A British man has been given a life sentence for travelling to Syria to join so-called Islamic State (IS) nine years ago.
Shabazz Suleman, from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, was 18 when he disappeared while on a family holiday to Turkey in 2014.
The former grammar school boy was arrested at Heathrow airport on September 29 2021 and charged with a string of terror offences.
In April, he pleaded guilty to preparing acts of terrorism by travelling from the UK to Turkey in order to join IS in Syria in August 2014.
The defendant, now 27, was also charged with being a member of IS, a proscribed organisation, between 2014 and 2017, and receiving training in the use of firearms.
But these two charges were left to lie on file after the prosecution said Suleman’s guilty plea addressed them.
Judge Mark Lucraft KC jailed Suleman for life with a minimum term of nine years and six months at the Old Bailey on Friday.
He said: “You went to Syria in order to join IS. You understood IS was a proscribed organisation in English law.”
“Your ambition was to become a sniper,” he added.
“When you arrived in IS-controlled territory, you would have been vetted and only allowed to stay if you were considered to be committed to the cause,” the judge went on.
He found Suleman to be legally dangerous and adjourned to a later date a hearing to determine passing a serious crime prevention order.
Prosecutor Duncan Atkinson KC told the court that while attempting to travel to Syria, Suleman had been held by Turkish forces before opting to be part of a prisoner swap with IS.
On joining the terrorist group in Syria, he became active on social media and posted about his experiences in IS territory while engaged with members of the media.
The court heard he became “disenchanted” with jihadism and tried to desert the terrorist group.
After the collapse of IS, he was taken captive by a faction of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) before being transferred to Turkey and then Pakistan.
The court heard that in the months leading up to his departure to Turkey, Suleman’s exchanges with fellow pupils at school showed he “fully appreciated” he would be joining and supporting a terrorist organisation which engaged in “indiscriminate violence against civilians.”
In February 2014, he shared “shocking” images of violence linked with IS on a WhatsApp group and sought to play down their “horror” by comparing them to cartoons from Horrible Histories [a children’s historical sketch comedy television series].
He suggested to the same group chat that they start using Telegram – “the encrypted communication method preferred by IS” – and also told group members that he was following Jihadis in Syria on Twitter.
In June, he suggested to another school friend that they go to Iraq and “wage Jihad.”
The court heard Suleman messaged his family on the day he disappeared insisting he was “not brainwashed” and had been “planning this for months.”
“I’m gonna be a sniper insh Allah,” he told his family days later.
Suleman made contact with a journalist at the Times during his time in Syria.
Via encrypted messages he told the newspaper that he went through “intense” indoctrination by IS, adding: “I never thought I was being brainwashed until I saw the way they treat other Sunnis.”
In October 2017, he was also interviewed by Sky News while in the hands of FSA.
The prosecution said Suleman told Sky News that his intention was not really to fight, that he wanted to help Syrian people, but he was “sympathetic” to IS.
He told them he received weapons training from IS and was on guard duty for five months but indicated he had “never” killed anyone.
Suleman confirmed to the broadcaster that he went to Raqqa in February 2015 as part of a “foreign fighting battalion” and here “saw the reality of IS” – that foreign fighters were “cannon fodder.”
He arrived back in the UK on September 29 2021 and was arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000.
In a police interview, Suleman denied choosing to join IS while held in Turkey and said he had changed his mind about going but was handed over anyway as part of a deal with IS.
He also denied membership of the terrorist group, saying he never swore allegiance and was just a civilian.
He claimed he had tried to leave IS territory from mid-2015 and did not handle guns.
Suleman’s defence team had tried unsuccessfully to get his earlier account in his Sky News interview ruled inadmissible.
The defendant claimed he had been forced into doing it by the FSA and told to say he had fought with IS in battles.
There was no accusation that the broadcaster was in any way complicit.
The defendant also claimed the FSA had beat him and caused him to fear for his life after witnessing others being waterboarded.
However, Atkinson had asserted at a previous hearing that there was no evidence of duress or that Suleman had suffered ill treatment while being held by the FSA.
He told the court on Friday: “It follows from his plea and his basis of plea that the defendant now accepts that his denials in interview were untrue, and that he had both willingly and deliberately joined IS, had undertaken the training they required, and had in various important ways worked with and for them before his change of heart.”
Abdul Iqbal KC, defending, said Suleman had been an “immature and idealistic” young man who wanted to help people “in distress” and who took part in “non-combat duties” with IS.
He argued that his client had “firmly” decided within five months of joining the terrorist organisation that he wished to “flee.”
Detective Chief Superintendent Olly Wright, head of Counter Terrorism Policing South East, said: “This has been a complex investigation which has taken several years to piece together and bring to court, but it has ultimately ended in jail time for Suleman, who was planning acts of terrorism.”
He added: “Friends and family are often best placed to spot the signs of potential radicalisation, so please trust your instincts if you have any concerns, please report it.
“We can help if you act early. You won’t be wasting police time and you won’t ruin lives, but you might save them.”