It’s January 2014. The Somerset Levels are flooding and storms are battering the British coast. In a branch of Costa in Walthamstow, east London, the froth on the coffee is also being whipped up. A religious extremist is explaining his vision of a global revolution. Across the table from Abu Rumaysah, filmmaker Jamie Roberts listens. He’s making a documentary about Islamic extremism in the UK and Rumaysah is as extreme as they get – though when he’s not talking revolution he hires out bouncy castle equipment from a lock-up he rents. The contradiction isn’t lost on Roberts.
“The talk was hard, but he didn’t strike me as being hard in any way, I certainly didn’t feel menaced by him,” he recalls of the two-hour meeting. “I thought, ‘Here you are talking about world domination and yet you have a bouncy castle business.’ I couldn’t take him seriously.”
Spool forward two years and Roberts glances into what he believes are the eyes of Rumaysah again. This time it’s on a TV screen and his face is covered by a mask. The rhetoric is similar but this time the words are from Islamic State and shown across the world. After a scripted 306-word attack on David Cameron – “Only an imbecile would dare to anger a people who love death the way that you love your life” – Rumaysah puts a bullet into the head of one of five kneeling captives in front of him. The four others are also quickly despatched by Isis killers.
Though some have questioned whether Rumaysah is the executioner, Roberts is in little doubt. “A friend of Rumaysah’s texted me and told me to watch but, more importantly, listen to the video. As soon as I heard his voice I thought ‘That’s him’. I’m 95 per cent certain it is. It’s the voice I’ve been listening to while editing this film, the voice I remember from the coffee shop.”
The film in question – The Jihadis Next Door – has been rushed to air on Channel 4 this week. It’s a sequel to Roberts’s Angry, White and Proud documentary that looked at white, rightwing extremism. The starting point for his new film was to ask whether the ideological warfare being waged by Islamic extremists on the streets of Britain translates to terror at home and abroad. Roberts says the example of Rumaysah proves that it does.
“This is something that started out on the high street and ended with a man who didn’t seem to me to be at all threatening putting a bullet through someone’s head. That’s totally shocking.”
Roberts met Rumaysah many times while making his film. Sometimes the message was hard to unravel; at other times it was chillingly clear. “We will never give up calling for Islam. Whether you arrest us, whether you imprison us, whether you torture us, whatever you do to us, you will never stop the call of Islam. We are the Muslims. We submit to Allah… when the Muslims re-establish Islamic law, don’t worry, we will never forget our Muslims in the UK.”
They last met on a protest outside Paddington Green police station in London in the summer of 2014, just before Rumaysah’s own arrest. We now know that within days of being bailed he headed to Syria with his wife and children. Roberts can’t understand why he wasn’t stopped. “He was in plain sight. He was one of the most visible proponents of this type of ideology. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?”
And what of his future? “He will become a hero to those within the networks he operates in, but ultimately he will go the way of Jihadhi John.”
The Jihadis Next Door is on Channel 4 tonight (Tuesday 19th January) at 9.00pm