Saturday 8th May 2013
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15 years ago he was a Kurt Kobain lookalike stood in a cornfield in Dorset, confidently and most comprehensively convincing a young 14 year old me, that the last millimetre of tobacco before a filter tip was without a doubt the most nicotine rich and therefore most prized portion of a fag to be left with. As you can imagine, I was grateful to Rich for sacrificing this delight for me. He called it ‘Lsds’ and it was what was left of a cigarette after ‘saves’. My lips burnt, my youthful lungs spluttered embarrassingly.
My dad married his mum in 1992, making us step brothers. Rich was from a nearby school with a formidable footballing reputation (my school was rubbish) and were generally cooler than we were. I delighted in learning new slang from Rich which I would casually drop into conversation with my other friends (to varying degrees of success). Rich once told me that if I wanted to be cool I would have to stop wearing my Micky Mouse track suit. I was devastated, but he was right.
Disenchanted with the secondary and eager to do something with his life Rich left home to live with his paternal father, who lived in the Isle of Wight when he was 15, and contrary to what the papers say, he is not the son of teachers – his dad is a builder now living abroad. I don’t know much about him really, other than the fact he apparently disowned Rich when he started appearing in the papers with the well known hate preacher, Anjem Choudary.
I’m not going to lament over innocence lost, or the tragic story of a white middle class boy from a seaside town who turned his back on a caring family and the world he grew up in. Sure, that’s heartbreaking, and when I saw Rich in the dock pleading guilty to preparing for acts of terrorism, and compare him to the boy who I grew up with and once looked up to, I am simply lost.
To his credit, police transcripts of the secret conversations Rich had with Imran Mammood (his co conspirator) clearly show that Rich did not want to harm civilians – he only wanted to target soldiers.
It depends on which side you fight for. The infuriating thing for us is that he wants to be on the other side, and kill the men and women who serve our country – people we might know and love.
I have heard Rich and many others talk of killing and fighting abroad time and time again. In the film I made about Rich My Brother the Islamist, Anjem Choudary, the man who converted Rich, practically orders a large group of young Muslims to go out and do it – ‘prepare your steeds of war’ he said ‘terrorize the enemies of Allah.. you don’t come back from a martyrdom operation..’ And I was privy to much worse.
The truth is they all talk about it, all the time. It’s something to aspire to – fighting jihad and dying a martyr is like winning X Factor to most of us (me excluded).
Rich is an Islamist, and I personally have come to terms with that. Like all the others whom I met, he talked freely about his willingness to go abroad and fight in another country – he saw it as an obligation. But I saw it as idle talk and bravado, it was cool to talk about. If I ever thought it was anything more than that I would have bugged him myself!
The truth is I’ve had the last three years to come to terms with Rich’s Islamist mindset.The fact he was planning to train and potentially fight with the Pakistani Taliban is shocking, but I should have seen it coming.
The last time I saw Rich, things were going really well; we had met quite regularly since my film My Brother the Islamist had gone out in April 2011,he had left Anjem Choudary in East London and moved to Ealing, and most promising still, his almost superhuman persistence in attempts to convert me had diminished almost to a minimum.
After insisting on buying the coffees and a slice of cake, Rich told me that he was looking forward to the future, and that he and Jahanga, who was also charged, were starting an Islamic business together. They were hoping to create a special paste, using ingredients sourced from the Quran and the Hadiths to ward away evil spirits. I wasn’t sure if there was a market for such a commodity, but he was confident it would be a legitimate method of making money under the Kafir UK government, as it didn’t undermine any Islamic principles. He even requested my help in editing a potential promotional video, which I gladly accepted.
We talked of the family and how he had enjoyed visiting family members in Dorset, we talked about our younger brother and sister from Weymouth, how much they had changed, what they were doing.
Two years previous and the only line of conversation would have been what to expect at my imminent appointment with Hellfire.
So it came as a great surprise when hearing of his arrest, I was convinced the police had simply connected Rich’s past with the small industrial sized kitchen operation he had likely used to make anti-evil paste, and had assumed he was up to something. But that crucially, he was innocent.
For nine months I had no idea about anything other than what the charges were – a conspiracy to prepare or commit for acts of terrorism. I expected him to be released after a matter of weeks, but weeks turned into months, and I began to reconsider what the reality might be.
Slowly, things started to piece together. I discovered that the new Imam Rich had began to follow after departing from Anjem Choudary wasn’t exactly moderate in his views. Poignantly, he was a big believer in fighting abroad. I then learned that Jahangir’s wife was actually the sister of the two brothers recently convicted of planning to blow up the London Stock Exchange. I had met Jahangir on many occasions, and my impression of him was of a kind, gentle hearted, polite and rather shy young man – characteristics which I had put a lot of faith in when seeing his name alongside Rich’s in the paper. But there was something about that connection which changed the way I saw the situation.
By the time of the pre trial hearing on March 24th, I somehow knew he was going to plead guilty – and of course he did.
As I walked in to the public gallery I saw Rich for the first time since the coffee we shared in Ealing nearly nine months previously. It’s a curious thing I felt the moment we made eye contact, and not entirely appropriate. I felt the niggling formation of a profound and ridiculous giggle, fleeting, but it’s there. And as we exchange subtle nods, through the half open door from where he’s stood at the back of the court room, I know he feels it to. It is Rich’s dark and intoxicating humour. The magnitude of the situation plays into its hands. We are naughty kids at the back of the class whose hilarity is intensified exponentially to the teacher’s anger. It’s like he’s saying “oops, did I not mention any of this?” A private and intimate joke. I smother it, and prepare myself for the grisly details.
As the prosecution lays out the evidence for the judge, any traces of humour are quickly forgotten. As I listen intently to a chronological breakdown of intelligence and events, I try to place them with my version of time and place, my experience with Rich at those times. It’s galling. Until now, I refused to believe Rich had misled me, but one thing was clear, he had been carefully fooling me into believing he was ‘going straight’.
It was this that was most upsetting for me. The fact that while I was making a film about his conversion, he was already making plans to seek out Jihadist training abroad, that when he told me he had business plans for the future, he meant with the Taliban, and that the routine coffee we had together only weeks before his arrest, in his mind, would probably be our last.
But luckily, it doesn’t have to be. And speaking of luck, Rich always told me he didn’t believe in it- there was only Allah’s will.
So I have a question for him when I go and visit – why are you in a UK prison cell and not fighting jihad with the Taliban in Pakistan?
Rich wasn’t born evil, or brought up wrong, nor does he have some kind of profound hatred coursing through his veins- he just got lost in a world which is more confusing, complex and lonely than it’s ever has been. It’s really not hard to see how easy it can be to lose faith in a society whose values revolve around consumerism and celebritydom, and whose political leaders consist largely of the most untrustworthy people you could make up in your head.
Rich isn’t an anomaly, he’s part of a pattern, a worldwide phenomenon which isn’t hard to notice. Many of the guys who I met while making my film were white British lads, all with a similar story – they had felt betrayed by society, or were simply lost within it. Sure, there are wicked men like Anjem Choudary who seek to exploit these people, and I do believe there should be more action taken to somehow stop them. But we must also take a degree of responsibility for each other – we are all part of a society, and we nurture each other.
While in custody, Rich’s newly wedded wife gave birth to a baby, 12 weeks premature. Now healthy with a life full of possibilities ahead of her, she will need a father and someone to guide her through the world. My only hope is that when Rich get’s out, his little daughter will be his calling – of a different kind.