Walsall to Syria: Fighters, travellers and victims?

Lorna Moore Image copyright Dominic Lipinski
Image caption Lorna Moore said she was a victim of abuse and hates her husband

A Muslim convert and an alleged extremist have been convicted for their parts in what prosecutors say was a large network of men and women leaving the West Midlands to have babies and raise their children inside the self-styled Islamic State. What was going on in this network - and did the women have any choice?

She was in Skegness. He was heading for Syria. But when Lorna Moore, a convert to Islam, returned to Walsall from her holiday with her three children, the police began asking her what she knew about her estranged husband's disappearance.

Her prosecution and that of her husband's friend Ayman Shaukat, also from Walsall, has revealed detailed evidence of what counter-terrorism detectives say they are repeatedly finding in some communities: entrenched radicalised networks encouraging each other to get up and go to Syria.

The Walsall to Syria network is one of the most extensive uncovered so far. One that planned to take children and pregnant women to Syria, to raise newborns citizens of the Islamic State.

Protestant upbringing

Lorna Moore grew up a Protestant in Omagh, Northern Ireland. In 2000 she met and fell in love with Sajid Aslam, while at university in Manchester.

Moore ultimately converted to Islam so they could marry, but the relationship later crumbled after the birth of their first two children.

Aslam appeared to resent the duties of being a father. He spent his hours playing computer games, drifting in and out of work - until he found another path.

He became part of a group of men who had taken steps down the road to extremism.

Image copyright West Midlands Police
Image caption Jake Petty and Isaiah Siadatan were both killed

Chief among them was Jacob Petty, a 25-year-old convert who later took the name Abu Yaqoob Britany. In 2011, Petty, the son of a Church of England minister travelled to Kenya with Sajid Aslam and another Walsall man, Omar Siadatan.

Petty and Siadatan were deported after being stopped near the Somali border on suspicion of terrorism-related activity. Aslam travelled back separately.

Inside Petty's luggage was a letter, apparently written by Aslam. It was addressed to his and Lorna Moore's son, saying they would meet again on "The Last Day".

My first born son. My gorgeous boy... I hope one day you will understand why I left and I hope your mummy explains why I had to leave even though I did not want to.

Aslam's 2011 letter in Petty's luggage

'We aren't murderous'

In the summer of 2014, Petty travelled again - this time to Syria. And he was killed before the year was out.

Before he died, he tried to explain to his mother why he had gone.

"I'm not gonna tell you where I am because then every time you hear news about the place you will worry," he said in a series of messages home. "Just know that for now it's Syria. I met some Islamic State brothers and the rest is history.

"We aren't murderous bloodthirsty people. We just came to live under Islamic law and help the oppressed amongst us. Still love you. Hope all is well in Walsall x."

In August 2014 Petty was followed by Isaiah Siadatan, the younger brother of the man who had accompanied him to Kenya. Two weeks later, Sajid Aslam left. He was driven to the airport by Ayman Shaukat - who later took another pair from Walsall, Alex Nash and his wife Yousma Jan.

Image copyright Police handout
Image caption Nash and Yousma Jan on camera at an airport

Nash and Ms Jan, who was pregnant, were arrested in Turkey an hour away from the Syrian border and returned to the UK.

Charges alleging Ms Jan failed to disclose information to the police were dropped after her husband pleaded guilty.

From Walsall to Syria

The men:

  • Jake Petty: Left for Syria July 2014. Killed in fighting
  • Isaiah Siadatan: Left for Syria August 2014. Believed killed
  • Sajid Aslam: Left for Turkey August 2014. Believed to be in Syria, but denies it
  • Alex Nash: Left for Syria August 2014 but turned back and convicted
  • Another man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, believed to be dead

The women:

  • Lorna Moore: Denied failing to disclose information about Aslam'
  • Yousma Jan: Alex Nash's pregnant wife: Charges dropped
  • Kerry Thomason, Siadatan's pregnant wife: Admitted offence
  • Two more couples, who cannot be named for legal reasons

Back in Walsall, two women remained: Aslam's wife Lorna Moore and Siadatan's wife Kerry Thomason. And prosecutors said they were in on the act.

Thomason, a mother of two, was pregnant when Siadatan flew to Turkey. She booked flights for herself and the children but police intervened before she could travel, seizing the family's passports.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Kerry Thomason: Pregnant and threatened by her husband, she admitted assisting his departure

Siadatan then began threatening her, saying he had a "sleeper cell" at his disposal.

"If you don't bring me my kids to the Islamic State, I'll send someone to kill your mum and dad," he warned. "Look I love you but if you think I'll let you bring up my kids in a kuffar [disbelieving] country you are mistaken. Stop being childish and pick up your phone before anything bad happens to your family."

Thomason has since admitted assisting her husband's preparations and will be sentenced at a later date. As for Siadatan - he, like Petty, is now thought to be dead.

Image copyright West Midlands Police
Image caption Ayman Shaukat was convicted at the Old Bailey of helping Aslam

Lorna Moore was the only woman to face trial. She told the jury that Aslam had psychologically controlled her for years, belittling her and leaving her an emotional wreck.

He would pull her hair and thrust her head into the toilet if it wasn't clean enough. She had tried to get an Islamic divorce, but a cleric told her she'd go to hell if she left Aslam.

"The cleric did not even read my letter," she told the trial. "He said that I should be grateful that I was not coming in black and blue and that just because I was a white Muslim did not make me special. I had to accept him back into the house if I wanted to go to paradise. I was devastated."

Moore said that the pair lived separate lives under the same roof. He joined a Muslim dating website - she spent her hours looking after their children and studying to be a maths teacher.

Prosecutors said Moore must have been part of the plan to leave for Syria because there was evidence she was going to leave Walsall.

But on the last day of the trial her mother arrived from Northern Ireland to cast doubt on the prosecution case.

Katherine Moore told the Old Bailey that her daughter had indeed been planning to leave Walsall behind. But she wasn't heading to Syria - but back home to Omagh, where the family farmhouse was being converted to welcome the grandchildren to a new life far away from Aslam.

Police chiefs in the West Midlands say this has been an incredibly difficult case because of the complex issues it raises.

"Islamic State or Daesh are reaching out and wanting women and children and families to go and join them," says Assistant Chief Constable Marcus Beale of West Midlands Police.

"Bringing up children on the streets of Raqqa or some other place over there is just so dangerous and it puts a huge onus and responsibility on the police and other authorities to try and interrupt that travel and keep those children safe - and it is an increasing part of our work."

Two of the women who featured in the Walsall investigation were not, ultimately, tried. But the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that there was sufficient evidence, and it was in the public interest, to charge both Kerry Thomason and Lorna Moore.

"People must come and talk to the authorities at a very early stage where they have concerns or information that suggests that someone is going to try to travel and join Islamic State," says ACC Beale. "This case illustrates that if they don't they are entering criminal territory."

Not everyone agrees with him.

"I would say that this is a case of domestic violence," says Huzna Wahid, a Muslim community worker in Walsall.

"Putting your wife under pressure, making your children go out with her and putting them in this kind of environment - this is nothing to do with Islam."

As for Aslam, he has told his family he is teaching in refugee camps in Turkey. The BBC has contacted him via social media - but he has not responded.

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