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- Akram and Mohamed Sebah described as cheerful, helpful and polite
- With bright futures they seemed to epitomise the British immigrant dream
- But they died fighting alongside Al Qaeda-backed jihadis in Syria
- Their parents were so ashamed they pretended they had died in crash
- Now 'poster-boys' in a drive to recruit more young Britons to fight in Syria
Published: 22:53 GMT, 5 February 2014 | Updated: 23:41 GMT, 5 February 2014>
When the father of Mohamed and Akram Sebah told his neighbours last September that his sons had died in a car crash while visiting America, a wave of grief swept through the North London square.
Many residents of this close-knit community in Holloway attended a wake at the family’s elegant, three-storey townhouse and later joined a procession to the nearby mosque.
They had greatly admired the brothers, and not only because they were unfailingly cheerful, helpful and polite.
Battle ready: Brothers Mohamed (left) and Akram Sebah, from London, died waging jihad in Syria's civil war
Having gained impressive qualifications and forged successful careers, even though their parents had arrived here as refugees from strife-torn Eritrea in East Africa, they were inspirational young men who seemed to epitomise the British immigrant dream.
To fully grasp their status among neighbours in Cornwallis Square, particularly among the younger people for whom they were role models, I should briefly explain its social make-up.
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Though its elegant, mock-Georgian terraces were designed for Yuppies during the late-Eighties property boom, the cement was barely dry before property prices crashed, whereupon most were taken over by a housing association, which now rents them (for just £145 a week) to low-income tenants of many colours and creeds.
According to George O’Connor, 50, an Irish-Jamaican welder who’s lived a few doors from the Sebahs for more than 20 years, ‘if you’re looking for an example of people of all cultures living harmoniously together, Cornwallis Square is it’.
Successful: Estate agent Akram on the professional website Linkedin
And when its families peered from their windows to see Akram, 24, arriving home in his yellow VW Beetle — a perk of his job as a £50,000-a-year estate agent — or maths tutor Mohamed, 28, striding off to teach a private pupil, they glimpsed the rewards that London might offer to anyone with sufficient purpose and endeavour.
We can only imagine the sense of shock, then, when these same families opened their newspapers last week to be confronted by a photograph of the pair in very different guise.
Gone were their favoured designer suits, replaced by paramilitary fatigues whose pouches bulged with bullets. Gone, too, their workaday briefcases; instead, both brandished AK47 machine-guns.
The only reminder of the young Londoners they had been was Akram’s back-to-front baseball cap.
To those who had heard their father, Abdulrahman, 62, describe how they had been killed in a mini-cab crash which had left the driver in a coma (an irony, given that he himself had worked as a taxi-driver), the story accompanying the photo was more astonishing still.
Mohamed and Akram had not travelled to America last summer. They had stolen away to fight alongside Al Qaeda-backed jihadis in the Syrian civil war, and died in a gun-battle.
One of Akram’s friends told me how the brothers had been buried amid the rubble where they fell, which would explain why neighbours were not invited to their funeral.
And now they have become ‘poster-boys’ in the drive to recruit still more naïvely idealistic young British Muslims to fight in Syria.
The picture of them clutching their guns shortly before they were killed has been posted on extremist websites proclaiming them Islamic martyrs, hailing them as the ‘Lions of Britain’.
Meanwhile, among their circle of friends in London, a grimmer image is being transmitted between mobile phones.
Flourished at me by one of their number last week, it shows the blood-encrusted corpses of two bearded young men, said to be Akram and Mohammad but captioned with their Arab noms-de-guerre, Abu Abdur Rahman Al-Eritri and Abu Usama Al-Eritri.
Conflict: A rebel fighter fires a rocket-propelled grenade at government troops on a main road connecting Aleppo with central Syria (file picture). The Sebah brothers were killed killed waging jihad in Syria's brutal civil war
For the Government and anti-terror officers, all this is deeply worrying and precisely the sort of scenario spurring the new crackdown on so-called ‘jihadi tourists’ who go to fight in Syria.
Using executive powers beefed-up by Home Secretary Theresa May, police are seizing the passports of anyone suspected of travelling to engage in ‘fighting, extremist activity or terror training’.
Earlier last week, Sue Hemming, the head of counter-terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service, said that Britons who travel to join the rebels in the Syrian conflict will face prosecution and even possible life sentences on their return.
Border control and airport security officers are on high alert, and 14 people have already been held on Syria-related charges this month, compared with 24 in the whole of 2013.
Some have been arrested at Stansted and Gatwick airports, both of which also operate cheap connections to Turkey — the staging post of choice for jihadi tourists.
Official estimates put the number of British residents or citizens who have taken this route at around 300. However, the ‘hate-preacher’ Anjem Choudary claims the number is ‘in the thousands’.
Worrying claim: Notorious 'hate-preacher' Anjem Choudary claims the number of Britons fighting in Syria is 'in the thousands'
Last week, Greater Manchester Chief Constable Sir Peter Fahy, leader of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ counter-terrorism strategy, spoke of the ‘real worry’ that they would be radicalised and trained in terror warfare, and return to threaten Britain’s security.
‘We have seen in a number of cases how people from conventional backgrounds — professional people — can turn in a relatively short period of time,’ he told me. ‘It is easy for people to become radicalised from mainstream or minority media material on the internet.’
Choudary insists British Muslims need only watch TV and see the atrocities being committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime to be stirred into fighting.
‘There is a brotherhood of Muslims worldwide and they feel they are going out there to defend their brothers and sisters. That’s an admirable thing to do,’ he told me. ‘Why are people being arrested and demonised for it?’
In a typically abrasive aside, he added: ‘Anyway, It’s not hard to cause havoc here without going to Syria — Adebolajo (one of the Woolwich murderers) did it with knives from B&Q.’
So what drove Mohamed and Akram Sebah to sacrifice their lives for someone else’s struggle in someone else’s land?
Like many of the 40,000 Eritreans who fled to London, either to escape the war of independence with Ethiopia or the repressive regime which governs the new nation, Abdulrahman Sebah and his wife Zeinab were determined to provide the best for their two sons and four daughters.
Mohamed and Akram both loved sports, particularly football. Both were involved with the local youth team.
Education was the priority, however, and at Duncombe Primary School, headmaster Barrie O’Shea remembers them as ‘good, delightful students’.
They moved on to Islington Arts & Media College and quickly became two of its most promising new pupils. They then sat A-levels at a nearby college.
Akram earned a place on a biomedical sciences degree course at Westminster University. He was there between 2008 and 2011, working part-time at Marks & Spencer and Iceland to pay his way.
On graduating he landed a job at estate agent’s Ludlow Thompson, where ex-colleague and friend Marijus Revzinas remembers him as one of the firm’s most dynamic sales and letting negotiators, earning commission that more than trebled his basic £15,000 salary.
‘Akram was a good-looking, out-going, talkative, smart entrepreneurial guy,’ he says. ‘He was energetic and persistent — a born salesman.’
Reviewing the companies’ services online, a customer described him as ‘admirable’ — the sort of employee who ‘gives estate agents a good name’.
Coincidentally, Akram’s office was close to Finsbury Park Mosque, once a hotbed of radical Islam.
Akram’s friends told the Washington Post last week he had frequented the mosque, but its current director, Mohammed Kozbar, said neither brother was known to him.
Akram enjoyed a distinctly Western lifestyle. Though he rarely drank alcohol, he liked rap music, went clubbing, and had an eye for the girls.
Akram Sebah worked close to the Finsbury Park Mosque, once a hotbed of radical Islam
His Facebook friends included a string of pretty acquaintances, including an Estonian model and actress, and other attractive Eastern European women.
He hardly sounds like an archetypical Islamic extremist, yet last June Akram simply vanished. Friends’ calls went unanswered, messages weren’t returned. Where on earth had he gone? The only clue came from a post on his LinkedIn profile.
‘Currently exploring new opportunities,’ he had written enigmatically. ‘Not looking for new role.’
What of Mohamed? Always aloof and self-contained, far less is known about him; not least because he had no traceable social network account.
Did he deliberately remain under the radar while preparing for his new role as a jihadi? It seems plausible, for he disappeared from Cornwallis Square in his early 20s, and was away for some five years.
He was said to be teaching in Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islamic fundamentalism, but about 18 months ago, he suddenly reappeared, bearded, earnest-looking, given to wearing traditional Islamic robes.
Did Mohamed come home a fanatic and set about radicalising his younger brother? A neighbour believes so.
‘Akram looked up to Mohamed and did what he said,’ he told me. ‘Mohamed was always more religious, too, but when he got back you could see he was a lot more serious about it.
‘I reckon he probably brainwashed Akram. I’ve known him all his life and he was a very peaceful person who never got into any trouble. So why else would he have given everything up to fight over there?’
In the Blue Nile, an Eritrean restaurant occasionally frequented by the brothers’ father, however, I found a more prosaic view.
Increasing numbers of Britons are choosing to leave their lives in the UK and travel to fight in the Syrian civil war
Many young Eritreans had lost touch with their cultural and traditional values, a huddle of customers told me. But still they didn’t feel they truly belonged here.
Alienated both from their own kin, and mainstream British society, they were seeking their own identity — and a worrying number were turning to radical Islam. It was a story we have heard in other British Muslim communities.
Whatever the reason for their decision, the brothers would have had to pay hundreds of pounds for the ‘privilege’ of joining the insurgents.
According to experts, they would have been obliged to buy their own weapons, and cover the cost of their training. Becoming a jihadi tourist is evidently a middle-class pursuit.
Messages posted on extremist websites reveal that the brothers were assigned to separate fighting forces but they were apparently killed in the same gun-battle — not with Assad’s troops, but with Kurdish separatists, this being a many-sided conflict.
Abdulrahman Sebah, their father, has indicated that he had no idea of their plans when they left home, and would have moved heaven and earth to stop them if he had.
His wife is said to be devastated, leaving the house only to shuffle aimlessly around the park opposite, propped on a daughter’s arm.
The Foreign Office says that, as Britain has no presence in Syria, it cannot confirm the deaths, and that it did not inform Mr and Mrs Sebah about them.
Among their neighbours, though, it is widely assumed that the couple must have learned very quickly how their sons were killed, and made up the car crash story out of shame.
If so, they will surely be forgiven.
Faced with the harsh reality, however, that the brothers were poster-boys for Al Qaeda, not multicultural Britain, today instead of harmony, there is distress — and not a little unease — among the residents of Cornwallis Square.
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