The father of Imran Patel, the 26-year-old Aucklander convicted for distributing extremist videos, tells Yasmine Ryan he fears that jail risks turning a silly boy into a serious threat.
When Imran Patel shouted, “Tell John Key to stop being a slave to America, and to get out of Iraq. Allahu akbar!” after being sentenced last Thursday, the courtroom fell silent. It was a frightening moment, but also a tragic one. This was, without a doubt, a defining moment in his life’s trajectory.
For his distraught parents, it might well be the moment they lost their son, in both a physical and a spiritual sense. “That’s what you get!” his father shouted to the courtroom, shaking his head as he and his wife walked out in frustration.
They had been hoping for a sentence of home detention, he says, to allow leaders of the Muslim community to try to talk to Imran. Other members of the community confirmed that there is wide concern in the community for Imran Patel’s hardline, potentially dangerous, views.
The 26-year-old’s sympathies for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant led to his conviction: he was jailed for three years and nine months for distribution, possession, and “making” (in the sense of copying) objectionable material. A second young man was sentenced to six months home detention on charges of possession.
Imran Patel’s father told me in an interview a couple of days after the sentencing that he is terrified that prison might put his son irreversibly down the path of hardline thinking, and perhaps, action.
“If they keep him for a long time inside, what will happen when he comes back?” said Mr Patel, a businessman involved in his local mosque and with interfaith groups.
His son is the first New Zealander to be convicted under the law for possession of violent videos, a law originally intended for people found with child pornography.
So far, while Patel is obviously an ISIS sympathiser, he does not appear to have any concrete links to the organisation. Indeed, Judge Russell Collins stressed as much, saying: “He’s not being sentenced as a terrorist, he’s not being held as a potential terrorist, he’s not being punished for the views he might hold.”
Patel’s father believes that his son, whom he admits freely is “a silly boy”, is being presented as a monster. He worries this might turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“They want to make an example for other people, they’re using him as a guinea pig,” he said. “If they’re going to make him this kind of prisoner, they’re going to make him a dangerous man.”
There is certainly evidence to back up the argument that prison can transform amateurs into the real thing. In France, almost all of the perpetrators of major terrorist attacks in recent years – from Mohamed Merah to Mehdi Nemouche to Amedy Coulibaly – were French-born Muslims who, before their time in prison, had been mere delinquents. There’s a similar trend in prisons in many Arab countries, where human rights abuses committed by the state drive young men into the comforting embrace of recruiters. ISIS itself was infamously born out of the jails during the War on Iraq, where Americans imprisoned Baathist officials together with jihadi leaders and young Sunni men.
Imran Patel is currently being held in solitary confinement in Paremoremo Prison. In court last week the prosecution argued this was for his own protection, but his family believes it is to stop him winning other prisoners over to his cause. They are concerned that the impact on his mental health and feelings of injustice are only going to intensify his support for ISIS.
Mr Patel senior reminds me of other parents I have encountered in the past few years. Tunisia, where I’ve been living for several years, is the country that has seen the highest number of its youth leave to fight in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Like so many of their compatriots, ISIS recruits are typically disenchanted with political corruption, routine police violence and a negligent state, though overwhelming majority of youth express their disillusionment peacefully and find little to admire in ISIS.
Thousands of youths have left their stunned families behind them. Rarely do they inform their parents of their intentions before they leave.
It was a similar case for Imran Patel three years ago, when his parents received a phone call from Auckland Airport customs to say that their son and his friends had been apprehended trying to go to Syria. That was pre-ISIS, at a time when Western governments were tacitly supporting the armed groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government. The three young Kiwis had their passports confiscated for a year. His father is grateful that the New Zealand security services managed to apprehend him, and says he believes Imran would likely be dead today had they not.
“When the SIS spoke to me, they said, ‘Look, it’s not your fault, your son is old enough to do what he’s doing’,” he said. “I said [to the SIS officer], ‘You know, you saved his life. You saved Imran’s life, because if he goes, God knows what he [would do].’”
Imran Patel’s family, who have lived in NZ for decades, are disturbed by their son’s interest in a conflict on the other side of the globe. After their thwarted attempt to travel to Syria, Mr Patel says he tried to talk sense into them.
“Then I called all three guys to my home, and I said ‘What, are you crazy people? Where are you going?’”
Tunisia was shaken by three horrific massacres last year, as ISIS sought to destabilise the already fragile North African country that is the only democracy in the region. These massacres were committed by young men who had been recruited by the group, without the knowledge of their friends and families. Up until the final few months of their lives, each of these young men were fairly ordinary young Tunisians.
A tiny minority, however, are targeted by ISIS recruiters, who prefer the internet, or who exist in the shadows of society. They are good at picking out vulnerable young men and, sometimes, women. They use videos like the ones Imran Patel collected to cultivate hate, but also to paint a picture of adventure. They call out to millennials, without their parents’ knowledge. They offer the promise of “redemption” for those willing to sacrifice their lives for the shadowy group. Experts say ISIS is now the wealthiest terrorist or criminal organisation that has ever existed.
I profiled each of the gunmen who committed the massacres in the name of ISIS in Tunisia last year. Their families were in a state of shock at what their sons had done, in a country with little recent history of violence or war. In a tiny hilltop village, surrounded by blossoming almond and pear trees, the father of 20-year-old Jabeur Khachnaoui took my hand as I went to leave after our interview.
A simple olive farmer, far removed from the hatred that ISIS had poured into his son’s young mind, he said, with tears in his eyes, “I feel as much sorrow for the tourists as I do for my own son. They were innocent. My son was manipulated.”
Yesterday it was revealed that another Tunisian father was among the victims of Wednesday’s ISIL attack in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. A military medic, he was going to try to rescue his own son, who had been recruited by the very same group.
This is all a world away from New Zealand, but as last week’s sentencing showed, how we choose to grapple with cases of our young people who are being targeted by the powerful international group is a delicate question.