Micheal and his mum learned of Thomas’s death on 14 June this year. They were midway through filming a documentary with Channel 4 about radicalisation, when images of his body appeared on Twitter. “There he was, laid out on the street with the other people who’d been killed,” says Micheal.
“It was obviously him. He had been gone for four years, so in a way you were kind of coping with that absence already, but he was gone for good now. There was not going to be another phone call.” How did he feel? “There was a sense of relief. That wasn’t my brother. I was glad that person had gone. I have always got the memories of the good days. That’s what’s important for me.”
In hindsight is there anything more he could have done? “I don’t like to think about it. I can see, now, that there were warning signs, but we just didn’t know about radicalisation then. I look at these photos of my brother and all I think is: ‘You idiot. What have you done?’ The victims and the families of the people he’s killed were only guilty of believing in a different religion. You shouldn’t be killed for that.”
It was only after dozens of witness statements were taken that the gut-wrenching horror of his complicity in the jihadist atrocities became clear. A survivor of one of the many attacks he took part in spoke of him slaughtering victims with his knife and then filming them being shot. He was recording one such night-time raid when he was shot and killed by Kenyan security forces. That footage features in the Channel 4 documentary.
Micheal can’t bring himself to read those reports. “You knew the group he was fighting for were terrible and that if he was out there fighting, he was going to be involved in these terrible acts. I don’t really want to know anything else. I have heard some of it, but I don’t know…I don’t feel like I need to know.”
Thomas’s mother Sally resisted what must have been an overwhelming urge to bring her son’s body back home. Instead, he had an Islamic burial somewhere near the Kenya and Somalia border. “We had the option to bring him home, but we didn’t think it was right,” says Micheal
“He said he’d never come back to the UK, so it felt wrong to bring him back over here for our own selfish gain if you like. Plus, we were concerned that people would either vandalise where he’d be buried or idolise it, and we didn’t want either.
“My mum has thought about going out to see where he’s buried, but it’s not a safe place to go. And would you really want to? I don’t want to see where he was doing all those terrible things.”
More torment was to follow for Sally. In a telephone conversation with her dead son’s 14-year-old jihadi bride, the girl expressed her joy at his passing. He had gone to paradise as a martyr and she should be proud of him, the girl said. Through tears of anger Sally was forced to condemn her own son. “He has not gone to paradise,” she told the girl. “He is burning in hell.”
Today, the family are speaking out to alert others to the dangers of radicalisation, but not to engage in cultural hate. Says Micheal: “I feel really sorry for the the millions of ordinary Muslims who have this stereotype applied to them. My mum went to the local mosque and prayed with the imam after we found out Tom was killed. They were as shocked and angry as we were – it’s almost as if they felt betrayed as well.
“But if we sit at home and don’t talk about it, we’re almost letting the terrorists win and that’s not right. People need to talk about it. I have these two people in my head. The brother I used to go BMXing with and the brother in this strange country who is killing people because they believe in a different religion. It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t think it’s something we’ll ever understand.
“Everyone will remember Tom as a terrorist, but he was a normal boy before that. People need to realise it could happen to anyone.”
My Son the Jihadi is on Thursday 22nd October at 9.00pm on Channel 4