Sunday, March 1, 2015

Brits Abroad

[Originally posted at NOW]

What drove an affluent British rapper to behead civilians in Syria?

On July1 , 2013, the 21-year-old British rapper Abd al-Majid Abd al-Bari, better known to his small but growing fan base as “L Jinny,” declared on Facebook that he had produced his final track. “I have left everything,” he said, “for the sake of Allah.”

Thirteen months later, he was posting photos on Twitter of himself holding severed heads in Syria, breezily captioned, “Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him.”

And, earlier this week, he made international headlines when he was reportedly identified by British intelligence as the London-accented Islamic State jihadist speaking in the videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley.

How the evidently talented resident of an estimated £1m ($1.7m) home in London’s elegant Maida Vale district, whose songs had been aired on BBC radio, came to be a member of what US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently described as “a terrorist group […] beyond anything that we’ve seen [before]” appears to be a mystery even to what were formerly his closest friends.

“Can’t believe the dude I lived with for 26 months is now the worlds [sic] most wanted man. What the fuck,” said fellow rapper Proverbz, who had been a member of a three-man group with Bari known as Black Triangle. “People get lost so quickly. So easily. Violence only begets more violence. But still the blood flows and the world never learns. What happened to peace and love. The world needs to smoke more weed and take less notice of old books,” he added.

Asked by NOW why he thought Bari gave up his London life to fight in Syria, the rapper Tabanacle – who was Black Triangle’s third member, and Bari’s collaborator on his final song – would say no more than, “The only man who could help you understand that would be the man L Jinny himself.” NOW contacted more than 10 other artists who had performed alongside Bari, all of whom either declined to comment or did not respond.

Analysts familiar with Bari’s progression from rapper to jihadist described an ambitious but insecure character deeply affected by the figure of his father, Adel Abd al-Bari, an Egyptian arrested in 1998 on suspicion of involvement in the al-Qaeda bombings of American embassies in east Africa the same year. In his song, ‘The Beginning,’ Bari says, “Give me the pride and the honor like my father. I swear the day they came and took my dad, I could have killed a cop or two and I wouldn’t look back. Imagine back then I was only six, picture what I’d do now with a loaded stick.” His father lost his final court appeal in late 2012 and was extradited from London to New York, an event that likely added to Bari’s agitated state of mind.

“I think his father being the figure he was, undoubtedly he had more exposure to those ideas and maybe a clearer understanding of them than others,” said Raffaelo Pantucci, a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute who has followed Bari’s social media activities for over a year.

Aside from references to his father, his lyrics in general often suggested someone wrestling with anger and thoughts of violence. “I got a voice in my head and it’s telling me ‘kill,’ make the choice or you dead, ‘cause your enemies will. Lord, I don’t wanna retaliate, but […] now my feelings are itching to let the ‘matic spray […] Nah, I won’t give in to that, now I’m older and wiser,” he says in one track. In another: “I can’t differentiate the angels from the demons, my heart’s disintegrating, ain’t got normal feelings.”

Bari also made repeated references to “Allah” and his belief, as he phrased it, that “the deen [“religion” in Arabic] is crucial,” even at the same time as he sang of frequent drug and alcohol use. As Pantucci told NOW, though, the above themes are commonplace in rap lyrics, and there was never any explicit reference to events in Syria in Bari’s songs. (He did once write “Long Live Palestine” shortly after the November 2012 Gaza conflict.)

Ultimately, says Pantucci, Bari is only one of perhaps as many as 300 Britons fighting for extremist factions in Syria, and identifying the common factors motivating them to do so is not straightforward.

“[Bari] would undoubtedly say he had a sort of religious moment and saw that there were people suffering and he wanted to help them,” he told NOW. “But the motivations for people to go and do these things are as varied as the people who are going over. There are as many reasons for going as there are people, basically.”

One likely reason the UK is second only to France among European nations in terms of citizens fighting in Syria, says Pantucci, is its granting of political asylum to precisely the sort of militant Islamists Bari’s father stands accused of being.

Going back to the 1960s, Pantucci says, Britain witnessed “a flood of dissidents from the Arab world who set up shop in London. These were everything from political dissidents to Islamists. And among the Islamists, some were Muslim Brotherhood types, and others were affiliated with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. So from that community you started to see the concepts of jihad taking root in the UK, as well as the personal connections” needed to translate the ideology into practice.

The problem, he is quick to add, is by no means limited to Britain. In recent months, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Spaniards, Austrians and Belgians are among some of the nationals discovered to be waging jihad in Syria. “For God’s sake, there’s been a Luxembourger who died fighting in Syria,” he told NOW.

“So it really is a pan-European problem.”

NB: Six months after this article was written, it emerged that the so-called 'Jihadi John' figure from ISIS' videos was in fact not Bari but a Kuwaiti-born Briton named Muhammad Emwazi.

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