Thomas Evans’s clothes still hang in his bedroom wardrobe. A framed photograph of him on a holiday in New York sits conspicuously on the living room mantelpiece. Pinned to the inside of a kitchen cupboard is a colourful painting he did as a nine-year-old. But Thomas Evans hasn’t lived in this neat Buckinghamshire semi for four years. These artefacts of family life are but a ghostly reminder of happier times.
Thomas – English, middle-class, Manchester United-loving Thomas – was killed in a fire-fight with Kenyan security forces in June as he embarked on another murderous attack with the jihadi group al-Shabaab. Still strapped to his chest was the hunting knife he’d used on countless other raids to butcher who knows how many innocent people. He was 25.
The clothes, the photograph, the drawing in his High Wycombe home are mum Sally’s way of preserving the memory of Thomas as he was. The son she’d given birth to, raised, and then inconceivably, lost to Islamic terrorism. She and her younger son Micheal still struggle, as any decent family would, to understand the depraved depths to which Thomas sank. Yes, he was hurt when his father deserted the family ten years ago, devastated when a teenage romance ended abruptly. But how could it all end in radicalisation and barbarity?
In his first major interview Micheal, a mature and thoughtful 23-year-old photographer, offers some insight but remains shocked and bewildered by it. “Do I hate him? That’s a really hard question to answer. Yes, I hate him for taking the lives of all those innocent people, I hate him for all the pain he’s put my mum through. But it’s as if we are talking about two people – the brother I remember and the person he became. I love the brother he was, but I hate who he became.”
Thomas – or Tom as he was known to his brother – left the UK in 2011 at the age of 21, apparently to study Arabic in Egypt. We now know his destination was Somalia to fight with the terror group al-Shabaab. He’d converted to Islam two years earlier and, as Micheal explains, quickly rejected all the trappings of his comfortable western life.
“Growing up, he was just the normal big brother you could look up to, and I did look up to him. We were always close and always had the same group of mates, who today are still my closest friends.
“Our passion was going out on our BMX bikes. We were out on them all the time. But when he was around 18, his group of friends started to change. He’d always been the type who was easily influenced by the people he was around. He got involved in petty crime, and me and my friends drifted away from him a bit. He also had a long-term girlfriend and when that broke down, things started to change. He was madly in love with her and it just ended overnight. That devastated him. He started going to a gym just to escape from it all – we discovered afterwards that the gym has a reputation as a muslim-only gym – and that’s when he turned to Islam.”
Initially, the family welcomed his interest in religious study. It did, as Micheal says, start to “sort him out”. “He was a lot calmer. He was like the brother I used to know. It seemed like he’d found what he was looking for. It seemed a positive thing. The petty crime and stuff just stopped overnight. But that didn’t last long. He changed mosques and started going to a local prayer centre and it was there his views became more extreme.
“He was massively into music and TV. He loved hip hop and R ‘n’ B and, on TV, things like Family Guy and The Wire. But he completely cut out all music, and wouldn’t come in the room when the TV was on. He stopped eating with us because he wouldn’t have his food cooked in the same pots and pans as us.
“Every discussion we had with him about it turned into an argument. But it was really hard to have an argument with him because he seemed to know all the answers. He said we were racist. He said that unless we became Muslim, me and Mum would burn in hell.” Occasionally, the mask slipped. “He was ill once and as Mum went upstairs to his bedroom to see how he was, she could hear Family Guy playing on his laptop. But as soon as Tom heard her footsteps, he switched it to the Islamic chants he would listen to. So there was still some of the old Tom there.
“It happened later when he was in Somalia,” says Micheal. “He would ring home every month or two. I found it very difficult to talk to him, it would depend on the mood he was in. A lot of the time he’d just be preaching, which I didn’t want to hear. It was almost as if his soul had gone. But then you’d get him on another day and he just wanted to know everything about the UK, what his friends over here were doing, even silly things like how the cats were. You imagine that he’d be missing things, maybe he was at a weak point, but then the next time you spoke to him, he’d be really strict in his Islamist ways.”
It was British security services who had alerted Micheal and his mum to the fact he was in the Horn of Africa. Unbeknown to them, Thomas had been tracked by intelligence officers as he made his way from Egypt across Africa. “The first we learned of it was when we got a knock on the door from someone at the Home Office saying that they’d ‘lost’ him in Ethiopia. My mum said, ‘What do you mean – lost?’ As far as we were concerned he was still in Egypt. So it was a big shock.
“Strangely, two days later we got a call from Tom saying he was in Somalia and that we wouldn’t see him again. Mum was obviously upset but for both of us it was confusing. Today we know what’s going on out there but then we had no idea.
“After reading about them [al-Shabaab] online I knew what they were like and I knew there wasn’t going to be a way out for him. I knew we wouldn’t see him again. My mum had a glimmer of hope all the time, but I didn’t. I felt betrayed. After my dad left it was me, my mum and my brother. We were a strong unit, and it just seemed like he’d turned his back on everything to go and fight for a cause he had no reason to be involved in.”