Nina Arif is a freelance journalist with an MSc in International Politics. She has produced for the BBC, Al Jazeera, and writes for various online publications. You can follow her on Twitter @nina_arif
Before casting foreign ISIS fighters into legal limbo, shouldn’t we know their stories? Journalist Nina Arif investigates the background of one ISIS fighter – Muthenna Abu Tauba.
With ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi reportedly killed for the fourth time, and the group once again on its knees, the questions remains, what to do with all those foreign fighters?
It’s been a hotly contested issue with the British government opting to revoke the citizenship of people like ISIS bride, Shamima Begum, and more recently, Jihadi Jack (real name Jack Letts).
But revoking citizenships sets a dangerous precedent. As well as dismissing a judicial process which could see fighters who committed crimes bought to justice in their home countries, it also dismisses the backstories of many disenfranchised youth who went to join ISIS in Syria.
One such story is that of a fellow Londoner and ISIS recruit, Muthenna Abu Tauba, who I communicated with over a period of six months back in 2014. He was happy to speak with me – a journalist trying to understand why people joined ISIS.
It was only after his death however, that I got the story he wasn’t prepared to give when he was alive…
ISIS Poster boy
Half Irish, half Nigerian Muslim convert, Muthenna had been all over social media, sometimes posing with an AK47 in romanticised images reeking of staged bravado.
He left behind a “bad” life in London, for a residence in Raqqa where it was “easier not to sin” but was reluctant to discuss his past. When I probed – “let me guess… in your pre-Islam life, you were in a gang of some sort, took drugs and went to jail?” – his reply was “no comment”.
During months of exchanges, Muthenna bombarded me with jihadi propaganda including gruesome “Hollywood-style” execution videos to convince me of the legitimacy of his “jihad”. So, when he finally pressed me for my opinion of him, he was understandably perturbed when I responded, “you’re very young and inevitably you’ll change.”
Despite his initial openness, he ended up becoming standoffish, particularly when I questioned his decision to join ISIS. Something had changed and eventually he told me, “I wouldn’t be the best person to represent IS… I have faults.” Our communication then ended.
By early 2015, Muthenna was dead – killed in an “accident” at a bomb-making factory in Raqqa. I learnt that he had a wife too.
On social media, he was a proud AK47-touting warrior, who travelled to Syria to “liberate Muslims” but ordinarily, he was Peter Joyce, a university student from North London.
After publishing my initial interview with Muthenna in 2014, I hoped someone who knew him would get in touch. But I only heard from one person who told me, “Your profile about him was 100% right – gang member in north London, broken home, drug-user and all-around scumbag.” Peter apparently gang-robbed someone he knew, but that’s all he would say.
I soon found him on the Missing People website and not long after that, I was standing outside the flat he lived in before he left for Syria. It was a small rented apartment above a Chinese takeaway shop in Muswell Hill, North London.
A few people in the area said they recognised his photo, but nothing came of it, until one year later when a message appeared on my phone: “I want to speak to you about Abu Taubah.” I was about to discover the events that paved Peter’s path to Syria.
A childhood in care
Peter was the youngest of identical twin brothers born in Leicester on the 21st of August 1992. They were put into care in London shortly after birth since their Nigerian mother was deemed psychologically unfit to look after them. Their Irish father remained absent for most the boys’ childhood.
“How can somebody deny their own child?” These were Peter’s words to his foster mother, who looked after him until he was 14 and who still hoped Peter was alive when I spoke with her. “He would call me mum. He was a sweet and playful child.”
But as Peter entered his teens, he struggled with his identity. He denied his Irish heritage (his father’s side) and even concocted a story about having a fair-skinned grandmother in order to explain to people why his skin colour was lighter than his foster parents’. “He begged me not to tell anybody that he was in care”, his foster mother said.
“The big man”
In his teens, Peter was coming home late and arguing about money. He wanted to grow up very quickly and be “the big man”, his foster mother said. “One day he arrived home with a new car. I asked him where he got the money from. I told him that with no job, the money must have come from something illegal, like drugs.” But Peter was dismissive. She told me that he also “liked the ladies” – something which almost cost him his life when he was stabbed in the back near his North London school.
“A girl set him up”, an old friend of Peter’s told me, “he went to meet the girl, and someone stabbed him from behind.” Peter ran until he fell unconscious and as he lay in hospital, he begged his foster mother not to tell the medical staff that he was a fostered child. “I think he had an identity crisis”, she said.
At 14, Peter left home and became part of a gang which saw him charged with affray and sent to Feltham Young Offenders Institute. Seven months later, he was acquitted. In court documents about the case, I was uncovering the “bad” past which Peter didn’t want to tell me about. Maybe he was trying to escape from it. Or perhaps he didn’t want it to detract from the heroic image he constructed of himself on social media.
“I knew Peter better than anyone else.” It was surreal meeting Peter’s twin brother – almost physically identical to the ISIS fighter I’d spoken to, yet almost opposite in persona. John spoke softly while he recalled memories of his “bold, aggressive and headstrong” brother, who publicly was “the big man”, but privately, “he had a kind side”.
John was often bullied at school because he has cerebral palsy, but Peter was always protective over his brother. John recalled how one day Peter skipped class after hearing that his brother had his lunch knocked from his hands. “He slapped the kid a few times and then made me punch him too. In school, you have to fight, and you have to win, otherwise everyone will say you’re weak.”
Dean Gray a former pupil at Laycock primary school, which the brothers attended, also reminisced Peter’s protectiveness over John, “he was lovely, family-orientated boy… he would always look after his brother.”
John also shed light on their first foster home experience, “They weren’t treating us right… We were sleeping on a mattress in a room. There were no bed sheets sometimes. They expected us to clean everything, but we were really young, so we didn’t know how to.”
When Peter was 14, he moved out and was subsequently was put into two more foster homes, during which time he had become a gang member. “The reason he went into that type of lifestyle is because he wanted to be accepted. His social group played a part in his upbringing and the violence”, said John.
Regarding their absent father, John told me, “We only started talking to him at the age of 16 or 17… I just wanted to get to know him at that point.” But Peter was angry, telling his brother, “Forget this guy. He’s a wasteman”, although later, he had some limited contact.
Post Feltham YOI
Peter converted to Islam during his time at Feltham and spoke well of Muslims he met in prison, who looked after him. Hesitantly, he told some family members, including his father about his conversion, but his father was dismissive, referring to Islam as a “cult”. Meanwhile John believed that the religion gave Peter some structure which he needed in his life.
Peter moved back to London and began studying A Levels at Southgate College. He was now living alone in the small rented apartment above a Chinese takeaway shop in Muswell Hill. Contact with his family became infrequent and Peter was becoming isolated.
In October 2009, he was detained at Edmonton police station as he was a passenger in a stolen vehicle but the charges against him were dropped. Documents I found referring to the arrest, revealed that Peter believed he’d been unfairly labelled as being part of a gang because of previous events in his life.
After the incident, Peter continued his education embarking on an Architecture degree at Westminster University in Marylebone. John visited Peter a few times at his North London flat. He converted two years after his brother, saying he was attracted to the concept of monotheism in Islam and felt dissatisfied with his Christian upbringing.
In 2013 Peter disappeared. He left his phone charging inside his apartment and one day it started ringing. John answered it, “He told me that he was in Turkey doing aid work” but when John looked up the dialling code, he realised Peter was in Syria.
The story about doing aid work didn’t hold up for long, and although Peter avoided speaking about ISIS, it was clear that he’d joined the group. He denied that he was involved in combat, although he was happy to show off a pistol to John during a Skype video call.
But there were indications that Peter changed his mind, as he would later ask a family member to come and meet him in Turkey. “He realised that he made a bit of a mistake. When you go somewhere, you’re not always sure, you have doubts”, said John.
Another person, who knew Peter, advised him to travel to another country so that he could return to the UK, leaving no trace that he’d been in Syria. He could have done this via Turkey since, “the border was wide open, people were running in and out.” But Peter remained in Syria. “Over time, your mind adapts to the environment. He became more adapted.”
I asked John if he ever challenged his brother when they spoke over the phone. “No, because I didn’t have any knowledge about religion to say anything at that time.” John said that with hindsight, he would have asked his brother to think about the reasons he was going, “I’d ask him who appointed that guy [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] as caliph? Did any of the imams from the four corners of the earth appoint him? Is this actually a genuine state? If you can’t get the answers, you shouldn’t go.”
So, if Peter knew more about Islam, would he still have gone? I wanted to know. “Probably” said John, giving me the impression that Peter just did as he desired. “He made his bed and now he’s lying in it”, John told me. “Muslims are now having to defend themselves because of the actions of people who are less knowledgeable – who are stupid.” He said that his brother was the type of person that would act and then reflect on things later.
Peter once told me that he read and listened to the likes of Anwar Al Awlaki, Osama bin Laden and Abdullah al Faisal, who is currently accused by the USA of recruiting for ISIS. But Peter never met any of those people. He accessed them all online – that was the main source of Peter’s “Islamic knowledge”. He also used the jihadi websites Jihadiology and Kavkaz Center. John said his brother was a secretive person and that he kept his internet activity hidden until he went to Syria.
In 2014, a year after he arrived in Syria, I began my conversations with Peter AKA Abu Taubah. His family learnt of his death only after my article was published – something I found disturbing, but which also signalled to me that while Peter was so engrossed in the online world, he seemed to have very few real-life connections.
“I’m broke, dead broke… this is what happens when we get bored. We start making bullshit videos…” That was the first time I saw Peter speaking. I was being shown a mobile phone video which one of his old friends filmed before Peter left the UK. “I’m bored”, he repeats in the video.
Having had insight into stages of Peter’s life – the childhood instability and neglect, the absence of a father, the identity crisis, the desire to be “the big man”, the isolation, the affiliation with gangs… I saw all the hallmarks of an ideal recruit for ISIS – arguably a larger and better financed gang than most others.
And while John is adamant that his brother’s difficult past isn’t an excuse for his life choices, I’m left wondering, if Peter’s circumstances had been different, would he still have joined ISIS? I also wonder, would he have returned home if he knew the possibility was still open?