What’s more surprising: that a narcissistic if charismatic recruiter for Islamic State (IS), known to the security authorities, was allowed to operate freely, to the point a young convert was killed in Syria, or that he allowed himself to be filmed by a journalist for years, seemingly untroubled that he was gifting material to his eventual prosecutors?
Based in Norway, the film in question, Recruiting for jihad by producer and director Ulrik Rolfsen (that I had the great privilege of helping out on), has just been released. It made its international debut at the HotDocs documentary festival in Toronto on April 30th and has been well received. For three years Mr Rolfsen and fellow journalist Adel Farooq followed jihadist missionary and Norwegian citizen Ubaydullah Hussain, who was jailed on April 4th for nine years for supporting IS and grooming recruits.
The film shows Mr Hussain arranging for a number of Norwegian men to travel to Syria and Iraq for what he describes as humanitarian work. He consistently denied he was an IS recruiter but clearly delighted in the group’s existence and purpose. “No country, apart from IS, is ruled by the laws of Allah,” he says, “I’m happy that we finally have a country where we can practice Islam and live by the laws of Allah.”
We see him travelling to Denmark to pray over the grave of the 22-year old gunman killed by police in Copenhagen after he shot into a café that was hosting a meeting on free speech. He murdered one person and injured three more. “What do you think about what he did?” a Swedish journalist asks Hussain’s associate at the graveside. “Well what do you think about what is going on in Israel?” comes the reply.
The film is full of such obfuscations and contradictions. But underneath is the steady drumbeat of hatred and division. “It’s very important to have a community where you belong,” he explains at one point, to a potential recruit, “you’ll never feel at home in this country or this society.” Five weeks after being filmed handing out leaflets in Oslo, Norwegian convert Thom Alexander Karlssen was killed in Syria fighting for IS in March 2015. Hussain had bought his ticket out from Oslo.
The film shows that in 2014 Hussain visited Britain and met with Anjem Choudary and a number of associates. Among them was Brunsthom Ziamani (convicted shortly afterwards of planning the beheading of a British soldier), Siddhartha Dhar, also known as Abu Rumaysah and Mohammed Reza Haque, known as The Giant. Dhar and Haque subsequently went to fight for IS in Syria and have featured in images posted online of prisoner executions (they have both, at various times, been dubbed ‘Jihadi John 2’).
In a bizarre twist, Mr Rolfsen’s home was raided by Norwegian security officials as he filmed Hussain and his material was seized. Benedicte Bjørnland, Head of Police Security Service in Norway, said they had compelling reasons to believe Mr Rolfsen’s material included proof of the intention of an 18-year old we meet as ‘Peter’ to travel to Syria to join IS (as well as other material).
However, as Frithjof Jacobsen, a security commentator countered, “if the police don’t have evidence to imprison this 18-year old without confiscating material from people who make documentaries, then they have a problem”.
After a number of legal challenges the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled that Mr Rolfsen did not have to reveal his sources to the authorities. The presiding judge said that Mr Rolfsen’s film was “the essence of investigative journalism [and] addresses a central and urgent problem of society where the general public and authorities need to have knowledge and insight”. He said the protection of sources was “crucial to be able to make this film”.
Mr Rolfsen saw the verdict as having wider importance. “It is very significant,” he said, “it means that we can work to uncover things in society. We have different roles. The police have their role. It’s their job to prosecute and I respect that. Our job is to expose things and enlighten the public.”
The privacy debate is a live one right now, and in the UK the new Investigatory Powers Act, dubbed the Snoopers Charter, has been controversial. Mr Rolfsen’s film highlights the fine line police, prosecutors and journalists have to tread in this area: at what point does a journalists responsibility to society overrule that to his subject?
We hear a lot about extremist recruiting these days. For anyone interested in understanding quite what that looks like I commend this film. As for why Hussain never travelled to Syria himself? “I’ve been exempted from carrying out jihad,” he says just before his arrest. “I have a chronic illness and in my state of health I can’t go on long trips.”
‘Peter’ was arrested by Swedish police trying to board a plane in Gothenburg bound for Turkey. He was convicted of trying to join a terrorist organisation and sentenced to two years and ten months.