London, 1st October 2014
The steaks were cooling on the plates.
It was Champions League night with Benfica up against Leverkusen seeming to drain the appetite of the clients in Café Cascais.
- Where’s the penalty, man?
shouts one of the more excited members of this East London establishment.
This October night is also unusually warm by London standards.
House sangria, glasses of lager, chilled Gazela all provided the accompaniment for the dozen of so Portuguese emigrants watching the match there.
There are also cases of Compal juices and the obligatory Portuguese flag up on the wall.
We might be in London but Café Cascais certainly does seem more a Lisbon café than a British pub.
Up until a year ago, perhaps a little longer, this was where Edgar, Celso, Patrício, Fábio and Sandro would watch Portuguese league matches.
They arrived one by one from the dormitory towns between Lisbon and Sintra and one by one dropped out of circulation.
All these emigrants, aged between 22 and 36, resided in Leyton, just a few neighbourhoods away from Café Cascais.
They set off to wage Holy War.
They together made up the main organised cell recruiting Portuguese jihadists to fight in Syria and Iraq.
- But why?
In the café, there is talk of little else. The “great lads” went off on Jihad.They became terrorists. And one of them, Sandro, known as ‘Funa’, died in combat in late October.
Albano Brás, the owner of the small café, recalls them very well. They were regulars, “good lads”, calm, who appeared at the end of the day or at the weekend and always in a group. However much he attempted to recall some incident, the 52 year old emigrant – in Leytonstone for the last two decades – is unable to point to any particular warning sign that the “boys” might have given. They laughed at the comments of others, there were no Muslim items of clothing nor was there any reference to either the Koran or to Islam. They just did not consume alcohol. They watched the football with a bottle of Sumol orange or pineapple soda. And there was no censure should one of their friends drink a Super Bock beer. Religion was left very much at the door of the Cascais.
Between 2012 and 2013, the five began sharing an apartment in Leyton, located between the calm Dawlish Road and Sidmouth Road, next to a children’s park with squirrels running through the trees. However, the Portuguese spent very little time there. It served only for sleeping, washing, praying and watching jihadist propaganda videos on the Internet. There was no television – out of choice that they stuck to with pride. The rent and daily needs were paid for by low level jobs in clothes stores or cleaning. There was not much money left at the end of the week but, then again, the group was not given to great extravagances. As a friend stated: “They did not need much to live. The remained satisfied with very little.”
The house was just a minute from a bus stop serving routes 58 and 69, which would take them not only to Café Cascais but also to the University of East London, in Stratford, where most of them studied, and the mosque they attended in Forest Gate. They would head off to work or the faculty in the morning and return in the evening, a daily routine similar to the rest of the immigrants living in the neighbourhood. Leyton proves little more than a dormitory for its approximately forty thousand inhabitants, over half of whom belong to an ethnic minority, a ratio far higher than the Greater London average. Here, the unemployment, poverty and criminality rates are also way above the national averages. And, this is where one of Britain’s largest Muslim communities lives.
In Portugal, none of the five paid any attention to religion. Some had even grown up in practising Catholic households. The conversion to Islam and the radicalisation had taken place there, in Greater London, in a quick process lasting just a few months in the majority of cases. Edgar, the first Portuguese person in the group to emigrate and turn Muslim, went onto influence his brother Celso and his three friends. However, who influenced him? “They went over to the more radical side of Islam because they wanted to, out of faith, due to not agreeing with the foreign policy of the West against Muslims. Nobody twisted their heads around. It was just like that. In Lisbon, the Muslims did not understand these questions. Here they did”, was the attempted explanation of a friend of the group who remains in London. Those responsible at the Forest Gate mosque, a white prefabricated building, modest in scale, which also serves as a religious schools, guaranteed to Expresso that they did not know any “brother” of Portuguese nationality but did accept their might be a few “black sheep” in amongst the flock of hundreds of persons attending the mosque daily.
A little geography may provide some more clues. Leyton, Leytonstone, Walthamstow and Whitechapel are the birthplace to some of the most wanted radical Islamists in the United Kingdom, united around platforms such as Sharia4UK and more recently Al-Muhajiroun (The Immigrants). “It is highly probable that the Portuguese became involved in or had at least crossed London's hard core of extremists and recruiters”, Expresso was told by a source close to the British secret services. Between 2013 and 2014, Scotland Yard has detained various members connected with “terrorist acts” at addresses very close to the quiet flat in Leyton.
In Syria, some in Raqqa, others in Aleppo, the Portuguese nevertheless remain in touch with each other. Fábio and Celso fight together. Patrício has been removed from the front line and holds an upper position in the Islamic State hierarchy. Edgar remains a ‘ghost’: without any presence on the social networks and no other news on his whereabouts. None of them seem to have any regret about having departed on Jihad. Some friends and family members who stayed in London keep up with their news via Skype and Whatsapp. They say they’re not fighting all the time but that they are not thinking about returning. They know they might be arrested and they don’t want that. “They also do not want to be martyrs but they do not mind dying for Allah”.