UK

How Britons fled grim jihadist camp

(top row left to right) Ishaaq Hussain, Shahid Khan, (botton row left to right) Naweed Ali, Khobaib Hussain Image copyright PA
Image caption Ishaaq Hussain, Shahid Khan, Naweed Ali and Khobaib Hussain travelled to a training camp in Pakistan

If one thing is clear from the massive Operation Pitsford trial, it's that the life of a would-be jihadist is far removed from the fantasy of al-Qaeda propaganda.

Nowhere is the romance more lacking than in the militant training camps of Pakistan - the destination of choice for many aspiring Western jihadists.

Four of the men who pleaded guilty to preparing for acts of terrorism - Ishaaq Hussain, Shahid Khan, Khobaib Hussain and Naweed Ali - did so on the basis that they had left their family homes in Birmingham and headed off to join a camp run by men they saw as leading the fight for Islam.

In truth, the trip was an unmitigated disaster.

The Birmingham cell's leading figure, Irfan Naseer, was grooming these four as potential recruits for his master plan to bomb the UK.

Naseer had himself returned from two jihadist camps in Pakistan full of tales of derring-do.

MI5 once listened in as he told a particularly incredible story of evading a US drone. The tale is reminiscent of a scene from the grim black comedy film, Four Lions, and we'll never know what really happened.

These four impressionable young men thought they had a top militant contact in Naseer, and a fast track to joining the mujahideen.

He arranged for the quartet to go to a training camp hidden in Pakistan's mountains.

Mountain hideout

The men travelled in pairs in mid-August 2011. If they were trying to avoid attention they failed miserably.

Counter-terrorism officers were across the entire plot. They assessed they could allow the four to leave, knowing they could ultimately arrest them on their return.

Ishaaq Hussain told his family he was going on a prayer retreat in southern England - a tradition for some observant Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan.

Instead, he and Shahid Khan were driven to Birmingham airport and flew to Islamabad.

Their driver was Rahin Ahmed, Naseer's hapless gofer.

He had been in charge of looking after thousands of pounds which the group fraudulently raised by posing as charity workers. He lost £9,000 in botched currency trading. His punishment was to run around doing Naseer's bidding, including ferrying the travellers to the airport.

As he drove the second pair to the airport, he made several last minute checks which were recorded by MI5. It had been bugging the car for some time.

They discussed martyrdom and avoiding saying goodbye to their families.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The cell was kept under observation by police and MI5

Meanwhile, Ishaaq Hussain and Shahid Khan had arrived in the mountain hideout. The shock began to set in.

This wasn't like the training camps of propaganda videos, with the black flag of al-Qaeda flying free in the wind. There were no racks of weapons waiting for recruits. And all the trainers had left for the religious festival of Eid.

Very few people spoke English and the British boys were left to their own devices.

Conditions were, according to Ishaaq Hussain's account, primitive. They slept on bare ground in sleeping bags, with a hole in the ground for a loo.

What little food they could get was a far cry from mum's home cooking or the tasty takeaways of Sparkhill and Sparkbrook.

Mosquitoes posed a more immediate threat than American drones, and if the insects weren't going to get the Brits, the unbearable heat would.

As soon as the sun set, the men were in darkness. Ishaaq Hussain, 19, had left home two days earlier - where his mother made the beds. Now, with no bed at all, he was disillusioned.

Family 'outraged'

Once they were reunited, the four Brits put aside their collective embarrassment of being part of a clandestine shambles and began debating how to get out.

With rapidly diminishing batteries on their mobile phones, they called Naseer's gofer Rahin Ahmed. The phone battery died, but they had enough in another to call relatives.

The men's families gathered at Shahid Khan's home, shocked and furious about what their sons were up to.

In the middle of the night, the men received a call from their families telling them in no uncertain terms to get off the mountain and meet an uncle in a nearby town. He had travelled to collect them and would return them to Islamabad where another relative would put them on flights home.

The four crept out of the camp at dawn with their tails between their legs. The only one not to return immediately was Shahid Khan, although the court heard there was no evidence he received any terrorism training during his continued stay in Pakistan.

Back in Birmingham, recriminations began. An influential local man known as "Jimmy" confronted Irfan Naseer. Shahid Khan's family, the court heard, was "outraged".

The BBC has approached the families and nobody wants to speak publicly. One close relative told the BBC of their feelings of shame and anger, but added they believed the four were on their way to being reformed.

"All four of you took the decision not to proceed with terror training and all four of you realised what a shocking mistake you had made," Mr Justice Henriques said during sentencing.

"But it is a chilling thought that unbeknown to your parents you left this country intending to undergo a period of terror training."

He sentenced each of them to 40 months in prison. That means they'll almost certainly leave prison within weeks on licence, having spent almost two years in jail, awaiting conviction.

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