The Isis Social Network: From the Manchester Bomber to Sharia4holland-How Western Terrorists Become Radicalised

By Maher, Shiraz | New Statesman (1996), June 2, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Isis Social Network: From the Manchester Bomber to Sharia4holland-How Western Terrorists Become Radicalised


Maher, Shiraz, New Statesman (1996)


We are learning ever more about Salman Abedi, the terrorist who walked into the Manchester Arena and killed 22 other people, including ten in their teens or younger. From the moment Abedi detonated his device on 22 May, it was clear this was a more sophisticated and ambitious plot than most previous acts of terrorism on our shores. He was not acting alone.

Since 2013, along with several colleagues from King's College London, I have mapped the flow of foreign fighters travelling to Syria and Iraq. It has become clear to us, having closely examined these clusters, looking at the networks of interpersonal relationships and offline socialisation, that the challenge facing this country is complex and diverse.

What the data shows is that real-world interactions play a highly significant role in the process of someone moving from merely supporting extremism to becoming a terrorist.

It is best to think of this in the following terms. A large pool of people consumes extremist content for all sorts of reasons--by accident, for professional purposes, out of curiosity or through experimentation. Significantly smaller numbers then subscribe to it ideologically and become active supporters. An even smaller proportion mobilises and either travels abroad for terrorist purposes or conducts attacks at home.

The testimony of Jake Bilardi, an Australian convert who joined Islamic State at the age of 17, brings this into sharp relief. A self-published account on his blog reveals that he wanted to join IS for several months but was thwarted because he "hit one key roadblock, how was I to get in? I had no contacts to assist me. After failed attempts at finding a contact I gave up all hope of making hegira [migrating: in this case to Syria]."

He then decided to launch a series of bomb attacks in Melbourne; these he never carried out, but he eventually found a way into Syria. Within months of doing so, he became a suicide bomber for IS, blowing himself up in Ramadi, Iraq, in March 2015.

Bilardi's case underscores the importance of real-world networks, which often help the transition into terrorism. This is why we see concentrations of fighters emerging from specific locations. A small cluster of people from the Manchester areas of Chorlton, Moss Side and Fallowfield, the area where Abedi was raised, have joined IS. Pull at the threads of his connections and a worrying picture emerges.

Abedi knew and was linked to perhaps one of the worst young men from Britain to have joined IS, Raphael Hostey, who took the nom deguerre Abu Qaqa al-Britani (it is worth pointing out that two British fighters took this name and they are frequently confused by the media). Even by IS's depraved standards, Hostey was particularly doctrinaire and sadistic.

Within weeks of arriving in Syria, towards the end of 2013, Hostey was shot in the foot while fighting in Deir az-Zour province. His recovery was slow, involving multiple operations in makeshift field hospitals run by IS surgeons.

Unable to fight, Hostey was confined to the back room. There he concentrated on propaganda, recruitment and inspiring attacks at home, something that suited his personality, as he fancied himself as an intellectual of sorts.

He was part of a network of fighters from Manchester, including Anil Raoufi and Mohammed Javeed. The group travelled to Turkey together after Javeed's elder brother, Jamshed, gave them 1,400 [pound sterling] to buy tickets. Jamshed Javeed was arrested for trying to join IS, too, after his family called the police.

Hostey's group is connected to two more, one from Portsmouth and the other from Cardiff. The Portsmouth cluster was led by Ifthekar Jaman, who became the most prolific and significant IS recruiter in the country. Without him, the other prospective jihadis from Portsmouth, Cardiff and Manchester would probably have found it much harder to make the journey. …

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