The impossible return from Syria to North Kensington

The impossible return from Syria to North Kensington
Comment: There are many factors that may cause someone to leave London to fight in Syria, but few routes back for those that change their minds, writes Tom Charles.
9 min read
01 Sep, 2015
Hundreds of British citizens are thought to have joined IS in Syria and Iraq (Getty)

North Kensington is an area in London that has high economic deprivation and stark contrasts in wealth between the haves and have-nots.

Neighbouring the affluent Notting Hill and Holland Park areas, North Kensington is a lively, multi-cultural area known for its large Caribbean, Moroccan and white British communities.

But the growth of the so-called Islamic State group in the Middle East is having a profoundly troubling effect on the area, as geopolitics collides with family life - and a simple explanation for the phenomenon isn't easy to come by.

In recent times, North Kensington has gained media attention with a number of high profile examples of recruitment to IS. Internet searches for details of these North Kensington individuals provide plenty of macabre coverage and voyeuristic media fascination.


A former classmate of two young fighters wrote a piece expressing his shock at seeing his former friends on television and stated his hope that "if someone turned these average teenagers into killers, something can turn them back".

Identifying what turned these local children into men travelling to Syria and Iraq in the name of "jihad" is no simple task, and I spoke to a number of people in the affected North Kensington community to find out their views and to try to grasp the extent of how what happens in the Middle East affects the communities left behind.

"Muhammad Ali", a 50 year-old Somali community leader in North Kensington told me that the IS phenomenon was a "cause for concern" in his family, and he now kept a close check on his son's movements and timetable.

     IS attracts those that are 'not succeeding' in the UK, but there are exceptions to the rule

He says that he believes IS attracts those that are "not succeeding" in the UK, but that there are exceptions to this rule.

Muhammad told me about a local Eritrean who he knew throughout the boy's primary and secondary schooling - and who ended up going to fight in Syria. He says the boy used to attend Muhammad's Saturday school for local youth and he saw the boy struggle after his father died of cancer.

On seeing the young man had joined IS, Muhammad says that it was "a shock… the mum was in shock, a lot of distress".


Like all the people I interviewed, Muhammad pointed out that the IS view of Islam was completely un-Islamic: "You can't kill a civilian, how many times does this need to be in the Quran before they understand it? There's no verse that allows you to kill Shia or kill non-Muslims."

Muhammad identified UK foreign policy as a pertinent issue, seeing the spread of IS' reach to the UK as a spillover from the Iraqi Sunni-Shia civil war that was caused by the US-led invasion and destruction of Iraq.

This has nurtured a sense of victimisation of Sunnis, he says, who often feel like they are viewed as second-class citizens in the UK:

"Being told you're a second class citizen, even if you have a degree in medicine [as his son has] is also a factor. I know we already have to work harder than the English, but IS affects the poorly educated, the unemployed, those with criminal records, those affected by the police's stop and search tactics."

"Nour", a middle-aged Moroccan community activist who has lived in North Kensington for 17 years, describes the impact on local communities as "devastating".

"Parents are suffering in silence," he said.

He tells me that local parents have been unable to get their sons' bodies sent back from the Middle East, saying that he knows the families of Moroccans, Somalis, Syrians and Iraqis aged between 19 and 26 who have travelled to join IS.

Sophisticated recruitment

Nour connects the appeal of IS with the materialistic culture of the UK - especially prevalent in London. By travelling to Syria, these people are offered "money for clothes, for travel, it is a very sophisticated recruitment drive" in which the economic inequality of life in North Kensington "plays a big part".

The average price of a flat in North Kensington is more than £600,000, just under $1 million. So the vast majority of young people have no option but to live at home with their families, often in overcrowded accommodation and without realistic prospects for upward social mobility.

Add to this what Nour describes as "an unreal age where these young people don't differentiate between what's real and what's in the digital world" - and the fact that IS recruits are "extremely impressionable" - and there is the perfect storm for young people to look for a cause to fight for, to "search for an identity as they develop their personalities".

Nour is critical of sensational media coverage of IS, which he suspects may make the group more attractive, but he stated clearly that he thought that to blame UK foreign policy was "an excuse".

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He focuses instead on the UK government's "Prevent" strategy which he says is "failing to talk to Muslim community leaders. They don't understand the intricacies and don't seem to have a clue".

He says that the government should instead facilitate the promotion of "real Islam".

A false narrative

Nour's approach chimed with the government and media view that these young people are "brainwashed" in to joining IS. But 30-year-old British Somali, Mustapha Bakr, asked me the rhetorical question: "Some are already radical, so why does the government label them as radicalised?" He calls this approach "disingenuous".

By blaming a process of "radicalisation", the government doesn't have to tackle the fact that there are UK citizens who are already radicalised and ready to go to war. "People would ask them: what are you gonna do about it?

"And the government don't want to explicitly say that this [IS] is Islam, so they use the narrative of preachers of extreme hate," Mustapha added.

In North Kensington, Mustapha says that IS recruits, "from the dole [receiving unemployment benefits] to the well-educated ones, they get trapped in a small world of wanting to do something".

"With the social cleansing and gentrification of London, they instinctively link this to foreign policy, such as our military aid to Egypt," he said.

Add to this "the egotistical thing - 'I need to be the big boy' - and the fact that these people can't say what's on their mind for fear of being labelled 'radical', and you have people with fear and resentment of the authorities in London.

"Then you have white, British guys fighting with the PKK, supporting the Kurds, and they get welcomed home as heroes."

Acting on injustice

I asked Mustapha about the cases he has knowledge of in North Kensington. He says that quite a few people have started by seeing the opportunity to do some charity work to help the Syrians, but they then feel a strong urge to act on the injustice they witness.

He tells me about a North African resident of North Kensington, who "definitely wasn't radicalised".

"He went to Syria. He was a nice guy, he was well educated," said Mustapha. "You have to speculate about why he went there. Maybe his friends went. Just like that, he was gone. There's no conveyor belt, and a common denominator isn't simple to find."

Not far away, on a housing estate near Latimer Road underground station, British-born Moroccan father-of-three, Zico tells me that he has seen people from his estate and a friend of his in Morocco go to Syria.

"We used to see this guy on this estate; he was quiet, educated, about 20. He used to say 'Salaam' but would never stop to chat," said Zico. "Next thing we knew he'd made a YouTube video and all the reporters came around here. His mum didn't even know, she thought he was going off to study in Germany."

     You have to have some kind of gullibility, to see Syria as 'my jihad' or 'my way to paradise'

Why would he join IS? "You have to have some kind of gullibility, to see Syria as 'my jihad' or 'my way to paradise'," said Zico.


Zico also identifies anger against UK foreign policy as a cause: "While you're in other people's countries slaughtering their people, there's going to be a backlash."

A "minority" of those who travel overseas start with a genuine wish to help Syrians in need, he said, but many more probably see no difference between themselves and British soldiers in Iraq, he argued.

Of his former friend from Morocco, Zico tells me he was a successful businessman with a large house, who left everything and went:

"He died fighting the Kurds three weeks ago. His three brothers and dad went too. He took his wife. Their daughter was born over there and a week later he was killed, it's deep. Only one brother is left, plus his mum and son."

Zico saw his friend change over time, becoming more introspective. "I thought he was deep in thought about his shop, but it turns out he was thinking about Syria."

No way back

He describes the reaction in Morocco as similar to that in North Kensington. "Parents in Morocco are asking the government 'why are they taking our kids?'"

And he identifies poverty as a motivating factor. "Kids in Morocco are on £3 a day, it's not enough to survive and the internet's opened up their eyes."

Zico had some advice for potential British IS recruits:

"Do not bite the hand that feeds you," he said. "[The UK] is the best country you can live in. IS? Sharia law? I don't think they can handle it really. Here, we have the freedom to do all that, we can live as 'Islamically' as we want. You can't beat freedom.

"And why choose Syria? You can go and live the Sharia life in plenty of countries. Once you go to Syria, you ain't coming back," he added.

As the balance of power continues to shift in the Middle East, the North Kensington community is experiencing its impact, first hand, and the truth of this succinct statement is all too clear.

While the motivations of those joining IS may be difficult to fathom, the tragic consequences are not.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.