A British Muslim convert from east London is fighting on the front line of the battle for Aleppo after joining rebels in their struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
While he refused to give his real name, he agreed to speak to The Daily Telegraph in a field hospital behind the front line in the contested Aleppo suburb of Salaheddin. The Londoner, who called himself “Abu Yacoub” — father of Jacob — is the first proven case of a Briton being where the fighting is fiercest in Syria. He was with an Iraqi friend, Hassan, who had received a minor bullet wound in the leg, and was taking him to the field hospital for treatment.
He disclosed that he had converted to Islam five years ago and had arrived in Syria earlier this year to join the revolutionary forces seeking to overthrow President Assad. “I will stay here until I die,” he said. “I want to die in Syria. We must all taste paradise, and when that happens is decided already.”
Clearly nervous at being discovered by a reporter, he spoke in an accent that was a mixture of East London and a jokey version of gangster rap and said he came from Walthamstow. “The name I give might be a lie,” he said, when calling himself Abu Yacoub. “Everything I say might be a lie.”
He mixed humour with smiling threats, feigning joy at meeting a fellow Londoner with attempts to have reporters thrown out of the clinic. He began to chat about Hackney and Walthamstow, but then suddenly stopped. He appeared uninterested in the Olympics.
Abu Yacoub said he arrived in Syria four months ago. “I came to help the people here,” he said.
“Allah knows,” he said, when asked whether he was married, and other details of his personal life. But he said that his mother, although she was Christian, knew where he was and what he was doing and was “cool” with it. “She is a good woman,” he said.
The Daily Telegraph has since learnt that he was born in Tanzania but came to Britain as a child. He refused to allow himself to be photographed, adding with a laugh: “If you take a photograph maybe it’s very bad for your reputation. Maybe you will die tomorrow.”
John Cantlie, a freelance journalist who was kidnapped briefly by a group of international jihadists who seized the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last month, said some of his captors had British accents.
The role of foreign fighters is hotly disputed in rebel ranks. One story — possibly apocryphal — is that two Indian Muslim jihadists who arrived in Homs saying they wanted to die for Allah were immediately sent by secular FSA leaders to attack one of the toughest checkpoints in the city. The checkpoint was destroyed and the two men were killed, which meant, said the secular activist who told the story, that everyone was happy.
Watching “Abu Yacoub” and Hassan return laughing to the front, one Syrian fighter at the hospital snarled. “Why have they come here?” he said. “We don’t need them. They come for jihad but some of them are extremists and here in Syria we are not extremists.”