How could a nice young British boy do a thing like this? That is what people said when a British man cut the head off Daniel Pearl in 2002. It was what they said when our British men boarded the London tube trains and blew up their fellow passengers in 2005. It was what they said when a young British student tried to detonate a bomb over Detroit in 2009. And it is what they asked again earlier this month when Abdul Waheed Majeed, a 41-year-old man from Crawley, West Sussex, turned out to have become a suicide bomber in Syria. The strange thing is that a lot of people seem no closer to any kind of answer.
Abdul Waheed Majeed had gone through a story so similar to every previous story that you wonder how wilfully deaf some people must be, or whether there has been a significant section of the press and political class who have simply not been paying attention in recent years.
Because it turns out that Majeed was once a member of the now-proscribed British extremist group, al-Muhajiroun. This is a group that has been linked to more terrorist charges in the UK than any other group, including al-Qaeda. Al Muhajiroun's current de facto leader (since being banned, they operate under a shifting array of names) – Anjem Choudary – has said that Majeed worked as a driver for the former leader of the group, Omar Bakri Mohammad, by helping ferry him to and from his talks. Alas in those days he seems never to have had the urge to blow up the vehicle.
Abdul Waheed Majeed (left), of Crawley, England, poses for photographs moments before driving a truck-bomb into a prison in Aleppo, Syria. (Image source: Jabhat al-Nusra video)
Like many of the members of al-Muhajiroun, Majeed had been a subject of interest to the British authorities over a lengthy period. It has transpired that he attended a talk by the extreme Islamist preacher Abu Hamza (now residing in an American prison after an apparently all-too-brief period in a British one). He had also been involved in weapons caches in Pakistan and been associated with a plot to blow up the Bluewater shopping center in Kent in 2004, as well as having been associated with the 2005 London bombers. And at some point he connected with people who were, in fact, working for law-enforcement in the US.
Then he went to Syria. In the first days of February, 2014, he got into a truck loaded with explosives and drove it into a prison in Aleppo. His last moments can be seen on video. The explosion rocked the nearby area and resulted in the escape of almost 300 prisoners. The attack was large enough to have made headlines even in the morass of tired international coverage of Syria's bloody and hard-to-end civil war.
Of course Anjem Choudary has already praised Majeed: "He was a good father, a family man who was dedicated to make sure all his actions were based on the [religious] texts," he has said. Since the revelation of his links with other British extremists, British police have searched the homes of a number of people, including the brother of one of the Bluewater shopping centre plotters and the home of a man thought to have been involved in trips to Syria.
Of course you can add to this whole picture another portion that is utterly predictable: Majeed had attended extremist meetings. And it turns out that the mosque in Crawley that he attended has itself been investigated by the Charity Commission for apparent financial irregularities. Although the Crawley Islamic Centre and Mosque is a registered charity, for three years in a row it has failed to file any accounts, and was then subjected to a Charity Commission investigation.
All of which is so par for the course that it would hardly be worth mentioning, if it were not for what this attack in Aleppo tells us about Britain. The fact evidently is that many people from around the world have travelled to Syria to fight on one side or other of this vicious, sectarian war. What is noteworthy is that there is precisely nothing in the profile of Majeed that would suggest that he would not at some point take part in an operation of violence. We might be happy that he did not carry out his attack in Britain, or we might feel shame that a British man should go out and carry out an attack in another country, but what we should not be is at all surprised. It seems as if we have been lying to ourselves.
All the time, we have been pretending that a process of "extremism" could happen to anyone. We talk about "alienation" and "counter-narratives." We hear people amazed at each turn at the "Britishness" of the culprits. We were amazed that the 2005 bombers played in cricket teams and ate fish and chips. We wonder that someone could come from the sleepy town of Crawley and go by self-detonating in Aleppo. Yet, amid all the pretend bafflement and shock, there is a more serious truth that sits unaddressed -- and it is not about the sport they like or the food they enjoy. It is also not about the sleepiness or otherwise of the town which they inhabit. And it certainly has nothing whatsoever to do with the country in which they happen to have spent most, or all, of their lives.
It is purely and solely about the extremist religious ideology which they have inhaled -- so predictable, so by rote, one could have written the career trajectory of Abdul Waheed Majeed on a napkin ten years ago. Yet we continue to express surprise. And in that is a problem not just for the world at large, and any particular battle-ground of jihad, but a problem for us. When you continue to be surprised by the obvious, it is clear that the obvious must be a problem for you. If we cannot see what is happening, it seems likely that we simply do not want it to be happening. But apparently not enough to try to stop it from happening. "Oh my, have you heard, another suicide bomber from West Sussex." Now why would that be?