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The Man Behind the Mask? When We Met Islamic State’s Suspected New Executioner

VICE News visited Siddhartha Dhar, also known as Abu Rumaysah, at his garage in East London in 2013, where he talked about his radicalization process and predicted Islamic State "warfare."

by Aws al-Jezairy and VICE News
Jan 5 2016, 6:55pm

Image via VICE News

As soon as the latest Islamic State (IS) propaganda video was released on Sunday, the world rushed to identify the British man behind the mask, who promised the UK would be attacked before beginning the executions of five hostages.

Abu Rumaysah, whose birth name was Siddhartha Dhar, was quickly named on social media as the likely culprit, and official sources endorsed this suspicion on Tuesday — though his identity has not been confirmed. In June 2013, VICE News met and interviewed Abu Rumaysah at his garage and storage space in Walthamstow, East London, as part of films we were making about hardline Islamists in the British capital.

Rumaysah was part of a pressure group called the Shariah Project, which was campaigning for Sharia law in the UK.

Related: Islamic State Says It Sends 'A Message to David Cameron' With Video of Executions

During a visit to his garage, Rumaysah talked us through the different material he was using to spread his beliefs and "capture the hearts and minds of people."

"Imagine living in a society where the state provided free food, clothing, and shelter for its people," he read from a placard, claiming it "immediately grabs the reader." The campaigning "isn't cheap," he explained, with a box of printed leaflets advertising the benefits of Sharia law costing 40 pounds ($58), which he and other members of the Shariah Project collected between themselves.

Originally a Hindu, Dhar converted to Islam at the age of 19 — after 9/11, at a time when "Islam was the talking point in the media" — changing his name to Abu Rumaysah. He was nicknamed Abu Usama — his "don't get arrested name," he joked.

Rumaysah went on to get heavily involved in street preaching and campaigning for Sharia law in Britain. He explained he lost many of his non-Muslim friends and family. "My cousins and my sisters, even they have been a bit distant from me as well, because of the lifestyle I lead," he told VICE News.

He spoke to VICE director Rhys James about factors that had influenced his radicalization process, including racial profiling, stop and searches, and anti-Muslim rhetoric and propaganda in the media and political sphere. He and many other Muslims felt alienated, he said. 

"There's been an 'us and them' agenda that [makes it] easy to understand as why it would force someone down the path like that," said James. "Preachers or people whose job it is to catch someone like that — [the] people who fall off the grid or become disenfranchised and are looking for somewhere to go — that's what they capitalize on."

Rumaysah spoke passionately about what he believed was the oppression and victimization of Muslims in the UK. "The policies which the government are committing are having a negative affect on the [Muslim] youth," he said. The deportation of a radical cleric and one of his personal teachers, Omar Bakri, was an example of the UK government's detrimental policies, he said, which "could spiral out of control."

James said Rumaysah seemed "visibly upset" about the fact the rest of his family would, in his eyes, go to hell. "He was quite clear when we spoke about it that he believed his parents, his sister, and his family who still believed in the Hindu [faith] would go to the hellfire, and he wasn't saying it matter of factly, he was obviously emotionally affected by it all," said James. "So you could see he felt a deep conflict there between him and his parents' beliefs."

In comments foreshadowing the future, Rumaysah talked about future battles. "When the Islamic State is established, there will be a foreign policy, and if there is no treaty with [the UK], there will be a policy of warfare."

Among all the Islamic promotional materials were large, colorful, deflated bouncy castles from Rumaysah's previous hire business which he talked about reluctantly, explaining: "The more we got involved in our [Sharia] campaign, we realized space was needed for our materials."

More than a year after the interview, in September 2014, Rumaysah was arrested during a series of dawn raids on charges of supporting the banned Salafi organization Al-Muhajiroon. But before he was due in court he dodged British authorities, taking his passport, three children and wife to flee to Syria and join IS.

"He was bailed on the condition that he hand his passport into the police, but he skipped that and went straight to Syria," said James. "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."

Months later Rumaysah tweeted a photograph of himself proudly carrying his new born baby and a rifle, accompanied by the text: "What a shoddy security system Britain must have to allow me to breeze through Europe to [IS]." Shortly afterwards his Twitter account was suspended.

Image via Twitter

Little more was heard of Rumaysah until May 2015, when he published a 40-page "travel guide" to the Islamic State. He described all the virtues of the self-proclaimed caliphate, from the drinks and food to the social diversity. "If you thought you would be living on stale bread and septic water then erase that culinary fib from your mind," he wrote, before listing all the local produce which "beat anything from your local Tescos or Walmart."

Now it seems he may have been chosen by IS to take the place of Mohammed Emwazi, or "Jihadi John," to become the new British frontman for propaganda videos. Emwazi was killed in a drone strike in Syria in November after appearing in numerous execution videos.

A man thought to be Rumaysah introduced Sunday's video by saying it was a "message" for UK Prime Minister David Cameron. IS "will continue to wage jihad, break borders," he said, "and one day invade your land where we will rule by the Sharia." Following a short speech, he appears to shoot the first of five hostages in the head.

James said Rumaysah seemed very "media-savvy" and unthreatening, "not in the slightest" capable of violence. "He was very jovial," said James. "It's worth mentioning that whenever I was around these [hardline Islamist] kids I never felt any sense of threat or anxiety at all. Once you got over their rhetoric, I never felt in danger, and haven't since I suppose. It's more of a shock that it was him that went to Syria in the first place. [Rumaysah] was extremely polite and courteous."

Related: Why the Islamic State Attacked Paris — And What Happens Next