Two Birmingham Men Jailed For 12 Years For Joining Al-Qaida In Syria

6 December 2014, 08:08 | Updated: 6 December 2014, 11:25

Two Birmingham men have each been jailed for 12 years and 8 months after admitting Syria related terror offences.

Childhood friends Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, both 22 and from Handsworth, were arrested when they returned to the UK and were caught after their worried familes went to the police.

They were arrested on their return to the UK in January and pleaded guilty to one count of engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorism acts contrary to Section 5 of the Terrorism Act.

They were sentenced at Woolwich Crown Court in London today to 12 years and eight months in prison with an extended licence period of five years.

Judge Michael Topolski QC said: "They willingly, enthusiastically and with a great deal of purpose, persistence and determination embarked on a course intended to commit acts of terrorism.''

The brother of one of the men said the sentence he received was too long and asked: "Why would any other family come forward now?''

Childhood friends Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, from Birmingham, fled to the war-torn country in May last year after contacting Islamic extremists.

The men, both 22, were arrested on their return to the UK in January and pleaded guilty to one count of engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorism acts contrary to Section 5 of the Terrorism Act.

They were each given an extended sentence of 17 years and eight months at London's Woolwich Crown Court today, including a custodial term of 12 years and eight months with a five-year licence period.

Judge Michael Topolski QC said: "They willingly, enthusiastically and with a great deal of purpose, persistence and determination embarked on a course intending to commit acts of terrorism.

"The consequences for them are dramatic, the distress for the families considerable.

"It's with no enthusiasm the court sentences young men to significant terms of imprisonment. However, the court will not shrink from its duty where, as here, a grave crime has been committed.

"The sentence in each of your cases is an extended sentence of 17 years and eight months.''

Judge Topolski said he had imposed the extended term after reaching the "clear conclusion'' that Sarwar and Ahmed are "dangerous''.

"Both of these defendants are fundamentalists who are interested in and deeply committed to violent extremism,'' he added.

They will serve two-thirds of their custodial term before being considered for release on licence.

Speaking after the case on behalf of Ahmed's family, his brother said: "Our reaction to the sentence was complete shock. We are confused, angry and bewildered.

"We have no idea why he got 12 years when similar cases have got four years. I can't get my head around what the judge is thinking.

"My brother saw people getting slaughtered and he wants to deal with that. He made a mistake and now has a life sentence.

"We co-operated fully with the police. We feel betrayed. Why would any other family come forward now?''

He said the family plan to appeal against the sentence.

Judge Topolski said that, while he concluded Sarwar and Ahmed had not planned for an attack in the UK, the discovery of instructions on how to make an improvised explosive device in their belongings was "deeply disturbing''.

There was also evidence to show "without doubt'' that the men were travelling to Syria "intending on jihad'' and "martyrdom on the battlefield'', he added.

He rejected arguments from lawyers representing Sarwar and Ahmed that the sentence should be reduced because the pair joined a group fighting Syrian dictator President Bashar al-Assad.

"This was not a spontaneous response to travel to a humanitarian crisis,'' he said. "This was a well-planned operation put into action for very different reasons.''

Sarwar, wearing a light-coloured shirt, tie and waistcoat, and Ahmed, dressed in a dark suit with a shirt and tie, showed no emotion throughout the hearing.

The bearded defendants, both wearing glasses, were flanked by four security guards in the dock.

Ahmed and Sarwar, from the Handsworth area of Birmingham, only returned to the UK after their families put pressure on them to come home.

Officers from West Midlands Police's counter-terrorism unit were waiting for them at Heathrow Airport, where they were arrested.

A trial due to start in July at Woolwich Crown Court was abandoned when they each admitted the terrorism charge against them.

Judge Topolski praised the "considerable amount of courage'' shown by Sarwar's family after they reported him missing to police in May last year following the discovery of a handwritten letter from him revealing he had fled to Syria.

The letter addressed to his mother, Majida Sarwar, detailed his intention to ''do jihad'' by joining a terrorist group called Kataib al Muhajireen (KaM) - later renamed Kateeba al-Kawthar.

The letter also contained money to pay off his debts and instructions to end his mobile phone contract.

In the weeks before leaving the UK, he faked documents to convince his family he was travelling to Turkey as part of a two-week trip organised by Birmingham City University, where he was a part-time computer science student.

Ahmed had told his family he was going on holiday with Sarwar.

A police search of the men's homes while the pair were in Syria revealed an online conversation between Ahmed and a Swedish national fighting with the KaM, during which Ahmed said he wanted to join the terrorist group.

Ahmed was told by another Danish Islamist extremist that jihadis could return to their home countries in the EU to carry out tasks.

Ahmed, who was born in Bangladesh, moved to Britain as a child, while Sarwar, who is of Pakistani descent, was born in Britain.

After their arrest, the pair told police that they travelled to Syria for humanitarian reasons. But officers found ''thousands'' of warzone-related images of the men with guns on a digital camera carried by the pair into the UK.

The initial search of their homes revealed images of Islamic propaganda on both of their computers, including images of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) flags, shaheed (martyr) literature and several texts which are linked to the jihadi mindset.

Officers found social media and email conversations between the pair and Islamic extremists.

In mitigation, Sarwar's barrister, Michael Ivers, said one of the reasons his client returned to the UK in January was due to the rise of militant group Islamic State, which he dubbed ``Frankenstein's monster''.

"He could see the way things were going and wanted no part of it,'' Mr Ivers said. "Frankenstein's monster, i.e. Isis, is something to be very concerned about.''

Ayoub Khan, representing Ahmed, said his client had travelled to Syria following the "constant drip feed of atrocity'' in the country but left as he also wanted "no part'' of Isis.

Detective Chief Superintendent Sue Southern, head of West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit, said: "This case typifies the challenges both police and families are facing when it comes to young people being influenced to join the conflict in Syria or Iraq.

"These two men had no previous connections to extremist organisations and no police record. They were not known to us.

"However, one of them was clearly being influenced by extremists he was talking to online, and he in turn was radicalising his friend.

"As hard as it might be for families, it is vital they come forward and report concerns to us as soon as possible.''