Death from the sky

Cardiff interview

Fotos: Alex Schlacher

At the end of August David Cameron’s government killed Rayeed Khan, a British ISIS fighter, per drone attack in Syria. A visit to his old hometown.

It was a dark afternoon in November 2013, when Khalid Rahman understood that his friend was doomed. Khalid who studies computer science at the University of Cardiff was hanging out with some guys in Butetown, a poor district they were all from. They were playing on their mobile phones when one suddenly said: „Have you heard? Rayeed left for Syria“. Khalid remembers having goose bumps. „I was so shocked, I even had to stop my game.“

Two years later his friend was dead. Reyaad Khan, 21 years old, who grew up in Butetown, was killed by a RAF drone on August 21. He was driving a car with two fellow ISIS fighters outside of Raqqah, capital of the Islamic State in Syria, when they were hit. The pilot of the drone was sitting some 5000 Kilometers away in Lincolnshire. He watched Khan move, aimed and fired his Hellfire-Missile. All three men were instantly killed.

So far unmanned drones are the only deadly weapon Britain uses in Syria. Under the impression of the Paris attacks, however, more and more people are calling for Britain to join America and France in their military campaign in Syria. David Cameron lost a first vote on military strikes in Syria two years ago. An intervention then seemed too risky and costly without a proper exit plan. In 2014 parliament approved air strikes - but only in Iraq.

While the US has used drone strikes for the past decade, British forces have done so only in Afghanistan and only when British or Nato troops were threatened on the ground. Rayeed Khan was the first case of an extrajudicial killing by drone in Syria.

When David Cameron told parliament of the killing on September 7 he claimed „self defense“. Under the UN charta action in self-defence is permitted if an armed attack occurs. „We had to act, we had no other choice“, Cameron told MPs in the House of Commons. „There is no government in the region we can work with and no military on the ground we can ask to arrest someone.“ Reyaad Khan was said to have planned terror attacks in Britain. He supposedly had targeted the holiest of holy: the Queen.

Around 700 British citizens have left to fight for a caliphate in Syria so far. The most famous of them hails from Westlondon: „Jihadi John“ aka Mohammed Emwazi decapitated British ISIS hostages while being filmed. Two weeks ago he was killed by a US drone attack. He was, like Reyaad Khan, high up on the hit list of Western powers.

In Khan’s case he was not wanted for murders committed on camera. And not only to prevent the terror attacks he had planned in Britain. The government also wanted to eliminate him because of his PR pull. In June 2014 the young man appeared in a video called „There is no life without Jihad“. Kalashnikov in hands the British jihadi called upon fellow British Muslims to follow him to the caliphate in Syria. „Look around yourself while you sit in comfort and ask yourself: Is this how you want to die?“

Back in Butetown his friend Khalid shakes his head. „Years ago we played football together. Reyaad was very religious, he sometimes called us in the middle of a game to wash our hands and pray.“ This was in fact nothing special. Many poor families from Bangladesh or Yemen live in this poor district, many very religious: No alcohol, no porc, strict fast during Ramadan and prayers five times a day.

Khalid himself wears a short coat and only a hint of a beard. He studies computer science at the University of Cardiff planning to leave Butetown some day. His Non-Muslim friends at university react surprised when he tells them that he is a devout Muslim. Khalid does not necessarily look like a man who prays five times a day. „But that does not mean that anyone who prays has to become an extremist.“

Cardiff, the capital of Wales, has 324.000 inhabitants. In Butetown a third are of an ethnic minority. Before he became poster boy for ISIS Rayeed Khan was a favourite example for functioning integration in Cardiff. In interviews he spoke out for the need to serve the community. In 2009 a 15 year old Rayeed even posed for a photograph with then education secretary and Labour politician Ed Balls.

There is a long tradition of peaceful coexistence of Non-Muslims and Muslims in the Welsh port town. The Muslim community of Cardiff was founded early by Yemenite sailors, with the first mosque, Al-Manar, being built in 1860. Today Al-Manar is said to be one of the most radical mosques in Great Britain. Rayeed Khann prayed there before he left to Syria.

Sheikh Abdo Zane spends his life trying to persuade young men in Cardiff of a peaceful life rather then risking their lives in Syria. If the Imam of the South Wales Islamic Centre succeeds, the boys study computer science in Cardiff. If he looses they leave to fight a war in the Middle East. Like Nasser Mukhtana, who was seen in the ISIS PR video sitting next to Reyaad Khan. „The last time I saw Nasser was a year before he left to Syria“, the Sheikh recounts. „He just looked militant. It was clear, what happened to him: He wore military pants, his beard was growing. What can I say? Nasser looked like a classic ISIS fighter in his cave.“ At a certain point nobody could reach him anymore. „I think this is the responsibility of the father. Parents need to keep their kids on the right path.“

Nasser’s father does not want to discuss this. „Excuse me, I cannot talk about it“, he apologizes, standing in the doorway of his little townhouse in Butetown. The home looks neglected. The father himself seems to be disoriented, he almost looks like a displaced person. He wears a beige dishdasha, a red and white checkered keffiyah and no shoes.

Two of his sons left this house to become jihadists. Nasser, 20, persuaded his younger brother Aseel, 17, to follow him into the caliphate in Raqqah. Nasser showed Aseel his extremist videos, he told him about what he had heard in the radical mosques. „I could see how Aseel changed“, says Mohamed Ahmed, one of Sheikh Zane’s best students. Mohamed and Aseel were close friends. Mohamed came to Sheikh Zane to ask for help, to give him the arguments to counter the influence of the radicals Aseel had slowly started to succumb to. The extremists had simple messages. „It is difficult to sit still and not do anything while our sisters get raped in Syria“, the young tall man says. Mohamed’s family is third generation British with Yemenite roots. „The blood of many young men here is boiling. They want to fight.“

Since the holy war has attracted so many young British men and about 50 women, the government has stepped up measures against the jihadists. Parents can declare their under 16 year old children’s passport invalid to keep them from traveling to Syria via Turkey. British authorities can forbid young suspicious adults to leave the country. A „Snooper Charta“ is currently being discussed to bring forth more measures to control terrorism would give authorities permission to store browser history for twelve months. Tolerance for surveillance is generally higher in Great Britain than in continental Europe.

Meanwhile a certain disillusion among British jihadis has started to bring down numbers of hopeful fighters leaving the islands for the Middle East. Of 700 who left so far, 46 were killed in fighting and more than 300 returned home.

Since the Paris attacks the focus has shifted from keeping Islamist fighters at home to sending RAF planes to fight ISIS in Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron would like to have a second vote on Syria before Christmas, if possible by next week. Some 15 Tory MPs seem unwilling to back military air strikes in Syria. Another 15 MPs from the split Labour party opposition might vote with the government. Cameron needs more than this for a comfortable majority to start a new war.

So far there was relatively little criticism of Cameron’s drone strike against Rayeed Khan. The brutal ISIS videos depicting horrible atrocities against civilian hostages have almost eclipsed concern for human rights among the British public. „I have no problem to eliminate people per drone if they threaten the life of my constituency“, says Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris.

The moderate Muslims of Butetown support military intervention, too. They also are not against drone strikes against their former friends from childhood. „If you side with the enemy, you have decided your own fate“, says Sheikh Zane. His student Mohamed agrees: „I fought so hard for my friend Aseel, as long as he was here. But if you can save the lives of hundreds you need to sacrifice the one.“


“I prefer being surveilled than getting killed”

Sheikh Abdo Zane from the Islamic Center in Butetown, Cardiff speaks about the double pain of British Muslims and why they feel more accepted in Britain than in France.
Sheikh Zane

Sheikh Zane Abdo, 37, is imam of South Wales Islamic Center in Butetown, Cardiff. Sheikh Zane was born in Liverpool, his family came originally from Yemen. Zane, an English Muslim, calls in his Friday prayers and internet videos for a moderate interpretation of Islam.This is a longer version of an interview that was published in the Austrian news magazine profil.

Profil: What do you think about the RAF killing the British Islamist Reyaad Khan?

Sheikh: I was shocked. He is a young boy from here, yes that is uncomfortable. But at the same time he made a decision to go and fight. And he knew what he was doing and what the consequences were. No doubt he wanted a fate that he reached. He wanted martyrdom. For us of course this is not martyrdom, but this is a whole other issue. He is working with the enemy. We cannot get away from that. Cameron said there was a significant threat to national security. He could not go into it. If you are butting for the wrong team you must expect repercussions that come back at you for your decisions. You have to live with these decisions.

Profil: Or die with these decisions.

Sheikh: It’s all nice and dandy for us here to sit and say: We should have mercy. But ISIS is a terrible threat. ISIS is a magnet. There is a syllabus there, books from Saudi Arabia. In their training camps they teach in classrooms, they give them their understanding of Islam. Then they exercise, they learn how to fight. After several months it starts making sense for some British individuals.

Profil: What is the reaction around you here in Butetown to the attacks in Paris on Nevember 13?

Sheikh: All of us have expressed their horror. Everyone is quite sad. We Muslims in Cardiff share a double pain. Our brothers and sisters are being killed day in and day out in Syria and Iraq, we see it on TV. We ourselves now are also being attacked here in Europe by ISIS extremists. We suffer a double pain: A near pain and a far pain.

Profil: Will the Paris attacks, committed by French and Belgian Muslim extremists lead to more anti-Muslim discrimination?

Sheikh: Islam and Muslims are very much part of the landscape of British culture. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, but do they feel part of society? Here we are far more comfortable. We are far more accepted, we practice our faith openly and the society is more tolerant than in France. ISIS attack France to mobilize the far right to attack Muslims. Muslims in the west should be blamed. Use blood of innocent people to further their political agenda to push Muslims out which then will ultimately fall into the hand of ISIS if Muslims are marginalized and easier to radicalize. It is a vicious circle.

Profil: Will the surveillance get stronger?

Sheikh: Having more police around is a good thing. The police was here already and asked me to give information as much as I can, if I see something. And if we need protection, they will give it to us. I prefer surveillance to getting killed.

Profil: Should Britain join France and the US in their bombing campaign in Syria?

Sheikh Zane: ISIS is not going away if we don’t deal with it. We need a political and a military response. Bombing these people should not be the only tool to be used. It will take several means of resolving this issue. Boots on the ground may ultimately be an option, but we have to do anything else before. Al-Qaida became ISIS now and if we attack ISIS they will regroup and rename themselves.

Profil: Do you fear the UK would become a target if the government joins the military campaign in Syria?

Sheikh Zane: This country is a target anyway. If we strike or not - it will not make a difference. Our security apparatus is maybe more advanced because Great Britain has a long history of terrorism. The surveillance in this country is greater than in European countries. Sadly, the British people know attacks of a terrorist nature because we had the IRA. In recent years we had already Lee Rigby (a British army officer killed by Islamist extremists in South-London in 2013, author remark) and 7/7 (four terrorists detonated bombs on public transport in London killing 52 people in the morning rush hour of Juy 7th 2005, author remark). The Prime minister said the security services have spoiled seven attacks in the last months. So we have been very close to a tragedy.

profil: Will new anti-terror laws help keep young men from committing violent acts here in Britain or there in Syria?

Sheikh: But that’s important, right? If you got young boys and girls, you have a huge responsibility as a parent. If my son gets a cold, he is sniffing, he needs some cough medicine, I see these things and I treat them. A parent should be able to pick up on that if your child is turning extreme. I saw Nasser a year before he left. And he just looked militant. They guys he hung out with too. He was dressed in military pants and stuff, he looked like the classic al Qaida and ISIS fighter in a cave. That’s how he looked! In a way that extremists look. Militant. Aseel grew his hair the months before he left too. We could see the change physically. When Aseel came to the mosque one day I looked at him and I thought: Oh my God, he has gone on that road too.

profil: What can you do when you see this?

Sheikh: The parents have a huge responsibility when they see what is going on with their children. You cannot keep your head in the clouds. Imams have a huge responsibility, too. I have always spoken out against extremism. When Nasser went, I did a sermon warning people against what was happening. Aseel went several months later. And I made an even more explicit sermon against ISIS.

profil: Do you blame the parents?

Sheikh: Oh yes. The parents have to check on their children. Parents have a certain influence and responsibility over their children.

profil: Do you think it is possible that other boys will join ISIS?

Sheikh: It is more difficult now.

profil: Do you feel hostility from people on the street?

Sheikh: Islamophobia has definitely increased, we can feel it. Women get it more though. If you see a woman insulted for wearing a hijab, it feeds into the anger and it feeds into the wrong type of things. That’s the problem. People get angrier and angrier. Then they say racist things about them.

profil: How does this affect your Britishness? Do you feel more Muslim or British or both?

Sheikh: There is a lot of confusion here. Look how we are dressed. We are born here, we are British. We are Muslims that have been here for decades and decades. If I would go back to Yemen, I would stand out. I am known there as Zane the Brit. I am a British Muslim. An English man. I am an expert in Islamic law. There is nothing to say that you can’t join the 2 together. I don’t drink, I don’t eat pork. So now that we know that eating pork makes the risk of cancer higher, I feel even safer…

Tessa: Lucky you.

Sheikh: Lucky me.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz