Former Oxford local branded “Jihadi Jack”

A former student of the local Cherwell Academy School is alleged to have become a member of the Islamic State group (IS). Labelled ‘Jihadi Jack’ by a number of news agencies, including the Mail Online, Jack Letts denies being a member of the Islamic State group. The former Oxford resident, aged 20, is thought by some to be living in the IS-occupied city of Raqqa with an Iraqi wife and a son, Muhammed.

Claims that their son has joined the Islamic State have been refuted by his Oxford-based parents. Speaking in an interview with The Guardian, his father stated that “Jack never had a weapon, never posed in a photo with a weapon, but every article mentions it.” He went on to describe his response to media coverage of his son’s situation, saying, “It’s all insinuation, forcing connections that don’t exist.” In an earlier discussion with The Times, his parents said that he had told them that he was in Syria as long ago as September 2014.

Mr Letts has been depicted in Facebook photos at the Tabqa Dam in Syria, famously thought to be one of the main hideouts of IS’ leadership. The emergence of this photo has prompted questions over to what extent he has been engaged with the terrorist organisation.

Classmates of the organic farmer’s son have spoken about their experiences of him. Described in The Independent as “very much the class clown” and “liked by a lot of students,” Mr Letts is described to have been an avid Liverpool Football Club fan, who prior to his conversion to Islam was known to have drunk alcohol.

Thought to be a fan of the street artist, Banksy, Mr Letts is rumoured to have first taken interest in Islam during the Arab Spring in 2011. He is subsequently thought to have attended Oxford’s Madina Masjid.

Over time, it is thought that the young convert to Islam became of increasing interest to the local authorities. It is understood that the police had raided his family home two times before he left, confiscating laptops and mobile phones. The police, however, do not seem to have found any evidence that he had broken any laws.

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Mr Letts’ parents, speaking to The Guardian about how he learned Arabic, said, “He dropped out of school and taught himself Arabic on his own because he wanted to be useful; said he wanted to help medical staff but had no medical skills.” When he first left Britain in 2014, he is believed to have told his parents that he was traveling to Kuwait to study Arabic.

Mr Letts himself has made it clear that he is not a member of IS. In correspondence with The Independent over Facebook, he described how he felt about his media coverage. “It’s sort of awkward when the media thinks you’re ISIS and you’re not,” he said. Speaking about his frustration with the way the British media covered converts to Islam, he said, “The formula with the media is simple: English guy became Muslim + went to the Middle East + followed Islam = ISIS + eats babies x evil.”

In a case where many of the facts remain uncertain, there has been concern in Oxford University’s Muslim community that Jack’s case represents another case of the national press jumping to conclusions about the behaviour of young British Muslims. Sameer Farooq, OU Islamic Society’s Media and Student Politics Chair, brought this story to Cherwell’s attention because of the lack of clarity of the case. Cherwell has spoken to a number of Oxford students who would like to remain anonymous who have said that conclusions about Mr Letts have been drawn too soon.

Writing in response to the media coverage, the leaders of Oxford’s four leading mosques have released a statement in which they expressed their support for Mr Letts’ family. The statement reads, “We are deeply shocked and saddened to hear from reports that the individual named as Jack Letts has travelled to war-torn Syria.

“Although the exact nature of his visit has yet to be confirmed, our thoughts and prayers are with the Letts family in Oxford, at what must be a very difficult and distressing time for them.”

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Moving on, the leaders maintained their commitment to the handling of extremist behaviour in the Oxford Muslim community, saying, “Mosques in Oxford have measures in place to promptly report any form of extremist and suspicious behaviour, and such measures will continue to be developed and implemented in liaison with and following advice and guidance from local law enforcement authorities.”