Mark Townsend’s gritty and fast-paced book tracks three brothers from Brighton who left Britain to fight in Syria’s jihadist rebellion. It is also a portrait of an immigrant family’s decline with pointillist descriptions of racial hatred, gang violence and police malfeasance. Aided by leaked government documents and interviews with family members, including one of the brothers, Townsend, a journalist at the Observer, follows the brothers’ transformation from bullied Muslim boys to members of a drugs gang to jihadist fighters darting round the mountains of northern Syria. What propelled them? And what, if anything, does their journey have to tell us about Britain?
The Deghayes hailed originally from Libya. The father, Abubaker, fled the brutal rule of Muammar Gaddafi in the mid-1980s. He was descended from a politically engaged family: his father, a trade unionist, headed the secular Baathist opposition to the Gaddafi dictatorship and died in prison. After receiving asylum, Abubaker married a cousin, and the couple settled in Saltdean, a coastal village outside Brighton. They raised their five boys in a country where they believed, as Townsend writes, that “the rule of law was observed.”
Their illusions were soon shattered. The Deghayes experienced “sustained abuse,” documented by various social services. For the five brothers, taunted as “Pakis” and “terrorists” and pelted with food and water at school, walking home was like entering “a war zone.” Mobs sent bricks through their windows. The “police were useless,” even when far-right groups published the family’s address on Facebook. A neo-Nazi established a local chapter expressly to “hound the family” and white supremacists marched through the village in Ku Klux Klan robes. During bad stretches, the family called the police as often as three times a week. Despite all this, in 2009, the year the abuse peaked, Sussex police was the only force in the country that did not register a single incident of religious abuse with the Home Office.
The pretext for persecuting the Deghayes was the public vilification in Brighton of Abubaker’s brother. Omar Deghayes had been sold to the US military in Pakistan in 2002 on false pretences and dispatched to Guantanamo Bay, where he was tortured as an al-Qaeda suspect. After almost six years, the Americans abruptly released him back to the UK without explanation or apology. He was now blind in one eye. In the minds of his impressionable nephews, a continuous line was drawn between British foreign policy in Libya, abuses in the war on terror, racism at home and the failures of the Sussex police.
In early 2011, the family fled Saltdean and moved into a council flat in Brighton. It was here, amid a collapsing ceiling and leaking sewage pipes, that their parents divorced and the boys slouched towards adolescent delinquency, transforming “from bullied children to ringleaders.” They began fighting, shoplifting and building hefty criminal profiles. They were banned from most of the city and its bus network. A social worker noted ominously that it appeared the boys had been “rejected by society.”
By 2012, the brothers were dividing their time between drug-dealing, working out at the mosque gym, and watching the horror show emerging from Syria’s civil war. They were also creative. They wrote film scripts, rap songs and anti-racism videos, and produced a play that toured the south coast and Kingston’s Rose Theatre. But trapped in their endless battles with the authorities, they did not find a reliable outlet for their work. Increasingly certain that life in Britain would offer no meaningful pathways to employment or even basic dignity, the boys were even banned from entering a Morrison’s supermarket. In late 2013, Amer, the eldest brother, decided to travel to Syria, to fight for Islamist rebels against the Assad government. He made the trip with his father on an aid convoy, but then deserted. Two of his younger brothers, Abdullah and Jaffar, followed shortly after.
*** At this point, Townsend’s account begins to lose focus. His reverence for terms like “jihad” and “martyrdom” casts decisions wrapped in politics, racism and intergenerational trauma as driven mostly by religious belief. The boys are never called militants—only jihadists and aspiring martyrs. This is of course more evocative. But to trap yourself within the linguistic register of teenage recruits and the propagandists who seek to mobilise them does not deepen our understanding. At moments, Townsend casts the decision to go to “fight Assad” sympathetically—akin to taking up arms against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War—but these moments lack crucial context. It seems important for the reader to know, for example, that the brothers joined a group that was participating in sectarian massacres.
No Return also unquestioningly accepts the British state’s concept of “radicalisation,” which understands an individual’s embrace of political violence as a clinically observable process, based on a set of factors that span everything from mental health to political, cultural and religious beliefs. The narrative of No Return takes us down the conveyor belt of radicalisation theory: dark changes occur in the minds of the brothers when they watch the requisite videos of the American militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki; then they start bewitching their fellow Brighton gang members until suddenly they are all “radicalised”—and primed to fight in Syria.
The point of the formulaic radicalisation story—in theory—is that it gives a host of public sector workers, from counter-terrorism officials in the Home Office and Special Branch all the way down to GPs, schools, social workers and police, a rubric to follow. Along the way, these institutions mop up intelligence about people who might pose a violent threat to the country, with the formal aim of protecting both the state and crucially the individual from harm. But if the promised safeguarding supports—such as secure housing and job support—don’t materialise, then all we’re left with is a snooping and intelligence operation and deradicalisation programmes come to seem like a ruse. By detailing the wide-ranging security oversight of the Deghayes family, together with the state’s lack of positive intervention, Townsend demonstrates that the government didn’t believe (or at least didn’t act on) half of its own theory, the half which holds that radicalisation can be reversed if the individual is cushioned with enough support and taught better ideas. He doesn’t draw this conclusion himself, even though it is where his own evidence points. He acknowledges that “hardly any teenagers in the country had more contact with the police” than the Deghayes brothers, which was surely the result of tip-offs being passed about, but then proceeds to repeat the dubious government claims that state bodies often choose “not to share intelligence with another.”
Further discrepancies and gaps go unremarked. Townsend speaks to a youth worker called Hanif Qadir who is meant to be “deradicalising” a girl called Rachel in the Deghayes’ gang who had converted to Islam. Rachel speaks openly about wanting to travel to Syria; she received £1,000 in her account from a Syrian bank. Qadir worked closely with the Home Office and counter-terrorism police, a direct conduit of the sort of information that was purportedly being siloed. The Home Office “pulled the plug” on the youth worker’s contract, writes Townsend, because “there was no room in the government’s austerity strategy for bespoke counter-radicalisation services.” That is nonsense. Nearly all state “deradicalisaton” interventions are by nature bespoke. Whether they are effectively run is a different question. (Nabeelah Jaffer wrote about Qadir and his Active Change Foundation for Prospect in 2018.)
The authorities’ handling of the Deghayes’ case matched their subsequent conduct with the three Bethnal Green girls who journeyed to Syria in 2015. In each, local police and counter-terrorism security identified and tightly observed a cohort of young people known to be interacting with militant recruiters, sharing radical online content and discussing travel plans; in both cases, at least one member of the group had already travelled to Syria. But the authorities failed to tell the Bethnal Green girls’ parents that one of their daughters’ friends had absconded to Syria; and one of the Deghayes brothers managed to travel while on a watchlist and another on someone else’s passport.
Was all this incompetence or something more calculated? By letting the Bethnal Green girls and the Brighton brothers go to Syria, the authorities secured a stream of traceable phone and WhatsApp communications at the heart of various militant operations from a jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. These contacts allowed them to track the arrival of other foreign fighters. Townsend documents, as I observed in my own reporting, how police would then regularly confiscate laptops and phones that families and friends used to contact their relatives in Syria. None of this sounds like bungling. It sounds more like cynicism.
Throughout, Townsend is politely exasperated with the state’s counter-terrorism programmes, but he stops short of arguing they are inherently flawed; nor does he offer a true alternative. Like many liberal-minded experts, he sees a need for them—the Home Office must patrol for homegrown terrorism, or activities that might be adjacent to it—and mostly concludes the policies are fine, just shoddily implemented.
But what if the Home Office used the intelligence tools at its disposal to track violent threats without running a programme like Prevent, which has expanded into most aspects of public sector work? Can the nation be protected on the basis of traditional policing and intelligence work, or does it need a policy that understands “radicalisation” as indelibly connected to a specific religious ideology? Is the alienating impact of Prevent on British Muslims, who have reason to fear being snooped on by their youth workers, schools and—who knows—even their doctors, mitigated by its security benefits to the British public? Townsend does not seem interested in these issues, but they are precisely the sort of urgent policy questions thrown up by his book.
*** Another flawed aspect of No Return is its attitude towards vulnerable young women in Brighton caught up in these radical cliques. Using the language of both the Daily Mail and of the caliphate fighter bros who believed sex slaves and multiple wives were their due, Townsend refers throughout to “jihadi brides,” instead of girls who have been trafficked. This language of “jihadi brides” has entrenched so many unreliable assumptions about the motives of the British citizens who travelled to Syria—to say nothing of the agency of those trafficked. The government, content to let the newspapers conduct their own show trials, now says it cannot repatriate even British women and children stranded in displacement camps in Syria because the public could not stomach it. These include Shamima Begum, one of the Bethnal Green girls. If Rachel in No Return had managed to leave Brighton for Syria, she would have been a troubled teenage girl recruited by an armed group for child marriage and sexual exploitation. If she had happened to have a Bangladeshi or Pakistani parent, she would have had her British citizenship stripped, and been left to rot in the desert. A decade from now, this will be a moral blight to rank with extraordinary rendition; but until then, well, jihadi brides.
The Deghayes case, Townsend argues, “revolutionised a new mindset, fundamentally changing the mechanics of the government’s flagship Prevent programme” and “challenged the understanding of radicalisation.” But the changes he cites—towards a multi-agency approach and the notion that “radicalisation” is bound up with social vulnerabilities—had been woven into the whole Prevent project from the off.
More discerning is his argument that “a strategy based on hoping that no one asks difficult questions prevents the answers being found.” The lengths to which the government goes to obscure its own conduct makes pursuing those questions very difficult. Townsend tells us about the conclusions of Fiyaz Mughal, “director of an interfaith organisation,” who was asked to provide “independent scrutiny” of the inquiry into what went wrong with community integration in the city. Mughal muses about a lack of “social cohesion, a sense of unity” and Townsend, who skips on telling us that Mughal’s outfit is funded by the Home Office, protests that no one drilled down into “the issues, the ignorances, the injustices that caused the problem.” That is strictly true, but far from the whole truth.
Two of the Deghayes brothers, Abdullah and Jaffar, both died on the battlefield in 2014, age 18 and 17 respectively. Towards the end of the book, Townsend makes a poignant plea for a third, Amer, who now lives in the fiercely contested Syrian city of Idlib as a “freelance jihadist,” to be allowed to return home. Amer is, says Townsend, a sort of “Corbynista” who would pose little security threat.
The family’s tragedy has deep roots. Amer’s father Abubaker, the brother of a man tortured in Guantanamo and the father of two other sons killed in Syria, said in 2014: “I tell you that their grandfather was also killed by Gaddafi for refusing to bow down. My father’s grandfather was killed by the fascists, the Italians trying to colonise his country. So where do you point the finger? Is it to the first grandfather? Or to my father? Or to my brother? This is life.”