British man who went to Syria to join so-called Islamic State jailed for life

ISIS 'Beatle' Shabazz Suleman, 27,
Former grammar schoolboy Shabazz Suleman, 27, was arrested at Heathrow airport on September 29, 2021. Credit: PA

A British man has been handed a life sentence for travelling to Syria to join so-called Islamic State nine years ago. Shabazz Suleman, from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, was 18 when he disappeared while on a family holiday to Turkey in 2014. The former grammar school boy was arrested at Heathrow airport on September 29, 2021 and charged with a string of terror offences. In April, he pleaded guilty to preparing acts of terrorism by travelling from the UK to Turkey in order to join IS in Syria in August 2014. The defendant, now 27, was also charged with being a member of IS, a proscribed organisation, between 2014 and 2017, and receiving training in the use of firearms. But these two charges were left to lie on file after the prosecution said Suleman’s guilty plea addressed them.

A member of Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, pictured waving its flag. Credit: Reuters

Judge Mark Lucraft KC jailed Suleman for life with a minimum term of nine years and six months at the Old Bailey today. He said: “You went to Syria in order to join IS. You understood IS was a proscribed organisation in English law. Your ambition was to become a sniper. “When you arrived in IS-controlled territory, you would have been vetted and only allowed to stay if you were considered to be committed to the cause.”

The court heard that in the months leading up to his departure to Turkey, Suleman’s exchanges with fellow pupils at school showed he “fully appreciated” he would be joining a terrorist organisation which engaged in “indiscriminate violence against civilians”.

In February 2014, he shared “shocking” images of violence linked with IS on a WhatsApp group and sought to play down their “horror” by comparing them to cartoons from Horrible Histories.

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He suggested to the same group that they start using Telegram – “the encrypted communication method preferred by IS” – and also told members he was following Jihadis in Syria on Twitter. In June, he suggested to another school friend that they go to Iraq and “wage Jihad”.

The court heard Suleman messaged his family on the day he disappeared insisting he was “not brainwashed” and had been “planning this for months”. Days later, he told them: “I’m gonna be a sniper insh Allah.” Prosecutor Duncan Atkinson KC told the court that while attempting to travel to Syria, Suleman had been held by Turkish forces before opting to be part of a prisoner swap with IS.

On joining the terror group in Syria, Suleman became active on social media and posted about his experiences in IS territory while engaged with members of the media. The court heard he eventually became “disenchanted” with jihadism and tried to desert the terrorist group. After the collapse of IS, he was taken captive by a faction of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) before being transferred to Turkey and then Pakistan.

The flag used by Islamic State militants can be seen flying in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad Credit: Reuters

Suleman made contact with a journalist at the Times during his time in Syria, telling the newspaper via encrypted messages that he went through "intense" indoctrination. He added: “I never thought I was being brainwashed until I saw the way they treat other Sunnis.” In October 2017, he was also interviewed by Sky News while in the hands of FSA. The prosecution said Suleman told the broadcaster that his intention was not really to fight, that he wanted to help Syrian people, but he was “sympathetic” to IS. He told them he received weapons training from IS and was on guard duty for five months but indicated he had “never” killed anyone. Suleman confirmed that he went to Raqqa in February 2015 as part of a “foreign fighting battalion” and here “saw the reality of IS” – that foreign fighters were “cannon fodder”.

He arrived back in the UK on September 29, 2021 and was arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000. In a police interview, Suleman denied choosing to join IS while held in Turkey and said he had changed his mind about going but was handed over anyway as part of a deal with IS.

He also denied membership of the terrorist group, saying he never swore allegiance and was just a civilian. He claimed he had tried to leave IS territory from mid-2015 and did not handle guns. The defendant also claimed the FSA had beat him and caused him to fear for his life after witnessing others being waterboarded.

Clark appeared at the Old Bailey on Friday 13 January wearing a grey tracksuit Credit: PA

However, Mr Atkinson had asserted at a previous hearing that there was no evidence of duress or that Suleman had suffered ill treatment while being held by the militia group. Abdul Iqbal KC, defending, said Suleman had been an “immature and idealistic” young man who wanted to help people “in distress” and who took part in “non-combat duties” with IS. He argued that his client had “firmly” decided within five months of joining the terrorist organisation that he wished to “flee”. Detective Chief Superintendent Olly Wright, head of Counter Terrorism Policing South East, said: “This has been a complex investigation which has taken several years to piece together and bring to court, but it has ultimately ended in jail time for Suleman, who was planning acts of terrorism.” He added: “Friends and family are often best placed to spot the signs of potential radicalisation, so please trust your instincts if you have any concerns, please report it. “We can help if you act early. You won’t be wasting police time and you won’t ruin lives, but you might save them.”