Proud and happy to announce my next film “The Mosque” for BBC2. A transmission date is yet to be announced, and I’m still in production, so watch this space..
This article was written for Comment is Free, and can be found here.
As Isis continues to dominate our collective consciousness, most recently with the crucifixion of a 17-year-old boy, the government appears to be fumbling in the dark for new ways of stemming the blood from an old wound which refuses to heal; only they seem to be thinking about bigger plasters, which probably won’t do the trick. Meanwhile, somewhere in the UK, another jihadist is born.
I documented the birth of one particular jihadist in my BBC3 film My Brother the Islamist. The film charted my attempts to reconnect with Rich, who happened to be my stepbrother, to try to understand the new world he had become a part of. Ultimately the shared journey drew us closer together, but a year later he would be arrested for attempting to join the Taliban in Pakistan.
Only two weeks before he vanished from the streets of Ealing (I haven’t spoken to or seen him since he was taken into custody), we met for a coffee. We talked about our family, football, and albeit fleetingly, the future. I left the meeting with a smile on my face. Six months later he would plead guilty to terrorism charges, and I began making a second film, My Brother the Terrorist.
From the moment he converted, Rich was talking about fighting western oppression and dying a martyr. In a sense, the writing was on the wall. Violent jihad was something he and his “brothers” constantly talked about. When Rich pleaded guilty to preparing to commit acts of terror in 2012, he had been planning to travel to Afghanistan to cross the border and join the Pakistani Taliban.
But I never saw Rich as a terrorist, and didn’t see any of the people he surrounded himself with as terrorists either. What I saw were, and I hate to say it – vulnerable young men – with massive great chips on their shoulders. With their radical new status they felt empowered, superior and perhaps most annoyingly for me, righteous.
In a former life, the world they had been brought up in had wronged them. Perhaps they had family troubles, or maybe society shunned them, whatever it was, they resented it – they were lost, empty and had no stake in the western world. Becoming a radical Muslim reversed the polarity.
It’s a cliquey club from which everything beyond is viewed as imperfect at best, or evil at worst. And it’s the evils that these guys saturate their perceptions of the world with. Horrific, graphic and brutal images of the suffering, pain and death of Muslims at the hands of the west, played out alongside a powerful narrative of oppression and injustice – a narrative that is difficult to dismantle.
The irony is that the very shock of seeing such graphic brutality, which plays such a key role in the radicalisation process, eventually becomes ordinary. The powerful human response to violence becomes nullified, and they become blind to the evil they themselves help to perpetrate.
People like my stepbrother justify fighting violent jihad out of a sense of responsibility and powerlessness at the plight of fellow Muslims. Yes, fighting on a foreign battlefield and owning your own AK-47 is pretty exciting too (and let’s not forget that dying a martyr is like hitting the afterlife jackpot), but crucially their motivation isn’t to kill innocent people, or to do bad. They’re not thinking about blowing themselves up at a tube station, the story they’re telling themselves is, as confounding as it sounds – one of saving humanity.
In hindsight, Rich’s arrest and subsequent conviction shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me: he set out to do what he had always talked of. As I stood in the public gallery and heard the evidence put forward by the prosecution, I looked into the dock to see Rich’s stony face (which would shortly afterwards utter the word “guilty”), and felt let down and sad, but also unexpectedly stupid. The proverbial wool had been pulled over my eyes – our last meeting at the coffee shop had filled me with hope and optimism, but Rich knew it was potentially our last. In retrospect, maybe I should have taken him more seriously.
The inherent problem in attempting to tackle radicalisation is that often it is too late. By the time its signs begin to show, the scene is already set. Extremism of any kind is a symptom of an unhealthy society and, like any illness, in order to eradicate it, we should look to treat its cause.
Yes, charismatic ideologues play a part in the radicalisation process. But deep down, for those who are vulnerable, it’s not really about religious conviction or saving the world from oppression or defeating the evil west – these are just emotional vents; justifications for appeasing the deep lonely spaces of the human condition. It’s about feeling important, valued and ultimately, having a stake in the world surrounding them.
My Brother the Terrorist will air on Monday 28th April at 9pm on BBC3.
It’s been a long and difficult process .. I hope you can make it!
Filmmaker Robb Leech attempts to understand his stepbrother’s journey from middle-class white boy in Weymouth to convicted terrorist. In 2010 Robb spent a year filming his stepbrother Rich after he turned his back on the world in which he grew up to become a fundamentalist Muslim called Salahuddin.
Robb began filming with his stepbrother as he entered a strange new world where everyone talked about fighting jihad and implementing Sharia law. The result was Robb’s acclaimed BBC Three documentary, My Brother the Islamist.
When, in 2013, Salahuddin is convicted of preparing terrorism acts and jailed for six years, Robb is desperate to know what triggered his stepbrother, and others like him, to cross the line. Robb seeks out imam and psychologist Alyas Karmani to understand what drives young British-born men and women into radical jihadism. And he confronts Anjem Choudary, the man who converted Rich, about his role in Salahuddin’s radicalisation.
Saturday 8th May 2013
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.
Friday 24th May 2013
What makes young men from loving homes embrace an extreme form of Islam and go on to commit acts of terrorist violence? It is a question many have been asking this week in the wake of the murderous attack by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale on Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich. Last month, my stepbrother, Richard Dart, was jailed for six years after making plans to go to Pakistan to train with the Taliban and fight Jihad. So Islamism is something I am familiar with.
As a documentary film maker, I had followed Rich from the time of his conversion to Islam in 2009 through to the broadcast of my film, My Brother the Islamist, on BBC 3 in April 2011. During that time, I gained unique access into the world of the London Islamist and the circle of young men around radical Islamist cleric Anjem Choudary, who played such a part in my stepbrother embracing an extreme distortion of Islam.
As youngsters, living at home in Dorset, our lives began to drift apart. Although religion didn’t play a role in our family life, Rich became drawn to several faiths, but settled on Islam. Soon afterwards, I learnt that he had become a protégé of Choudary.
We know now that both of the alleged assailants in Woolwich were also known to Choudary. A former lawyer, Choudary was associated with Omar Bakri Muhammad, another radical preacher and the leader of the now banned organisation al-Muhajiroun. Choudary went on to set up a number of organisations, including Islam4UK, and then as each was banned, he would revive it under another name, with the same membership. He is a very clever man. He knows just how far he can push things without getting arrested, and how to be provocative and antagonistic in a way designed to attract media attention. On one occasion, he had only to talk about wanting to stage a march in Royal Wootton Bassett for the BBC to invite him on to a news programme. In the wake of Woolwich, there he was on BBC Two’s Newsnight on Thursday. He craves such attention.
That is how I see him. The young men around Choudary, of course, regard him differently. They are drawn by his rhetoric. “Prepare your steeds of war,” I have heard him say. “Terrorise the enemies of Allah… you don’t come back from a martyrdom operation.” And worse.
The more extreme it is, the more those who look up to him respond. They like the fact that he has a media presence, that the authorities appear to be afraid of him. Why? Because they are young people who are lost and confused in the Western world, and he gives them an identity, something to fight for, a way of channelling that feeling they share of being outsiders in their own society.
Rich agreed to me making my film not because he thought I sympathised with his views, but because he believed that it was an opportunity to get his Islamicist message out. And so I would go with him to meet his group. Many of those there had at some stage in their lives either felt that they didn’t fit in, or been very lonely, and they lacked a purpose. Rich was working as a security guard and living alone in the East End of London when he was radicalised.
Simply converting to Islam was not enough. This group was seeking a much more dramatic change in their lives. And what being around Choudary gave them was an instant feeling of camaraderie. They were no longer alone. Every evening they would go to the home of one of the brothers, where their wives would cook for them. They would all look after each other. Most had given up work, but they would share their money. They saw claiming benefits as a way of fighting the Government.
That sense of being united in a group apart was heavily reinforced and justified by discussing videos of what were seen as American, British or Western atrocities carried out against their Muslim brothers and sisters in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Rich began talking then of training overseas as a jihadist.
Choudary and other speakers would fire the group up with descriptions of the horrific things being done to Muslims around the world, and call for the blood of the non-believers to run red in the streets. There were occasions where I was the only non-believer in the cramped rooms, and it could be frightening.
Did I think they would actually translate that rhetoric into action? I didn’t think so, though at the same time there were people among the group who I felt were capable of going to such extremes. Most, though, appeared to be young men who felt empowered by talking the talk. It was bravado, I judged.
They came from all sorts of backgrounds. Some from Christian households, some from immigrant families, some with mainstream Muslim parents. Others, like my stepbrother, were white and came from ordinary middle England towns. There was no single demographic.
Some explained that they had been inspired to convert by things that had happened in their lives. One man whose sister had died of a cocaine overdose blamed Western society for “allowing her to die”. There was another who had watched George W Bush, after the 9/11 attacks, saying that “you are either with us or against us”, and had decided that he didn’t like him and was therefore against him.
All had taken their search to extremes because they were extremists. It was part of who they were – or had grown up to become. I wouldn’t say they were born that way, but at some stage in their short lives they had come to believe that they couldn’t live in the world they had been brought up in, and had turned against it.
So do I understand Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale? The conclusion of my film was that there was no single, easy, straightforward answer, however much we might all want there to be one.