With access to a smartphone used by three British men, who joined the Islamic State (IS), and went to war in Syria, a BBC journalist investigated the reasons that led them to join this path.
An estimated 900 people have already left the UK to join the extremist organization or other similar groups.
The group that calls itself the Islamic State was responsible for about 14,000 deaths. To this day, many Brits who went to fight for ISIS remain missing.
In the aftermath of the war in Syria, where the group has a strong presence, a Syrian who worked for the British newspaper Sunday Times got a hard drive that contained files from a smartphone.
The photos, videos and screenshots portray the lives of British men who left their homes and crossed continents to fight alongside insurgents.
One of these cases is that of Choukri Ellekhlifi. The young man grew up in London and was involved in violent crime before joining EI. At 22, his life ended in Syria.
A video to which the BBC journalist had access shows Choukri in northern Syria: a young man full of exuberance, who enjoys doing a somersault in the pool.
The record could represent a moment in any young person’s vacation around the world, but in this case, Choukri was doing something very different: posed with a gun.
Later, Choukri was filmed doing a parody of nature commentary in the style of British naturalist David Attenborough (famous for lending his voice to natural history programmes).
In another situation, it shows the young person participating in a weapons training.
According to the BBC, EI’s online videos used to be movie-like. They even make reference to popular culture, including the violent video games which are famous, according to academic Javier Lesaca, who studied more than 1,500 advertising videos for the group.
But this content offers a different view of life in the so-called caliphate.
in turn, too Mehdi Hassan, another young Brit, appears in ISIS videos.
Unlike Choukri, this young man was not involved in crimes before joining EI.
Mehdi traded his life in Portsmouth, southern England, for an untimely death in Syria. His mother explained that Mehdi was part of a “working, middle-class family” and said she saw him change suddenly the year he received his high school test results.
Mehdi had studied at a private Catholic school and gotten good grades, but he wanted to be the best in his class. According to his mother, it was in the year that the young man studied more to improve his grades, that your view of the world has changed.
The shift in perspective is documented on Mehdi’s social media. At first, his online profile didn’t attract attention, but over the course of a few weeks he started to share more about the Quran lessons (holy book of Islam) and on its vision of international politics.
A few months later, Mehdi was captured by airport security cameras on his way to Syria.
From there, he continued to share images and videos on social media, conducting Q&A sessions for everyone interested in following his path. The recruit then became a recruiter.
Nafees Hamid, a neuroscientist who has studied the brains of violent extremists, believes having beliefs challenged by peers is the key to deradicalization.
Throughout his time in Syria, Mehdi kept in touch with family and friends in Portsmouth. However, the young Brit never returned home. He died in Syria, near the Turkish border, and his final location suggests he might be preparing to leave ISIS behind.
It is believed that all the men who appear in the videos are already dead. Many others are still missing.