Who is Jihadi Jack, the young boy from Oxford who ran away to Syria?

He hates his parents, hasn’t joined ISIS and misses doughnuts


Much has been made of the few Europeans who have forsaken their western lives to travel east to Syria to fight for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. There is another case, however, which is far less clear cut. The story of a white English man who has ventured to Syria, forsaken his secular roots and dedicated himself to Sharia Law, yet remains critical of the fundamentalist group within whose territory he resides.

The story of Jack Letts, a former Oxford schoolboy who converted to Islam and journeyed to Syria in 2014 to “leave dar al kufr [the land of disbelievers]” and to “spread the religion of Allah and to help Muslims”, is one shrouded in contradiction and uncertainty. Thousands of words have been written about this man in the mainstream press in an attempt to decipher him, ultimately leading to the addition of the very in-vogue, alliterative ‘Jihadi’ prefix in front of his name in most headlines, including this one.

Jack Letts sighted near Raqqa, and his parents (inset)

While his Facebook statuses stand strongly against the international coalition conducting bombing campaigns against ISIS territory, not to mention his posts in which he espouses hatred for his own parents for not being Muslim, he strongly denies having joined the group, and also refutes claims that he has taken a wife and has a son by her.

So who is Jack Letts? Born in Oxford to secular parents (his father is an archaeobotanist and his mother is a book editor) he attended the Cherwell School, a leading state school for Oxbridge entry in the country. A student at Cherwell who was two years his senior, told the Tab: “He was a loser…thought he was a rude boy but was lost, I know he got himself into trouble with people in my year for shouting his mouth off.” He started to attend the conservative local mosque, Madina Masjid, and learn Arabic after allegedly being influenced by some of his Islamic classmates (22.5 per cent of Cherwell’s roughly 1800 students speak English as a second language).

His proper radicalisation was brought about by a shady figure called Abdullah, according to an anonymous source speaking to the Daily Mail, although unsurprisingly this claim has not been referred to or substantiated in other news sources’ reports on Jack. It has been reported that his learning Arabic was facilitated by his photographic memory.

He eventually went to Jordan in May 2014 to stay with a friend before heading to Syria in September 2014 under the pretense of travelling to Kuwait to study Arabic. The timing for his departure is notable as it was before ISIS was as large a territorial force as it is now, and much media focus on the conflict in Syria was still on that between the government of Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces. Letts himself is critical of al-Assad’s rule, saying in an interview that “Bashaar and his buddies” are responsible for many of the atrocities being committed in Syria.

The image presented by his situation is quite incomparable to anything else. As a white Briton who has been in Syria for over a year as well as been subject to notable domestic media scrutiny it would seem invaluable to ISIS to use him as propaganda for their cause, and he has been seen in a photo which features the Tabqa Dam in the background, only 25 miles from their de-facto capital of Raqqa, giving a gesture that has been appropriated by many ISIS fighters. He is also a known advocate for Sharia Law.

Yet that he is operating freely within ISIS territory as well as having access to the internet without associating with the group is certainly grounds for scrutiny. Even if he is there in the capacity of an aid worker, this status proved insufficient as protection for fellow Brits Alan Henning and David Haines, who were both executed, and the fact that he openly stated to Channel 4 in an interview with regards to his relationship with ISIS that he was not one of their fighters and nor did he agree with many of their beliefs means that ISIS would view him as counter-beneficial to their cause.

He has even posted a public condemnation of the group in Arabic on his Facebook page, although qualifying it with a distinctly non-secular assertion. Part of the status reads: “I oppose the so-called Islamic State but that doesn’t mean that I am with you the dirty non Muslims.”

The status which contains a condemnation of ISIS

In an interview with Channel 4, his parents attribute his immersion into the Koran and learning Arabic to do with his extreme Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which they say disrupted his dreams of being a doctor as he dropped out of Cherwell at sixth form, although Jack has strongly denied that he suffers from mental illness.

They firmly believe he is not involved in terrorism, based on his own assertions to them over the internet, and their own readiness to condemn him if it is the case: his father John Letts has said that he “would be the first to condemn him because that is not how he was raised.”

Jack has also reported being under duress to his parents, telling them over the past winter that he was cold and begging from cafes for food, although his latest Facebook post, dated from July 10th shows he is treating the reportage about him with humour.

Jack treats the accusation of him joining ISIS with derision

A solution to his hardships seems out of reach; he has stated that he does not wish to come back to England, anticipating that he would not be warmly embraced by the public at large, although he did concede that he missed “small things” about the country of his birth such as Krispy Kreme donuts and kebabs.

His parents had attempted to get him aid, sending him glasses and £1723, but had been arrested with the charge of entering into or becoming concerned in an arrangement to make available money, knowing or having reasonable cause to suspect that it may be used for a terrorist purpose – basically, funding ISIS. They are due to stand trial at the Old Bailey early next year. This seems to have further inflamed his desire not to return, as he has noted that if his parents were arrested for that reason then a similar if not more severe fate awaits him: “If my parents are gonna get put in prison for sending me a bit of money, then if I went back to England I don’t think I’d be very welcome.”

When all this information is compiled and the various sources scrutinised, it creates a picture of a person living in one of the most unique situations in the World right now, especially given the apparent lack of interest afforded Jack by ISIS. The full story of his journey and purpose in Syria may never become known, but the current image painted of him by the majority of the press doesn’t seem to actually warrant the ‘Jihadi’ prefix that they have bestowed upon him, especially given that he is yet to be reported committing an act of violence synonymous with those carried out by ISIS, let alone execute someone on camera.