,” said the 50-year-old and stared at the gang. Some lowered their heads. And he said that it was time to go clean. “No more intoxication, no more getting high. It’s time to chase the super-high of Islam.” Then he pleaded for calm, no more bloodshed. “Please no revenge, no retribution. In Islam we show peace to everyone, wherever they are. Wherever they come from,” said Abubaker.
Einas, who had now lost three of her sons, kept a low profile in Saltdean, living in a quiet street close to where the family first arrived in the UK. Occasionally friends saw her in the city, always meticulous in her hijab, but she was shy, leaving most to speculate how she coped with what had happened to her five boys.
Six years on, Amer is the only one of the five to remain in Syria. Having arrived fresh-faced in the autumn of 2013 with the aim of toppling Assad, the 25-year-old had not imagined he would still be there. After the death of Jaffar, Abdullah and Mo Khan, he sought refuge in family life. He had married Natalie, a Syrian national, in 2015, and they had a daughter, Sham. They moved to a modest home in an Idlib suburb whose roads were lined with rubble and pock-marked with craters. Nearby was a gym and mosque and he had friends, including six British jihadists. Mostly, he enjoyed spending time with his wife, watching CBeebies on YouTube with his daughter.
But the defeat at Aleppo had dramatically curbed the ambitions of the jihadists. Shoehorned into a sliver of land in the north-west, all their hope of an Islamic emirate had faded. The only good news, said Amer, was that Islamic State were finally routed.
He had started contemplating his future and towards the end of 2019 he was sounding different in his calls home. Once he described himself as “beaten” and he began feeling homesick. He wanted his family to meet Sham and Natalie. He missed the sea, the squawk of seagulls.
But the issue of Syrian returnees following the defeat of the Islamic State had turned toxic. Ministers threatened severe consequences for anyone attempting to return from Syria. In May 2019 the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, gave British citizens in Idlib province an ultimatum: leave within 28 days or face a 10-year prison sentence if they attempted to return to the UK.
Amer was worried, fearful of what it meant for him and his family. He occasionally wondered what the UK security services thought of him. But it was the answer to another question that he most wanted.
“Do you think I’ll be OK to come home?”
Original Source: The Guardian