UK: Jury finds Muslim trio guilty of helping friend travel to Syria

Three young men are facing jail for helping a teenage jihadi follow in his big brother’s footsteps and join fighters in Syria.

Kristen Brekke, Adeel Ulhaq and Forhad Rahman were found guilty at the Old Bailey in London of playing their part in the plan to get Aseel Muthana to the war-torn country.

Muthana was just 17 when he left home in Cardiff in February 2014 to join the ranks of Islamic State (ISIS) and has not returned.

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The trial threatened to out the teenager as gay with lawyers arguing text message exchanges between Muthana and Rahman could lead to the former being ‘thrown from a building or stoned to death’ if ever seen by his fellow terrorists.

His older brother Nasser Muthana, whom he idolised, had travelled there with four other men from Cardiff three months before, the court heard.

All three defendants played different roles in their mission to help Muthana achieve his goal to reach Syria and all but Brekke expressed a desire to follow suit, the court heard.

Rahman was key in funding Muthana’s trip, Ulhaq had good contacts in Syria and gave practical advice while Brekke helped purchase kit and let the teenager use his computer.

Muslim convert Brekke, 20, had been good friends with Muthana since they worked together at an ice cream parlour called Ice Cream Passion in Cardiff.

The prosecution said he was well aware of his aim, and cited the evidence of a home-made video of the pair posing with an imitation gun on Asda Hill, so called because it overlooks an Asda superstore, above Cardiff.

Brekke, who did not know his co-defendants before, gave a variety of explanations for his stash of gear, including claims they were impulse buys and he was preparing for a camping trip to the Brecon Beacons.

The once patriotic Welsh schoolboy converted to Islam while a teenager at Fitzalan High School because many of his friends were Muslim.

Muthana became fast friends with Rahman online and sent him the video clip from Asda Hill in which he proclaimed: ‘If you are watching this, I’m probably dead or I’m probably a legend or something.’

The pair met up in London and exchanged affectionate messages referring to each other as ‘cutie’, ‘honey’ and ‘babe’, a court heard.

He knew at the time he helped Muthana that it was dangerous in Syria as two months before, his acquaintance Iftekhar Jaman was killed in battle.

Muthana was a ‘young man quite determined to follow in his elder brother’s footsteps by going to fight in Syria,’ Annabel Darlow QC, prosecuting, told the Old Bailey.

Rahman helped Muthana get a replacement passport and paid for coach ticket from Cardiff to Gatwick airport and for his plane ticket.

Muthana simply went to the Passport Office in Newport and obtained a replacement, claiming that his old one had been accidentally thrown out with some junk mail.

Ms Darlow QC had told jurors that all three defendants shared the same ‘highly-radical ideology’ and support for waging war in Syria.

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Two of the defendants, Rahman and Ulhaq, were part of a network of friends online who were committed to the violent struggle.

That included two brothers from Portsmouth, Tuhin Shahensha and Mustaqim Jaman. The third brother, Ifthekar Jaman, was killed while fighting in Syria for IS, in December 2013.

The clips from the Asda Hill video showed the two men holding an imitation Glock firearm, as Muthana gave a running commentary saying: ‘If you’re watching this I’m probably dead or I’m probably a legend or something.’

He went on to say he wanted to sing Jihadi nasheeds [chants] but neither he nor Brekke appeared able to think of any, and Muthana ended up trying to hum the theme from Rocky.

He was heard to shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is Great] repeatedly and at one point he chuckled and, speaking in Arabic, said: ‘The Islamic State in Cardiff and Iraq and the Syria’.

In his defence, Rahman admitted allowing the teenager to use his credit card but insisted he thought he was going to Syria to ‘help people’ by joining a local militia. He said: ‘When we discussed this, Isis was not the plan’.

Rahman introduced his young friend to Ulhaq who gave practical help online and called on his contacts within Syria to smooth his entry into the country. However, Ulhaq never met Muthana in person.

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The 21-year-old from Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, told the jury that he had considered going to Syria himself to bring home his ex-girlfriend, Aqsa Mahmood, from Glasgow, who had gone as a jihadi bride and proceeded to Tweet Isis propaganda.

Ulhaq dropped his iPhone out of the window when police raided his home in March 2014 and when police examined it they found a video, filmed in Syria, which showed a British fighter called Khalil Raoufi, who was subsequently killed whilst fighting, as he sprayed the painted words, “Islamic State of Iraq and Shaam [Syria]” on a wall.

The same video was also found on Rahman’s Blackberry.

He insisted that he believed Muthana was going for humanitarian reasons and not to fight for Isis, the court heard.

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Brekke, of Pentre Street, Grangetown, Cardiff; Rahman, of Cranhams Lane, Chesterton, Cirencester, Gloucestershire; and Ulhaq, of Westbourne Road, Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, were found guilty of preparing for acts of terrorism. Ulhaq was further convicted of terror funding.

The jurors were not told that Iftekar Jaman’s brothers, Shahensha, 27, and Jaman, 23, from Portsmouth, had earlier been jailed for six years each for helping people travel to Syria to fight with Isis. 

Brekke shook his head as the jury delivered its verdict while his co-defendants gave no reaction.

Nasser later achieved ‘notoriety’ when he and other young men made a propaganda video for IS called There Is No life Without Jihad which was released in June 2014, the court heard.

He was also featured one of the terrorists most gruesome execution videos standing alongside ‘Jihadi John’ Mohammed Emwazi and several other jihadis killing 16 Syrian soldiers and an American aid worker.

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Muthana’s parents feared that Aseel wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps and confiscated his passport but the three friends helped him apply for a new one, buy a plane ticket to Turkey and offered advice on how to outwit the authorities.

Lawyers tried to ban mention of ‘Welsh Cutie’ Muthana because they feared he could be killed by ISIS over his sexuality

Prosecutors thought messages exchanged between the trio and Muthana left their ‘sexuality open to interpretation’ after Rahman described Muthana as a ‘Welsh cutie.’

They feared Muthana could be thrown from a building or stoned to death if the comments were ever seen by the barbaric terrorists he is fighting alongside.

In legal argument before the start of the case, prosecutor Daniel Pawson-Pounds said: ‘What we would propose would be a restriction that would limit or prevent the reporting of any material which reveals the sexuality of any of the defendants or a third party in this case.’

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He added: ‘What we would propose would be a restriction that would limit or prevent the reporting of any material which reveals the sexuality of any of the defendants or a third party in this case.’

But the prosecution abandoned attempts to impose unprecedented reporting restrictions and the Old Bailey heard of the ‘intense friendship’ between Muthana and Rahman.

After meeting each other for the first time on December 26, 2013, the conversations became ‘close and affectionate.’

They became such friends they called each other ‘babee’, ‘honey’ and ‘bub’ and often signed off messages with ‘kisses and declarations of love passed off between them’ as well as using ‘heart’ and the ‘blow a kiss’ emoticons.

The conversations also revealed Rahman’s desire to go to Syria himself.

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In one online chat in January 2014, he moaned: ‘It’s so hard contemplating leaving the family.’

Muthana responded: ‘Let me talk you into it,’ to which his friend replied: ‘Loool Radicalise me babe.’

They continued to chat online until Muthana left the UK on a flight from Gatwick Airport to Larnaca, in Cyprus, on 21 February 2014 having travelled by coach to the airport the previous evening.

‘Above all, the chats illustrate the assistance which Rahman readily gave to Muthana, in the full knowledge of what he was planning,’ said the prosecutor.