This weekend, a video was released by the Islamic State that purportedly shows the execution of five men IS call "British spies"—a characterization that was later denied by UK intelligence services. Since the masked man in the propaganda clip speaks with a British accent, tabloids were quick to label him the "new Jihadi John" and began speculating about his true identity.
Before long, most outlets were focusing their attention on one man: Siddhartha Dhar, also known as Abu Rumaysah. According to the BBC, an official source confirmed that the Muslim convert from London—who skipped bail and left the UK for Syria in 2014—is the primary suspect. However, there has been no official confirmation that Rumaysah is the man in the video.
In 2013, while documenting groups of young men promoting radical Islam in London, VICE director Rhys James met and spoke with Abu Rumaysah on a number of occasions; I had a chat with Rhys about the time he spent with him.
VICE: Tell me how you came to meet Abu Rumaysah.
Rhys James: I started making a film about the Muslim patrols that were happening around London at the time, which he was organizing. He was really personable, along with one of the other guys, Abu Wallah. So over the course of eight months, whenever we were allowed we went on these patrols, which were sort of like processions, [with members] doing chants and holding up banners around East London, calling people to praise Islam and denouncing people who don't.
Then he started another project later on, after the Muslim patrols hit the newspapers and some people got arrested—though he wasn't arrested. It was when Britain First came on the scene, the far-right action group that went around "defending themselves," or attacking Muslims, whichever way you want to paint it. To combat that, Abu Rumaysah created a group called Islamic Emergency Defence, which was essentially the same type of thing as—do you know Shomrim?
Yeah, the Jewish neighborhood patrol in North London?
Yeah, like that. So they did this thing called the Islamic Emergency Defence, with a phone line and website, so if anyone thought they were in trouble or saw people attacking mosques—that kind of thing—there would be a few cars on patrol and they would go check it out. So he was very much an active member of, I suppose, the political side of Islam in that kind of crowd in East London.
You say he was political—do you recall what his main passions were? Denouncing British foreign policy? The implementation of Sharia law? Or just a little bit of everything?
Yeah, I mean, when I got to know him best is when we'd done the patrols and he allowed us to go to a lock-up in Walthamstow where they kept all the flyers and banners for when they went on the patrols or protests. He kind of opened up a little bit around then—he's actually Hindu, or his parents are Hindu, and he was quite clear when he spoke to me about it that he believed his parents, his sister, and his family, who still believed in Hinduism, would go to the hellfire [when they died]. He wasn't saying it matter-of-factly at all; he was obviously emotionally affected by it, so it went to show that he did believe that was actually going to happen, but also that he felt a deep conflict there between his and his parents' beliefs. He was visibly upset.
Did he talk much about his conversion to Islam? Or when he became radicalized?
Well, it was a long time ago [that we spoke], but I think it was at school when he changed his religion. As far as the radicalization, there were a group of people we interviewed during pre-production that were his age and in his peer group. The youngest person we met was 17 and the oldest person was Abu Rumaysah, at 31, 32, and all of them talked about radicalizing factors which included things like profiling, stop and searches, increased rhetoric and propaganda in the media and politics, and just the general anti-Muslim rhetoric in the UK at the moment.
Did he talk much about his life before radical Islam? He ran a bouncy castle business, didn't he?
That was actually at the same time. When we were in the lock-up I saw this bright yellow plastic sheet to the left of these banners with, you know, images of a burning London, so I asked him about it and he said, "It's my bouncy castle business that I run." He actually didn't want us to talk about it, because I guess...
Probably not great for business.
No, not really.
What was your own personal impression of him?
To be completely honest, he was well media-trained, media savvy. I'd call him and he'd always ask me how I was and would be very jovial. It's worth mentioning that whenever I was around these [hardline Islamist] kids I never felt any sense of threat or anxiety at all. It's more of a shock that it was him that went to Syria in the first place. He was extremely polite and courteous, and certainly good-humored when the cameras were off—we had lighthearted conversations as well, you know.
So he kind of snapped out of the rhetoric once the cameras were off.
To an extent, yeah. It's not like he was like, "Come on, let's go to the pub." But before we'd turn on the cameras we'd have a normal catch-up, and I'd go as far as saying he was quite a charming guy, and very eloquent as well.
At the time did he seem capable of violence?
No, not in the slightest. With the Muslim patrols, Jordan Horner, the white ginger guy, was the most intimidating, in terms of a guy you'd look at and be around and feel intimidated by.
He was jailed for assault while on the patrols, right?
Yeah, but he's actually since come out and renounced the extremism he preached before his stretch in prison. So it's interesting to think about what would've happened if Abu Rumaysah had had a stretch in prison. What was interesting was that he was bailed on the condition that he hand his passport into the police, but he skipped that and went straight to Syria. I'm not saying it was right or wrong, but there was definitely a "now or never" moment he was presented with because of his beliefs, and he ended up going to Syria because of it. It was fight or flight.
What was his attitude towards the UK?
Well, an interesting thing was that all of the kids we spoke to talked about the same thing when we asked about fighting here [in the UK]—a thing called the covenant of security, which they all believed in, which is kind of like respecting the laws of the land. They wouldn't bring war here or do anything to affect non-Muslims, because their religion has been respected here—it's sort of where you leave a land alone, as long as you're allowed to preach Islam in it.
But then he also talks about armies from an Islamic State being sent to conquer Europe and the UK.
Exactly, so that's the thing that would presumably have changed from when I interviewed him in 2013, because all of them were in agreement that Britain would be left alone, at least for the time being. But this is something that a bunch of kids were talking about, so how much credence you want to give it, I don't know.
Finally, do you think he went to Syria to live under sharia law, or to actively wage jihad? Or both?
This is just my personal opinion, but I don't think he would have gone to Syria if he hadn't been told he was going to be put in prison and taken away from his family.
You think he had too much to lose, weighed it up, and decided to go?
Yeah, and when he got to Syria, the first thing that happened—whether it was him offering, or being told, or just by coincidence—was a big photo with him and the baby and the AK-47, [which is him] essentially saying "fuck you" [to the UK]. And then, lo and behold, Jihadi John is apparently killed, so who's going to be the next poster boy for ISIS's UK contingent?