This is a book that I was compelled to write. For the past eight years, my husband, John, and I have been struggling to save our son, Jack, from a disastrous mistake he made as a naive 18-year-old. As a recent convert to Islam, Jack wanted to help the people of Syria in the Arab Spring uprising. When he tried to return to Britain, he was blocked by the government who had determined he should die in Syria.
As Jack’s parents, we were demonized and criminalized for trying to send him money to escape. Along the way, we were deceived by people who purported to be helping us: police, Foreign Ministry, deradicalization charity, and so-called security experts. We lost our jobs, home, friends, reputations, and very nearly, our hope. I started writing this book as a way of trying to make sense of a world that seemed to have gone mad. Then, I wrote because I believed the shocking events that were happening to us needed to be documented. We are still battling for Jack’s release from a Kurdish prison described as a dungeon. All we want is him to be safely back with us and for this horrific nightmare to end. —Sally Lane
On January 26, 2016, Detective Inspector T and Detective Sergeant M from the South East Counter Terrorism Unit (SECTU), Thames Valley Police, visited our home in Oxford to discuss the terrorism charges on which John and I had been arrested three weeks earlier. In many ways, this visit was no different from the dozens of “informal chats” we’d had with the police since they’d first visited us in December 2014, enquiring about the whereabouts and activities of our son Jack, who, in May 2014, at the age of eighteen, had gone on a ten-day trip to Jordan to visit a friend from Oxford.
We had arranged the holiday for Jack, hoping that it would positively channel his academic interest in Islam and allow him to practise his spoken Arabic, which he’d managed to master to a surprisingly high degree in a short time. His dedication to the language showed itself in the piles of Arabic grammar books that lay around the house, in the endless hours he spent in Oxford coffee shops speaking in Arabic to his new university student friends from Kuwait, Qatar, and Turkey, and in the frustration of his sixth-form college teachers, who declared he did no work at all on the end-of-year exams he was having to repeat that year.
When Jack had phoned from Jordan, just before his ten-day holiday was up, to say that his friend was going to Kuwait for a three-month course in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Kuwait University and to ask if he could go, too, John, my husband, and I agreed that he could. Jack had been investigating Middle Eastern universities online before he left and hadn’t been able to decide which would suit him best. In the circumstances, his being able to do a short course and being accompanied by someone he knew, and whose family we knew of in Oxford, seemed to us to be a reassuring option. The boys would be living in a nice, spacious apartment close to the university on Jamal Abdul Nasser Street, and would I be able to send him the money for his ticket and his first month’s rent? In light of what happened later, it appears naive of us that we didn’t question Jack more closely about his possible long-term plans (“She even paid for his ticket!” declared the Westminster court magistrate nearly two years later), but hindsight, of course, is a luxury we did not possess at the time.
Our January 26, 2016, visit from Detective Inspector T and Detective Sergeant M was supposed to clarify some of the issues surrounding the charges against us. By then, it was known that Jack had continued on to Syria after studying in Kuwait for a couple of months, and any money we sent to him while he was in Syria could be viewed as being “suspicious.” The official charges were that “we entered into or became concerned in an arrangement as a result of which money or other property was or was to be made available to another person, knowing or having reasonable cause to suspect that it would or might be used for the purposes of terrorism.” These charges had been brought under sections 17 and 22 of the Terrorism Act.
The relevant wording of the act, upon which the whole edifice of our arrest, surveillance, and prosecution was based, was the phrase “reasonable cause to suspect.” John and I felt confident then and now that, for a myriad of reasons, we did not have reasonable cause to suspect Jack was a terrorist or that the money sent to him would be used for terrorist purposes. The whole notion was absurd: the money had been to get him away from terrorism. It all seemed simple and self-explanatory, and since the police had access to the same information about Jack and his activities as we did, we couldn’t understand why they didn’t reach the same conclusion. Only a month before we sent the money, in November 2015, we had been informed by Detective Constable N that there was “no evidence that Jack has done anything wrong.” And if there was any “secret intelligence” information to the contrary, it was not available to someone at the pay grade of a detective constable, and certainly hadn’t been made available to us. In fact, nearly three years after this 2016 meeting — i.e., in September 2018 — we discovered, following a disclosure request by our lawyers, that, in fact, no secret intelligence information existed at all.
Over tea and panettone, as with all our other “informal chats,” the detectives, John, and I discussed what “reasonable cause to suspect” actually meant. The police’s contention was that Jack was a suspected terrorist because he had expressed a number of anti-Western government views on Facebook, and was believed to be living in Raqqa, the Syrian capital of “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham,” the self-styled caliphate commonly referred to in English as ISIS. John and I didn’t dispute either of these contentions; it was what they amounted to that formed the crux of our difference of opinion with the police.
“Are you saying that anyone living in Raqqa is guilty of supporting ISIS?” asked John. “Does that mean that it is actually impossible to do humanitarian work if you’re living in the city?” “Yes,” said DS M. “If you’re living and working in the city, you are by definition supporting the state by paying taxes and by participating in the caliphate.”
“What if you’re a kebab seller?” continued John. “And you’ve been living in Raqqa all your life and you pay taxes on your kebab business, and perhaps on a Friday you give a free kebab to an ISIS fighter just to keep in with them so they don’t target and murder your family. Is that considered supporting the state?”
“Yes,” said M. “Absolutely.”
“What else is the kebab seller supposed to do?” John pursued. Like Jack, he could never be accused of dropping an argument. “He doesn’t know anything else.”
“He could get another job,” said M. “Or move.”
“But tens of thousands of them are trying to move at the moment,” I joined in. “And Europe won’t let them in.”
“What about a doctor doing humanitarian work in Raqqa?” asked John. “Is he a suspected terrorist?” (We didn’t know it at the time, but a British trauma surgeon, David Nott, who had operated at gunpoint on an ISIS fighter in Aleppo in 2013, was similarly called upon to justify his actions in June 2016 by Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs. Asked whether he should have saved the life of an ISIS fighter, who would no doubt go on to take many more lives, David Nott replied “that there was a chance that the [fighter] would have a change of heart because his life had been saved.” Additionally, of course, Dr. Nott had had a gun to his head throughout the whole operation, so had not really been in a position to calmly debate the ethics of his situation.)
“Yes, he would be considered a suspected terrorist,” said M.
Much later — i.e., more than three years after this particular conversation with the counter-terrorism unit — John discovered that this was indeed the case. At the promotion of Dr. Nott’s book, War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line, at the 2019 Oxford Literary Festival, John managed to have a chat with the heroic doctor himself. Despite the fact that by this time Nott had been awarded an OBE for his courageous war-time surgery, he revealed to John that he was on a police list of four thousand terror suspects because he had spent time in Syria.
I took the opportunity at this point in the conversation to ask about the fate of Mashudur Choudhury, a Briton who had had a civilian job in a laundry and a nursery in Syria for just over two weeks in October 2013, and who had been sentenced for four years for “preparing acts of terrorism.” He was one of a group of five young men from Portsmouth who were among the first to leave the U.K. to fight in Syria. Four of them were dead by July 2015. After Jack told us in September 2014 that he was in Syria, I had followed the case of the Portsmouth five closely, as it was clearly having a large influence on British attitudes to suspected Islamic terrorists, and on the likely prison sentences such suspects could expect to receive. M told me that he had been personally involved in the Choudhury case, and that, although it wasn’t widely reported, Choudhury had ended up serving less than half his sentence.
Getting back to our discussion on our son’s activities, John and I explained once again what we believed Jack had been doing in Iraq and Syria, based on the Facebook and phone conversations we’d had with him over the past year and a half. Jack had told us that he had worked a bit in a hospital and had also helped out a friend some mornings in a school. Not long after he’d first arrived, he’d said that he wanted to do “sheik training” (training to become a religious teacher) but he needed the permission of the local imam to do so, and obtaining this seemed to be taking a long time. He was very well versed in the Qu’ran, and professed embarrassment that his close friend was able to recite much more from memory than he was. He had told us he wasn’t a fighter, and we had gone to some lengths to find out from external sources whether his pattern of activities — moving between towns in Syria and Iraq — fitted that of an ISIS fighter being sent to different parts of the front line, or whether civilians moved around in a similar way. Our primary concern was about his chances of staying alive. Part of the evidence that he wasn’t a fighter seemed to be that he had been there for nearly two years and had somehow escaped being one of the 350,000 Syrians who had already been killed.
I suspected, from my following of the Portsmouth case, where even a laundry and nursery worker could be convicted of the preparation of terrorist acts, that Jack would be considered a terror suspect by the British state even if he was working in a school or hospital. I was secure in my own belief that someone who was working in a civilian capacity should not be classified as a terrorist, even if that differed from the official British view. When the story about Jack broke on January 24, 2016, two days before our present meeting with the two detectives, I’d countered the erroneous press reporting by saying that, before he left, Jack had talked about doing humanitarian work with refugees in Syria, and was now integrated into the local population (the latter assertion based on my knowledge of his school and hospital work). The papers translated this into my saying that Jack was “doing humanitarian work” in Syria, and I was asked to provide the name of the organization he was working for. When I replied that he wasn’t working for an organization as such, it looked as if I was either being evasive or deliberately hiding the truth.
Listening to M’s comments about the kebab seller, John was incredulous. He’d had no idea that the British state believed it was impossible to do humanitarian-type work in Raqqa, and that a doctor could be tarred with the same brush as a brutal ISIS fighter who believed it was acceptable to cut the heads off disbelievers. It appeared that, under current terrorism law, there was no distinction between the doctor and the fighter, which was what led me to conclude that it was the law itself that was at fault, given that its imprecise wording, referring to something that might or might not happen in the future, could be applied in such widely disparate cases.
Another aspect of our academic-seeming discussions around our dining room table concerned the actual trajectory of funds that found their way to Syria. According to M, even if £10 ended up as a bribe, say, to an ISIS border guard, those funds could be defined as money destined for terrorism. In other words, the intention for how those funds should be used was not important. Even if the funds had been intended for an entirely different purpose — for making a hostage payment, for instance, or for trying to extract someone from a war zone — there was always a chance that some of the money could end up elsewhere. All that was required was the fact that there were “reasonable grounds to suspect” that money could potentially be used for terrorist purposes. It was difficult to know where this argument ended.
To take it one step further, you could postulate that anyone who put gas in the car while on holiday in Turkey could well be paying some money to ISIS, since much of the oil ISIS produced was smuggled across the border into Turkey. And even further, that anyone paying taxes to the British government was supporting the sending of arms and finance to Saudi Arabia, a country suspected by many of directly supporting terrorism in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. (Indeed, this suspicion was officially confirmed in October 2016, with the Wikileaks release of Hillary Clinton’s emails from 2014, which included her statement that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar were providing “clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIS.”)
Our discussions with the detectives would be merely intellectually diverting if it weren’t that their practical application in our case could land us in prison for a very long time. We couldn’t believe that British justice would allow this to happen. And how could it be illegal to try to save our son’s life when there wasn’t even any evidence he had done anything wrong? None of it made any sense.
The detective inspector, T, appeared to be getting impatient with the theoretical nature of our conversation. She was there to talk about what would happen next, and what the police recommendations were if Jack wished to extract himself from Syria. So far, their advice in this regard had been woefully lacking, apart from giving us the addresses of the British consulate and embassy in Turkey. We knew they must have people on the ground in Syria, in addition to the whole network of intelligence operations that were shared among the “Five Eyes” security services in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as in Europe. However, advice for Jack was contingent on his agreeing to talk to the U.K. police from where he was. Knowing Jack’s distrust of the police and knowing that he was well aware of the fifteen-year prison sentences that were being handed down to people who had gone to Syria, I was very doubtful about the chances of this happening. Our suggestion was that any negotiations with the U.K. police could be mediated by us, but this idea wasn’t received with any enthusiasm by the two police officers in front of us, and the conversation quickly turned to other topics.
Uppermost in our minds was the crucial issue of how we were going to rescue Jack from a war zone, a feat that would require us to be out of jail if we were to be fully functional. At that point, at the end of January, we had been arrested but not charged, and the decision as to whether we would be charged or not rested with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Detective Inspector T mentioned that our case was very political and this decision “would be made at ministerial level.” Why our case was so different from other cases of families being caught up in the horror of their children going to Syria I couldn’t fathom. Was it because we weren’t Muslim? Or because we were white and supposedly “middle class”? (Although, even if we were middle class by education and aspiration, we were definitely working-class poor by income, dependent as we were on the proceeds of John’s as yet unprofitable business and my paltry earnings as an administrator at a publicly funded hospital. We certainly didn’t own our own £600,000 home, contrary to what the Daily Mail implied.)
We hoped that the CPS would see that it was nonsensical to charge us, as we were merely parents trying to protect our child. The payments we sent him hadn’t even gone through. The CPS, it turned out, had a completely different agenda, the wisdom of which we couldn’t even guess at.