Larking about beside a swimming pool and creeping up on a tethered vulture while impersonating David Attenborough is hardly the sort of footage you’d expect to find on the smartphone of a terrorist.
But these videos are among thousands of clips and photographs recovered from the hard drive of a device used by three young British men who fled to Syria to join the Islamic State group.
Obtained by a Sunday Times Middle East correspondent, the contents have been shared with BBC Three for a new documentary – Secrets of an ISIS Smartphone – and provide an unexpected, extraordinary insight into the lives of these British jihadis.
‘It looks like they’re in Magaluf or something, but then they’ve got these guns. That’s not Magaluf,’ comments journalist Mobeen Azhar as he watches the poolside antics of Choukri Ellekhlifi, a British Moroccan who lived Edgware Road before travelling to Syria aged 22 in 2012 – one of first wave of Britons to join the war.
Ellekhlifi was wanted for burglary after using a taser to rob people in Belgravia to fund his trip to the Middle East, but skipped bail under the guise of attending a family funeral.
Choukri Ellekhlifi, a British Moroccan who lived Edgware Road before travelling to Syria aged 22 in 2012 – one of first wave of Britons to join the war, is seen larking about by a pool holding an AK-47
These videos are among thousands of clips and photographs recovered from the hard drive of a device used by three young British men who fled to Syria to join the Islamic State group, obtained by a Sunday Times Middle East correspondent and shared with BBC Three for a new documentary – Secrets of an ISIS Smartphone
Choukri Ellekhlifi is seen practising throwing a grenade in footage found on the smartphone
Obtained by a Sunday Times Middle East correspondent, the contents have been shared with BBC Three for a new documentary – Secrets of an ISIS Smartphone – and provide an unexpected, extraordinary insight into the lives of these British jihadis. Pictured: journalist Mobeen Azhar
In the stag do-esque video, Ellekhlifi gets ready to do a flip into the pool, putting down his AK-47 and shouting to the person filming: ‘You got me? A mujahideen!’ to which the camera man replies ‘I got you, man’
In one clip he’s seen creeping up on a tethered vulture, narrating the scene as if it’s a nature documentary. In another he’s seen practicing throwing a grenade, celebrating when he hits his target and lapping up the praise like a teacher’s pet.
‘It’s farcical, silly, it’s so British – he’s trying to sound like an old white dude,’ Mobeen observes. ‘He looks and sounds like a kid, with a massive gun in his hand.
‘Grown men around you telling you how great you are, that’s grooming. All this adoration, people cheering, it’s textbook. What they’re saying is, you’re part of this gang now.’
Ellekhlifi was the first to use the phone in 2013 after leaving his home near the A40 flyover in West London to join 14 other men, known as the ‘Westway warriors’, who had left for Syria from that area.
He attended the same school as Mohammed Emwazi, better known as Jihadi John, another ‘Westway warrior’ and leader of the so called ‘ISIS Beatles’ – a group of terrorists made famous by a series of beheading videos.
The swimming pool Ellekhlifi is seen diving into during his Jihadi fantasy holiday was also used by Alexander Kotey – another of the ISIS Beatles known as Jihadi Ringo.
In one clip Ellekhlifi is seen creeping up on a tethered vulture, narrating the scene as if it’s a nature documentary
Ellekhlifi was killed fighting alongside Al Qaeda-linked extremists in Syria in 2013. Mobeen questions whether, had he lived, he’d have ended up as one of the Beatles.
During the documentary a youth worker attempts to explain why the Westway area lost so many seemingly normal young men to the caliphate.
‘The last number that I heard, and there’s a lot of assumption, we lost around 26 from West London,’ she tells Mobeen, adding that the common denominators were age, gender and being second generation.
‘Were they violent? No. Were they raised in very strict, conservative households? No. The media, various influences on TV, programming, identifies these young men as the new folk devil, they’re the new thing that’s wrong with the world. So these young men, what are they going to do? They’re going to connect what somebody is saying to them, “do you know why this is happening to you? I will listen, come to me”,’ she says.
‘They are groomed and told in certain circles, come and sit with us because you’re welcome here.’
Fatlum Shalaku, the son of Kosovan Albanian parents, who was 18 when he left North Kensington for Syria, is also among the men believed to have used the phone. He was killed in Iraq in 2015 aged 19
Asked about the first warning signs, she says they tend to retreat and become reserved, refusing to take part in any activities that include the opposite sex.
‘Of the 26 that were lost in this area, I honestly believe that so many more have been saved by the work that was done,’ she adds.
Mobeen makes contact with Ellekhlifi’s brother, who is ‘icy’ and unwilling to talk on the record because he’s ‘p***** with the way the story’s been told’. He points out there’s no positive spin to put on someone travelling to join a terrorist organisation.
Fatlum Shalaku, the son of Kosovan Albanian parents, who was 18 when he left North Kensington for Syria, is also among the men believed to have used the phone. He was killed in Iraq in 2015 aged 19.
Mobeen likens another clip showing Shalaku ‘throwing up gang signs like a London boy’ while posing with a machine gun to a scene from the film Four Lions
‘He liked the gym and he liked the camera. To me, some of these pictures looked more boyband than soldier,’ Mobeen remarks while browsing through its contents. ‘Fatlum even had time to flex for the camera while he was out in a war zone.’
Mobeen likens another clip showing Shalaku ‘throwing up gang signs like a London boy’ while posing with a machine gun to a scene from the film Four Lions.
‘Fatlum is waving the gun around like it’s a prop but it’s not, it’s a real gun,’ he says. ‘None of this is slick. It’s like a roadman acting out Call of Duty, it’s like an ISIS bloopers reel. This is the side of ISIS you never get to see.’
Neighbours of Shalaku say his family couldn’t cope with what happened so they moved away, but Mobeen does speak to a school friend of his, Zak, who describes them as ‘quiet, lovely people’.
‘Their smile, you know when you can tell a person’s aura, that they’re just always humble and nice,’ he says.
Zak suggests Shalaku’s decision to travel to Syria was inspired by a sense of injustice: ‘I heard a rumour that Fatlum went actually to help people, so I think his mind got mangled and warped into a place where he believed what he was doing may have been right.
At the end of the documentary Mobeen speaks to a close friend of British Jihadi Muhammad Mehdi Hassan, pictured, who also fled to join ISIS
‘The cause of why they went out there, for me it was anger… after 2001 [the 9/11 Twin Towers terrorist attack] so much animosity came, I think it changed, it drew Islam out.
‘If you’re looking at the TV and the countries you’re from, all you see in them is soldiers from America or Britain, going there and literally droning the place, dropping bombs on schools, people get angry about that. They got angry, they went there and it’s a violent place, violence happens.’
Hassan, 19, attended St John’s College, a Catholic school in Portsmouth, which charges £10,000 a year for day pupils. He travelled to Syria in October 2013
Zak points out that, a week before Shalaku blew himself up on a suicide mission during ISIS’s successful assault on Ramadi, Iraq, in 2015, his brother – who had also travelled to Syria – was shot in the head.
‘I know that was at the point that my man Fatlum retaliated by driving the truck into an Iraqi compound and exploding it,’ Zak says.
‘Fatlum left a trail of utter destruction amongst their families, their community, their friends, but I pray for them, I pray for mercy.’
Mobeen tells how ISIS presented Fatlum’s suicide attack as a calculated and pious act of war. ‘More likely it was about the despair of losing his brother,’ he muses.
‘The ISIS propaganda machine… mastered manipulation, presenting murder like it was justice, they flipped everything on its head.’
Neuroscientist Dr Nafi Samid, who has scanned the brains of extremists, theorises that extremist ideology is able to disable critical thinking.
At the end of the documentary Mobeen speaks to a close friend of British Jihadi Muhammad Mehdi Hassan, who also fled to join ISIS.
The 20-year-old former private school pupil from Southsea, Portsmouth is also believed to have used the phone, using his tech knowledge to offer online tips to new recruits planning to join jihad in Syria.
Before he left he’d received an offer from Surrey University to study international politics after achieving A,A,B grades in his A Levels, but had taken a year out.
Before he left he’d received an offer from Surrey University to study international politics after achieving A,A,B grades in his A Levels, but had taken a year out
While in Syria he kept in touch with his old friends and appeared to be flirting with the idea of coming home, asking questions about a UCAS password and insisting in his Twitter bio that he was not a terrorist. At one point he even claimed to be a photo journalist.
Hassan, who used the alias Abu Dujana, died in 2014 after trying to escape Syria. He was captured only minutes away from meeting his mother across the Turkish border.
The family confirmed Hassan had died in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani after a picture of his body emerged on Twitter.
Hassan’s friend claims the teenager was ‘woke’ and travelled to Syria to ‘help’ before trying to come home – and admits his death was ‘the worst moment of his life’.
‘I knew him growing up, we were kids,’ he recalls. ‘He was what we would call today, back then, woke. He genuinely just wanted to go out there and help.
‘I didn’t really see him the last few months. It was weird because it’s a small community. One year he was one person and the next year he was a different guy.
Hassan was one of five friends from Portsmouth who pretended to go on holiday to Turkey but instead went to fight for Islamic State in Syria. The group were caught on CCTV at London’s Gatwick Airport (pictured)
Mobeen also makes contact with Hassan’s mother who, within five minutes of speaking to him off camera, was in tears
‘That’s the worst thing, he had like a change of heart and he wanted to come back. He was asking if anyone knew any lawyers and things like that.
‘He did message me once on Facebook saying he loved me and he was like, “The prophet said if you love someone you should always tell them,” and I didn’t know what to say back to that, and that’s one of the things that eats me up because I was like, I just wish he knew that I loved him too.
‘When it came to his death, that was probably the worst moment of my life. I got sent this tweet and photos of his dead face and people just swearing and things like that, and that’s the part that f***** me up because I was like s***, he’s actually dead, and as one of his real friends I blamed myself.
‘I felt like I should have been there for him and could have stopped him in some way, and that ate me up for some time, even to this day.’
Mobeen also makes contact with Hassan’s mother who, within five minutes of speaking to him off camera, was in tears.
‘She said we’re not that kind of family, we’re a middle class family, we all work, my other son is going to uni, Mehdi had taken a year out, he got AAB,’ Mobeen says.
‘She is broken. She didn’t know what was going on his life, she was always busy doing “mum things”.’
Speaking about the documentary, Mobeen says: ‘I want this film to contribute to the ever-important discussion about what fuels violent extremism and what could be done to stop more lives being torn apart in this way.’
BBC Three’s Secrets of an ISIS Smartphone will be available on BBC iPlayer from 6am on Thursday 15 July.