Albano Brás, the owner of the small café, recalls them very well. They were regulars, ‘good lads’, calm, who appeared at the end of the day or at the weekend and always in a group. However much he attempted to recall some incident, the 52 year old emigrant – in Leytonstone for the last two decades – is unable to point to any particular warning sign that the ‘boys’ might have given. They laughed at the comments of others, there were no Muslim items of clothing nor was there any reference to either the Koran or to Islam. They just did not consume alcohol. They watched the football with a bottle of Sumol orange or pineapple soda. And there was no censure should one of their friends drink a Super Bock beer. Religion was left very much at the door of the Cascais.
Between 2012 and 2013, the five began sharing an apartment in Leyton, located between the calm Dawlish Road and Sidmouth Road, next to a children’s park with squirrels running through the trees. However, the Portuguese spent very little time there. It served only for sleeping, washing, praying and watching jihadist propaganda videos on the Internet. There was no television – out of choice that they stuck to with pride. The rent and daily needs were paid for by low level jobs in clothes stores or cleaning. There was not much money left at the end of the week but, then again, the group wasn’t given to great extravagances. A friend stated: ‘They didn’t need much to live. The remained satisfied with very little.’
The house was just a minute from a bus stop serving routes 58 and 69, which would take them not only to Café Cascais but also to the University of East London, in Stratford, where most of them studied, and the mosque they attended in Forest Gate. They would head off to work or the faculty in the morning and return in the evening, a daily routine similar to the rest of the immigrants living in the neighbourhood. Leyton proves little more than a dormitory for its approximately forty thousand inhabitants, over half of whom belong to an ethnic minority, a ratio far higher than the Greater London average. Here, the unemployment, poverty and criminality rates are also way above the national averages. And, this is where one of Britain’s largest Muslim communities lives.
In Portugal, none of the five paid any attention to religion. Some had even grown up in practising Catholic households. The conversion to Islam and the radicalisation had taken place there, in Greater London, in a quick process lasting just a few months in the majority of cases. Edgar, the first Portuguese person in the group to emigrate and turn Muslim, went onto influence his brother Celso and his three friends. However, who influenced him? ‘They went over to the more radical side of Islam because they wanted to, out of faith, due to not agreeing with the foreign policy of the West against Muslims. Nobody twisted their heads around. It was just like that. In Lisbon, the Muslims did not understand these questions. Here they did’, was the attempted explanation of a friend of the group who remains in London. Those responsible at the Forest Gate mosque, a white prefabricated building, modest in scale, which also serves as a religious schools, guaranteed to Expresso that they did not know any ‘brother’ of Portuguese nationality but did accept their might be a few ‘black sheep’ in amongst the flock of hundreds of persons attending the mosque daily.
A little geography may provide some more clues. Leyton, Leytonstone, Walthamstow and Whitechapel are the birthplace to some of the most wanted radical Islamists in the United Kingdom, united around platforms such as Sharia4UK and more recently Al-Muhajiroun (The Immigrants). ‘It is highly probable that the Portuguese became involved in or had at least crossed London’s hard core of extremists and recruiters’, Expresso was told by a source close to the British secret services. Between 2013 and 2014, Scotland Yard has detained various members connected with ‘terrorist acts’ at addresses very close to the quiet flat in Leyton.
In Syria, some in Raqqa, others in Aleppo, the Portuguese nevertheless remain in touch with each other. Fábio and Celso fight together. Patrício has been removed from the front line and holds an upper position in the Islamic State hierarchy. Edgar remains a ‘ghost’: without any presence on the social networks and no other news on his whereabouts. None of them seem to have any regret about having departed on Jihad. Some friends and family members who stayed in London keep up with their news via Skype and Whatsapp. They say they’re not fighting all the time but that they are not thinking about returning. They know they might be arrested and they don’t want that. ‘They also do not want to be martyrs but they do not mind dying for Allah.’
Edgar, aged 31
He was the first to travel from London to Syria sometime over 2012 or 2013. Brainy, intelligent and not one to take leading roles, he has never posted any of his photos onto social networks nor has he engaged in any type of Islamic State propaganda on Facebook or on Twitter contrary to the case of the majority of Western jihadists. In April 2014, when Expresso began writing about the Portuguese presence in Islamic State, his name was the first put forward by sources close to the European information services:
‘He’s called Edgar and is the leader of a Portuguese group fighting in Aleppo, in Syria, against the Bashar al-Assad regime’.
Edgar is no second generation immigrant nor did he gain his Portuguese passport through some marriage of convenience as initially suggested (when it was still difficult to grasp that there might be Portuguese jihadists). The son of parents who returned from Cape Verde in the late 1970s – his mother worked for the Portuguese Air Force –, was born and raised in Portugal, in the suburbs of Lisbon, halfway to Sintra. His home, a 9th floor flat, where he lived with his parents, brothers and sisters, is located within a recently built neighbourhood of tall buildings. He would walk to school where he was a dedicated student and also played amateur level football with his younger brother Celso at a local club. Football, indeed, represents the common bond between the five jihadists. They played in Portugal and continued to play in London.
Edgar graduated in management and accounting from the University of Oporto and, about a decade ago, decided to proceed with his studies in the United Kingdom at the University of East London. Expresso was told by the media relations office of this higher education establishment that they would neither confirm nor deny that the Portuguese had studied there: ‘our policy is not to comment on matters that may be related to our students or members of staff’, read the university’s e-mail sent response.
He went to live in Leyton, in the suburbs of the capital, in a low rent area but sufficiently close to the capital’s centre and where there is a growing number of Portuguese citizens, some also recent converts to Islam. Edgar joined this latter group, beginning to attend the Forest Gate mosque and, shortly after that, he had chosen his path in life: Islam, in its most radical facet.
‘They sign up to Jihad not out of despair or being unemployed but rather out of a question of faith. They went up through the levels of Islam’, was how one of the brother’s relatives explained it to Expresso in April after having watched the entire process; from the first contact with the religion to the departure for Syria.
Still in London, Edgar went from recruited to recruiter, trying to pull in Portuguese speakers to the cause via Facebook chats. He chose his targets, always young whether male or female, from Portuguese Muslim groups. He always began his chats in the same way: ‘How is your Islam going?’
A lad aged 20, Portuguese, took the bait. ‘He told me that he had a group in London and asked if I wanted to take a course on Islam to go to Morocco and Mauritania. Afterwards, he might be able to go to a country such as Syria’, he told Expresso. Alarmed, he triggered a warning in that same forum. Edgar then fled from the Internet. His mission changed: from recruiter to guerrilla fighter. In late 2012, he travelled to Turkey by plane and then walked on foot and by car over the border to northern Syria. There, he enlisted in Islamic State. He is still there.
Celso, aged 28
By far the most famous Portuguese guerrilla fighter in the service of the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi led army. In April, he put a video up on YouTube, with his face covered and AK-47 in his hand, under his fighting alias of Abu Issa Al-Andaluzi. Speaking in English, he appealed to Muslims to take up Jihad in Greater Syria. His accent immediately gave away his Portuguese origins. Shortly afterwards, through recourse to facial recognition software, the British and Portuguese secret services were able to identify the speaker as Celso Costa.
The video went viral not due to the message of Celso but rather for the introduction: there, he said he was a former football player, at Arsenal in London and that he had turned his back on football, money and the European way of life to follow the path of Allah. In his country of origin, he might even have grown up with Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best players in the world. Before the secret services revealed his true identity, there was speculation that the man behind the scarf might be the Portuguese player Luís Boa Morte or Lassana Diarra, a French footballer of Malian descent and both former Arsenal players.
The truth lies far distant. Celso, 28 years of age, was no professional footballer. But he had some skill. Along with his brother Edgar, he also set off for London with the objective of studying and getting a good job. However, what he really liked were martial arts and the football matches played on Wednesdays in Stratford or Canning Town, also in the eastern reaches of the city, along with his Portuguese and African friends. One day, he decided to try his luck at Arsenal. He went to a few open training sessions but ended up not being selected. That began and finished his connections with the London club.
With the football on hold, there was more time to listen to the sermons of the Islamic leaders in his Leyton neighbourhood and in the faculty. His friends from youth and those he made in London all agreed that Celso was a priority target to win over for the jihadist cause. His charismatic and expansive style made him a natural recruiter of guerrilla fighters for Syria and Iraq. Thus did it prove. ‘In minutes, he had gathered a group around him with his easy and cheerful talk’, said one friend. ‘He was a funny person who found it easy to make friends and had a great power of persuasion over other young and not very mentally strong persons’, added another.
He had been like this in Portugal. Celso was a cool lad, without any rules, a great fan of night-life, breakdancing and pretty girls. He liked being different, standing out, being at the centre of attention. ‘When he told me he was about to convert to Islam, I thought this was just another of his jokes. When I realised that he was serious, I was even rather content. Perhaps this would help him find the right path as he had certainly been having some difficulty in finding it. But he was totally brainwashed. Bit by bit, he got ever more fanatical. It was shocking. I begin to feel tears forming when I think about him because I know just what end awaits him. It really is a shock to see such a transformation’, a friend from the Lisbon-Sintra line explained.
This article was translated into English and shortened to fit in the 36 pages of De Groene Amsterdammer special European Press Prize 2016 edition.
Image 1: (Five Portugese members of Islamic State. From left to right Edgar, Fabio, Celso, Patricio, and Sandro ‘Funa’ (http://multimedia.expresso.pt)
Image 2: Celso on YouTube: 'In some countries you must put your children in kafir schools and who is going to teach your children? It is going to be maybe a gay, maybe a drug dealer, maybe a paedophile’ (Youtube)
Image 3: Celso, left, always with his face covered, with Fábio and the famous German rapper Deso Dogg