Sometimes I think about how guys I used to eat chicken and fries with became cannon fodder for Osama bin Laden. They were once ordinary men not so different from me; most of them would be in their late 30s or early 40s by now. Some of them were killed in drone strikes, others were incarcerated or are still on the run. I often wonder if they would take the same decisions again if they had the chance, if they would insist their sacrifices were worth the blood price.
I first encountered Zeeshan Siddiqui while he was doing his ablutions in the bathroom of a college in Richmond in west London. He had his foot placed under a tap in the sink. In those days, even a routine act of piety was rare to see in kids our age, and I remember being impressed by his dedication to Islam. Like me, he was only 17, but already he seemed to be on a path of righteousness, while the rest of us were on a path of youthful profligacy. It wasn’t just Zeeshan’s devotion that made him stand out, it was also his style: He smelled of white musk cologne and wore his work clothes — a Tesco supermarket shirt — even when he wasn’t on the job, together with a Nike baseball cap that he had defaced by scribbling out the swoosh emblem with a felt-tip pen. There was something bird-like about the way he carried himself, and in my own mind, that was how I came to regard him: the birdman. He even liked to climb trees just so he could watch birds. After that day in the bathroom, I kept bumping into him and was always struck by his self-assured way. We craved popularity and cool in the form of girls and cheap cigarettes, but he had no time for the ephemeral. While we wanted to be like everyone else, the birdman thrived on being different.
A few years later, in 1999, I met Zeeshan again while we were both undergraduate students. I was at Queen Mary University of London and he was at SOAS University of London, where I occasionally used the library to do some research on the Crusades. The birdman had not changed a bit. He still wore the same clothes, still made some incredibly innocent remarks that verged on naiveté. Among my friends at that time, there was a consensus that he was a gentle and endearing soul. He always seemed to be freezing cold but never bought himself new clothes; instead, I was told, he gave all his money to charity and suffered with equanimity. It was only natural that we felt protective toward him. Zeeshan was intelligent, but he wasn’t the best student. He always seemed to be behind in his studies and in a permanent state of trying to catch up as deadlines came and went. His main interest lay not in academia but in student politics of the Islamist kind. Although he had enrolled to study Arabic at SOAS, Zeeshan was already distracted by the ideas that would prove to be his undoing.
He began to turn up at my house and try to recruit me to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a nonviolent but radical Islamist group formed in Jerusalem in the 1950s. Its ultimate ambition was to reestablish the caliphate through grassroots activism. In the U.K. it seemed relatively harmless, and to this day it has never been declared illegal here, but governments in the Middle East have accused it of trying to foment military coups. Hizb-ut-Tahrir had a small but vocal following in London at that time. I must admit that I couldn’t understand the appeal. I came from a family familiar with Islam and Marxism, and when I was around 11 years old, one of my uncles had expounded the virtues of communism to me. As far as I was concerned, Zeeshan’s Hizb-ut-Tahrir spiel sounded just like an Islamic version of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In truth, I wasn’t even sure he was convinced of the group’s ideas himself. After all, he was also a Salafi, and Salafis had often stood in opposition to Hizb-ut-Tahrir on campus on obscure theological positions. Zeeshan, though, was able to reconcile these different aspects of his Islam by telling himself that the unity of the Pan-Islamic ummah mattered more than doctrine.
Later on, Zeeshan developed a bond with a close friend of mine, Lamine Adam, a British Algerian I met at Queen Mary. Only a few people I knew studied liberal arts, especially history, while the rest of them were more interested in science and mathematics. From my perspective, that made them dull; they looked at the world in binary terms of black and white, good and bad, believer and infidel. But Lamine was the exception to this. He was studying something to do with computers, but he was also intellectually curious and enjoyed reading Plato and Voltaire. It was this love of books that initially brought us together.
Lamine and I became so close that he would sometimes stay over at my place to talk about religion and politics, as well as the more trivial matters that concerned restless young men. At times, I visited his home and got to know his kind and generous family. Lamine was the son of an exile from the Algerian civil war, which had ripped apart the country in the 1990s, and his views of the injustices that occurred there colored his wider understanding of Islam. He had become devout a few years earlier, at around the age of 15, when he attended some Salafi study circles in East London. When we first met, he liked to go to events run by Manwar Ali, who was also known as Abu Muntasir. Ali had fought in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and was an associate of the former Afghan mujahedeen leader Mawlawi Jamil-ur-Rahman. Lamine encouraged me to join him at these events, but my temperament wasn’t suited to Salafism, and I always turned him down.
It was actually through Lamine that I first learned about Bin Laden. Back then, the al Qaeda leader’s generosity was as well known as his violent ideas. He was a guy who seemed to put his money where his mouth was, flying in diggers to build tunnels for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and making roads in Sudan to benefit the Pan-Islamic nation. Lamine gave me an audio cassette titled “In the Hearts of Green Birds” and a VHS video called “the Martyrs of Bosnia,” both about foreign volunteers who died fighting in the name of jihad in Bosnia. The video ended with an image of Bin Laden, who was regarded as a Robin Hood-type figure on the international Islamist scene, smiling benignly like a saint. Lamine also introduced me to azzam.net and qoqaz.net, two websites that opened up the concept of jihadism to British Muslims and later served as a model for the way jihadists distributed and managed their internet propaganda. Even now, some of the material from those two old websites is still popular online.
The more I think about that time in London, the more pivotal it seems to everything that came later: 9/11, 7/7, the war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State group. The generation of young men I grew up alongside were wrestling with their own identities. None of us were at peace. We all wondered why we were called “Pakis” and “niggers” on the street, why we were defined by the color of our skin regardless of how we behaved. We didn’t feel we belonged anywhere, so we began to look around, beyond our normal horizons. Soon we started to ask why the world was sitting idly by while innocent people were being killed in Chechnya and Bosnia.
I was lucky, however. I had a background in the arts, felt apolitical and had a cultured Bengali mother who exposed me to music and literature. From an early age, she told me that the essence of Islam was the spirit or the soul and that the soul had to pursue shanti, a concept that roughly equates to inner peace. In many ways, it is not unsimilar to the inner peace that Shi-Fu teaches in “Kung Fu Panda.” My friends and their families were not bad people, but they had different backgrounds that left less room for nuance. Faced with Islamist slogans that seemed to answer those questions, they fell for ideas I distrusted. Everything they came to believe in went against that beautiful concept of shanti my mother taught me to embrace. They nurtured anger, hatred and inner turmoil, while I sought inner tranquility.
The university I attended was a hub for Islamist activity. The Queen Mary prayer room attracted all sorts of ideologies and doctrines from the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb-ut-Tahrir to Salafism. Tablighis, Sufis and jihadists all gathered there. It was, of course, fine if you just wanted to pray, but if you were involved in the university politics of the Islamic Society, there were issues. Hizb-ut-Tahrir wanted to set the agenda, and the Salafis were always wary of them. Then there were what I think of as the “super-Salafis,” who were obsessed with picking over obscure ideas about God’s characteristics. The Friday sermons were fraught with tension as each side tried to push their beliefs on other Muslims who just wanted to get on with their prayers. Most of it was just talk, but there was a serious aspect to it all as well. I remember Lamine pointing out a jihadist to me, a man who was only a few years older than us but was already a veteran of Bosnia and had even appeared in grainy propaganda videos exhorting youth to go to fight there. Some of the students revered him as a great warrior. These days, I bump into him occasionally in Croydon, south London, at fairs and barbecues. He’s a family guy with a potbelly who seems more concerned with the burger meat being thoroughly cooked than jihad.
I don’t know who influenced whom, but Lamine and Zeeshan seemed like kindred spirits on and off campus. Both of them attended the Tooting Circle — a study circle in south London that had a reputation for sending fighters to Afghanistan. Lamine even took me to the circle once or twice. The meetings were held in a community hall, with 15 or so young men sitting around with toothpicks in their mouths. To be honest, I found the circle quite dull. I also didn’t like the fact that these young, inexperienced students were contemptuous toward a group of Sufis who gathered on the floor below. A reverence for Sufism was in my mother’s milk. Bangladesh became Muslim because of Shah Jalal, a Sufi saint from Hadhramaut in Yemen. I was raised on stories about the Persian Sufis Beyazid Bistami and Abdul Qadir Gilani, so I found it deeply troubling to hear my friends talk about Sufism as if it were heretical. They had neither the right nor the scholarly credentials to decide what constituted authentic Islamic practice. After those few meetings, I never went back. Zeeshan and Lamine, however, kept on attending.
My friends’ ideas seemed harmless enough at first. I thought they were playing at being jihadists and would move on as they grew up. As the English poet George Chapman once wrote, “Young men think old men are fools; but old men know young men are fools.” As the thoughts and words of my friends started to take on a darker tone, we hung out less and less. Zeeshan in particular became more and more extreme, falling under the influence of clerics like Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal, a Jamaican-born convert to Islam who had moved to the U.K. in the 1980s. Even in those days, el-Faisal loved to declare other Muslims heretics and espoused the killing of infidels. He was later deported from the U.K. after being convicted of solicitation for murder and stirring up racial hatred. In a few short years, then, Zeeshan had gone from being the birdman at my college to talking like a proto-Islamic State combatant and espousing “takfir,” the excommunication of other Muslims. There was no reasoning with him on those issues, and we became more distant. Then 9/11 happened and all our lives irrevocably changed. Zeeshan and Lamine went off to fight in the wars that followed, while I continued to pursue my ambitions to be a writer; the pen, as they say, is mightier than the sword.
All of these thoughts came back to me recently when I read a new book, “The Bin Laden Papers,” by the Lebanese-American academic Nelly Lahoud. An analysis of thousands of documents seized by U.S. Special Forces in the raid that killed the Qaeda leader in 2011, it is a superb piece of research. And although it doesn’t directly concern any of my old university friends, the book felt to me like an epitaph for their wasted lives. Lahoud shows that Bin Laden claimed to have conceived of the 9/11 plot after hearing about an Egyptian pilot who deliberately crashed EgyptAir flight 990 into the Atlantic Ocean off the U.S. coast in 1999, killing 217 people. The pilot’s motives have never been clearly established. Bin Laden’s claim goes against the common theory that Khaled Sheikh Mohammed came up with the idea for 9/11 after another plan for a mass hijacking — known as the Bojinka plot — failed.
Interestingly, the book also gives us a new take on Bin Laden’s attitude toward the Taliban. The papers show that he derided the wider Taliban movement before 9/11 for being too focused on Afghanistan’s political machinations and not caring enough about the transnational Muslim ummah. But there does appear to have been a mutual feeling of trust and affection between Bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. This continued even after 9/11, leading Lahoud to theorize that 9/11 must have happened with some sort of support from Omar. Lahoud even speculates that Omar may have given his tacit blessing to the attacks because the U.S. had not invaded Afghanistan after al Qaeda suicide bombers hit the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. According to Lahoud, Bin Laden himself notes that “there was no opposition from the Taliban, or at least it wasn’t clear” to these two earlier attacks.
In the years after 9/11, Bin Laden seemed to fade into irrelevance, hiding out in the town of Abbottabad, Pakistan, more or less cut off from the world. But perhaps it is more accurate to say that his organization metastasized. He now had young acolytes like my former friends Zeeshan and Lamine to do what was needed without any direct instruction from him. Al Qaeda had split into various global franchises that operated on their own accord, threatening not only the West but also the governments of Muslim countries.
Lamine and Zeeshan both dropped out of university after 9/11 and worked for the London Underground, the city’s metro system. Lamine shaved off his magnificent beard, perhaps because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. Zeeshan faded from my life until one night he turned up on my doorstep shivering, asking if he could borrow a backpack and some clothes. He told me he would return everything in a few weeks. I thought it was an odd request but knew his increasingly abrasive attitude had been testing the patience of his family and assumed he had been kicked out of his house. I still thought of him as an old friend, albeit an estranged one, and gave him what he needed. I never saw him again. Only later did I learn that he took my belongings all the way to Pakistan, where, in 2003, he attended paramilitary training courses with one of Lamine’s brothers, Abdur Rahman.
At this point, I traveled to the Middle East to look after a family member. Then I fell in love with the region and decided I wanted to study Arabic and pursue my dreams of being a writer. To me, the search for truth and knowledge, not violence, seemed like the best answer to the questions we all had as young men. On a break back in the U.K., I remember bumping into Abdur Rahman. To my surprise, he was clean-shaven and had changed his name to Anthony Garcia. He gave me an implausible story about wanting to become a model; it was implausible because he certainly didn’t have the looks of a model. I also found it hard to believe that a kid who used to share beheading videos from Chechnya with his friends at university now wanted to be some kind of fashion icon. I was right to be suspicious. I later learned through news reports that Garcia had actually returned from Pakistan with the intention of blowing up one of London’s most famous nightclubs, the Ministry of Sound, and the Bluewater shopping mall with a fertilizer bomb. He was jailed for life in the U.K. in April 2007. The month after Abdur Rahman’s sentencing, Lamine and another of his brothers, Ibrahim, fled the U.K. for the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan. The British government had already deemed them to be potential terrorist threats and issued control orders to restrict their movements. Now, however, they were on the run.
Some of the most interesting parts of “The Bin Laden Papers” are the details about Pakistan. Although there is no suggestion that rogue elements within Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency were harboring Bin Laden, there appears to have been contact among al Qaeda, the ISI and the Taliban. One senior member of al Qaeda is said to have sent messages to the ISI through Sirajuddin Haqqani, Afghanistan’s current minister of interior, expressing the view that al Qaeda had no enmity toward the Pakistan state. Yet the papers also show there was no grand conspiracy behind 9/11 or the war in Afghanistan that followed. Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia appear to have genuinely believed that it was in their national interests to side with the U.S. ever since the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in east Africa. For my old friend Zeeshan, that decision had massive repercussions.
After fleeing to the Pakistan border areas with my backpack, he linked up with the Taliban, only to be treated appallingly by a local commander. According to a source of mine who was with him at the time, the commander sold him in 2005 to the Pakistani authorities in exchange for a sack of rice. Held in Pakistani custody for several months, Zeeshan was allegedly tortured before being deported back to the U.K. in early 2006, despite not being charged with any terrorism-related offenses. In Britain, he was put under the same control order as our mutual friend Lamine. He was also placed in the mental health unit at West Middlesex University Hospital in London after suffering flashbacks and hallucinations. When I later read extracts from his diary in a BBC article, I didn’t recognize the young man I had first seen doing his ablutions with one foot in the college sink. He came across as extremely disturbed and angry, and it was hard to know how much of that was down to ideological indoctrination and how much of it was because of the torture he endured in Pakistan.
By the time the 7/7 bombings happened here in London in 2005, both men were being connected to the attacks. I remember reading it in the papers and not quite believing it could be true. It didn’t sound like Lamine, who used to hold friendly conversations in the West Brompton underground station with all sorts of people. Sometimes we’d talk for hours as he stood around the gate, letting customers through as part of his job. How could this man have any connection to such a heinous act? I knew nothing of Zeeshan’s fate except what I read in the papers — that he had escaped detention in September 2006 and was never heard from again. A source told me years later that a British Libyan man had harbored him for several years in the U.K. and that Zeeshan even taught his children the Quran. He eventually made his way to Somalia and the territory of the militant group al-Shabab. There, according to one source, he was killed around 2012, purportedly by a U.S. drone strike. I still find it unbelievable that my friend, who used to enjoy climbing trees to watch the birds, ended up with al-Shabab.
“The Bin Laden Papers” offers an intriguing insight into the effectiveness of U.S. drone operations from the perspective of al Qaeda. It is clear that the strikes stopped al Qaeda fighters from moving around the tribal areas with the same freedom they once enjoyed, but there must still be serious questions about the ethics of their use. In 2008, the CIA began to use drones to deliberately target Westerners on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Ibrahim, the gangly younger brother of my friend Lamine, was killed in one of these strikes in November 2011. He was in the Shawal Valley, North Waziristan, at the time. The strike also killed two other Britons, Mohammed Azmir Khan and his brother, Abdul Jabbar, who were both members of the U.K.-based extremist group Al-Muhajiroun. They had reportedly fought alongside the Taliban against coalition forces in Afghanistan. Britain’s closest ally, the U.S., was then deliberately killing British citizens.
As for Lamine, the Western press has placed him in numerous locations, including with al Qaeda in the Maghreb. The rumors I’ve heard suggest that — older and perhaps wiser — he wanted a quiet life and yearned for a small farm where he could raise his family and pursue his passion for books. But he couldn’t rest in peace. Perhaps he was haunted by the people he hurt. Instead, he went to Syria to join young Britons who wanted to fight their generation’s jihad, much like he once had. I must admit that there is a part of me that still wants to sit on a carpet and drink sweet mint tea with him; part of me wants to ask him if he found what he was looking for, if he thinks his sacrifice was worth it. If he ever thinks about Al Qaeda’s victims. Now he has jangled his saber and followed his ideas, does he still believe he made the right decisions even after so many souls have perished? But whether he is alive or dead, I suspect that the Lamine I once knew is no more. That, I suppose, is the legacy of Bin Laden.