No Return: The True Story of How Martyrs are Made

Mark Townsend

Faber and Faber, £12.99

Review by Neil Mackay

I remember the horror of Tavistock Square after the July 7 London bombings. A suicide bomber had detonated explosives on the Number 30 double-decker bus.

Fourteen people died. In total, 52 were killed, after three other terrorists set off bombs on the underground that summer’s day in 2005. The sight of the ruined bus cast an hypnotic spell over me. The vehicle was torn open – like a pair of giant hands had ripped apart a tin can – but still clearly visible, running along the side of the top deck, was an advertisement for an upcoming horror movie called The Descent. ‘Outright terror,’ it read.

Pity and disgust, anger and sorrow, and dreadful, chilling symbolism all combined to knock my senses for six momentarily. This was the bloody aftermath of Britain’s first suicide bombing.

Four ordinary Britons – Muslim lads from northern England – had been radicalised to such a dehumanising extent that they’d chased the fantasy of martyrdom all the way to the gates of death in the centre of one of the most cosmopolitan, multi-cultural and liberal cities on Earth, and murdered dozens of their fellow citizens in the coldest of blood.

Up to this point in my career, I’d spent a lot of my time as an investigative reporter speaking to extremists of all stripes. Republican and loyalist terrorists in Northern Ireland; white supremacists and neo-Nazis in America and Europe; and radical Islamists in Britain who hated the west.

I thought I’d developed a reasonably sophisticated view of these people and how they’d turned into advocates and practitioners of terror and hate. People don’t just wake up one morning and become political killers, no matter how much ideology is drilled into them by family or faith. Something dreadful has to happen to them, and fester inside them, for a long time, before thought becomes deed.

Oppression and alienation were part of the problem, for sure. It’s the old adage – beat a dog enough and one day it’ll bite you. Watching British paratroopers shooting folk dead in Derry, or the IRA killing your best mate’s dad, were both sure paths to the gun in Irish politics.

It was also mostly poor kids, with little hope, in Ulster who became killers, whether Catholic or Protestant. Certainly, there were plenty of wealthy white extremists I’d got to know, but it was the underclass which made up the rank and file of Combat 18 and the Klan.

And violence begets violence, surely? The Islamists I’d spoken to were enraged by attacks on Muslim nations by the west and wanted vengeance. British intelligence officers told me that the Iraq war was just a jihadist recruiting sergeant.

Poverty, lack of opportunity, identity and socialisation, attacks on the ethnic group which a person feels they belong to – these seemed to be the root causes of radicalisation, wherever it happened, as far as I could see. Throw in some accidents of birth and environment – like a mental health problem here, or exposure to a radical preacher there – and that’s the basic recipe for radicalisation.

The most curdled truth I discovered through my discussions with terrorists and paramilitaries was that every single one of those who we – society –consider to be an extremist believes, with all their heart, that they’re acting for the greater good whether it’s in Ireland or Afghanistan, Leeds or Alabama.

But I’d missed one key ingredient when it came to the recipe for radicalisation: us. I hadn’t given enough thought to the everyday actions of neighbours, passers-by, schoolmates, colleagues, the local community, the bobby on the housing estate, the schoolteacher, the local councillor or social worker.

Mark Townsend’s new book No Return: The True Story of How Martyrs Are Made takes the study of radicalisation and explores it through the prism of the personal. It tells the true story of a group of five young Muslim brothers and friends from Brighton who go to fight as jihadists in the Syrian civil war. All but one is killed.

The most powerful sections of this book unravel how we – British society – radicalised these young men. I read these parts with a great sense of shame. The story centres on the Deghayes family who’d come to the UK to escape the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

Parts of the book unfold like a horror film – and these aren’t the scenes set in Syria, but in the UK’s supposedly most liberal city. The family are hounded by racists. Their house attacked, their children beaten. The racism, violence, abuse and intimidation is relentless. These young men were made to feel in no uncertain terms that they did not belong here. Everyone in authority failed them, nobody stepped in to help.

Reading these sections prompts feelings of great empathy. How would you act if society cast you out like a dog and heaped humiliation upon you? Where would you find your sense of self-worth? Where would you channel your rage and shame?

Events begin to spiral for some of the Deghayes boys and their coterie of equally alienated, marginalised and impoverished friends. They join a gang, work out, fight and deal drugs. Their schooling goes to hell. Soon they descend into the feral world of modern gang culture.

One of these young men, though, stands out – he’s intelligent and he’s decent, and he won’t let the circumstances of his life drag him down. Amer Deghayes dreams of being a human rights journalist, and it’s his story which changes this book completely. I thought I’d be reading about a journey into the psychopathic world of a Jihadi John cut-throat. But no, we’re shown that radical Islam can have a human face.

Amer’s story will be a revelation to those who think of radicalised youth solely as the monsters of the Bataclan in Paris or the death cult knifemen of London Bridge. Amer is alienated by the cruelties of modern Britain, and in turn radicalised by his empathy for the suffering of innocents in Syria – but not radicalised in the same way as the bestial killers of 7-7. He hates Islamic State. He doesn’t want to kill innocent people. He wants to go to Syria and fight the shock troops of the Assad regime. He wants to help ordinary Syrians survive. There’s much more about Amer that brings to mind the young British socialist fighters who left to take up arms against Franco in the Spanish Civil War than the 9/11 pilots.

Amer becomes an inspiration to the young men who know him, including a number of white teens (all lost, all lonely, all marginalised) who convert to Islam and consider taking up arms against Assad. Resistance offers them meaning. Two friends and two of his brothers make the same journey as Amer to Syria, while the authorities back home idly twiddle their thumbs and fail to spot young, troubled men slipping from the country. The book exposes an almost wilful negligence when it comes to officials countering radicalisation.

Townsend has done society a service with this anatomisation of radicalisation. If we ever hope to counter radicalisation we need to know how it truly works. Don’t expect great poetry, or vivid colour writing. This is a work of consummate journalism – Townsend is the award-winning Home Affairs Editor of The Observer – and so it’s high on research, and low on purple prose. That’s good. A book like this needs to be raw and unvarnished in its desperately necessary honesty.