They travelled from the streets of west London to the rubble of north Syria: three young British men who learned a twisted interpretation of Islam at home, and travelled to the very heart of the so-called Islamic State to practise it.
The masked militant known as ‘Jihadi John’ was named as Mohammed Emwazi last year. But although it was his taunting voice that reached a global audience far beyond Syria, it was a friend from his neighbourhood in London who led the group.
Alexe Kotey was far more than a key conspirator of Emwazi’s. He was a powerful voice along his route towards radicalisation.
ITV News had heard claims from Syria, and from much closer to home, that Kotey was in Raqqa – and had become a member of a three-man group of British hostage-takers known as ‘The Beatles’. The militant went under the nickname ‘Big Sid’. It was hard to see why.
During a nine month investigation by ITV News, we learned of Kotey’s role influencing extremists in west London. But while the journeys to Syria of many of his protégés had been widely reported - Hamza Parvez, brothers Fatlam and Flamur Shakalu, Mohammed Nasser, and engineering student Mohammed el-Araj – Kotey had remained silent, his whereabouts unknown.
Last December, Kotey’s mother confirmed what we had suspected – that her son had travelled to Syria. She revealed to our team that he had used the name ‘Sidique’ since converting to Islam. The link had been made. Kotey was ‘Big Sid’.
A few days ago, a community worker chose to confirm the account, revealing the disruptive influence Sidique had on the mosque where he once prayed. He told us that elders decided to throw him out after he demanded they address his concerns about British foreign policy from the pulpit.
“I believe the mosque took steps to stop them from holding their little classrooms. I heard later that some of them ended up at a little place near Shepherd’s Bush Market."
He confirmed that Kotey – not Emwazi - was the lynchpin of the network. And the moment he was marginalised by his mosque, he started his own network - holding lecture meetings in his friends’ front rooms.
“He was certainly the most vocal… He would definitely be standing there with, I’d say, a dozen boys all listening to him. He was the speaker. He was the spokesman in that little group.”
We learned that Kotey had been part of a convoy to Gaza organised by George Galloway in 2009. By obtaining a list of people who had travelled with him, and contacting many of the 500 participants, we were able to obtain an image of the IS recruiter.
Then, a former ISIS hostage decided to make an unexpected revelation: last Friday, he told us that he knew who the third ‘Beatle’ was.
Aine Davis, a British fighter who was arrested in Turkey last November after making it back across the Syrian border, was another of Kotey’s followers from London.
Davis, Emwazi and Kotey had lived streets away in London. But as members of ‘The Beatles’ – or ‘The Jailors’ as they preferred to call themselves – their lives were even more entwined on the streets of Raqqa.
ISIS has drawn thousands of fighters from around the world. But it’s most infamous cell consisted of near-neighbours from west London.