“I’m a peace ambassador for my murdered brother”

This was an interview which ran in The Sunday Times with the remarkable Mike Haines, whose aid worker brother David was murdered by Isis in Syria. 
When told his beloved sibling had been beheaded, Mike Haines itched for revenge. Two years later, though, he lectures on religious tolerance and tells Colin Freeman it is the preachers of hatred we should condemn

Mike Haines knows all about keeping calm in the face of provocation. In his days as a nightclub bouncer he worked some of the roughest doors in his home city of Dundee.

Nothing, however, could prepare him for the telephone call that came at about 11pm on September 13, 2014 as he was lying in bed facing yet another sleepless night. A Foreign and Commonwealth Office official told him that his brother David, kidnapped 18 months earlier while doing aid work in Syria, had been murdered by Isis.

It was the call he had been fearing. Less than a fortnight earlier David, 44, had appeared in the video of the beheading of the American journalist Steven Sotloff with Mohammed Emwazi — the masked Isis knifeman known then only as Jihadi John — warning that the Briton would be next.

Although Haines, 50, knew his brother’s death was all but a foregone conclusion, the desire for revenge was strong when the phone call came.

“I wanted to get out and kill,” he says, fighting tears as he talks about it. “If a Tardis had appeared and someone had said ‘here’s a weapon’, I would have gone out to Syria and taken some of them with me. Even if it meant my death within seconds. That was the gut feeling.”

Finally, his head prevailed over his heart. To wage his own crusade, he realised, would be exactly what Emwazi and his gang wanted — and exactly what David, who had also worked in Bosnia, Sudan and Libya, had devoted his life to preventing. “He would be mortified if I committed hatred in his name,” Haines says. Instead he has become an anti-extremism campaigner.

The kidnapping, which happened in March 2013 near the Turkish border, had been kept secret for security reasons, although Haines admits “blurting it out” to friends a few times simply to try to relieve the stress. He also volunteered as the point of contact in case the kidnappers got in touch, for which he rehearsed by role-playing scenarios in which the kidnappers put his brother on the phone and tortured him. For months his nerves jangled whenever he got an unexpected phone call.

“Not being able to physically do anything or tell anyone was very difficult, as was the whole surreal nature of the thing,” he recalls. “It was like a film script, something that just doesn’t happen to ordinary people.”

While other Isis hostages from Europe were ransomed out by their governments, David had always said that nobody should ever “pay a penny” in ransom cash for him. Haines agrees with that approach, although he admits that had the British government not had a ban on ransom payments to terrorists his attitude might have been “tested”.

Via the release of other ransomed hostages came confirmation that David was still alive. Also came the news that he had been tortured, which Haines withheld from other relatives. David’s death became a near inevitability.

Despite the desire to grieve in private, the day after the news of his brother’s death Haines appeared briefly for the television cameras, emphasising that he didn’t think Isis was anything to do with Islam and warning that “radicalisation remains the biggest threat to the wholesale safety of every person in the world”.

Two years on his words seem to ring as true as ever. On September 6 the notorious preacher Anjem Choudary will be sentenced at the Old Bailey after his conviction last month for drumming up support for Isis. The co-founder of the banned al-Muhajiroun movement is believed to have brainwashed hundreds of young Britons into joining Isis in Syria.

Last week a report by the Commons home affairs select committee accused the companies behind social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube of “consciously failing” to stop their sites being used to promote extremism, saying they had become “recruiting platforms for terrorism”.

Yet just as Choudary was a powerful voice in recruitment, so Haines has become a compelling voice the other way. Anxious to ensure that his brother did not die in vain, he has spent the past 18 months on a speaking tour visiting classrooms, prisons and religious centres to promote peace. On September 10 it will become a public campaign called Global Acts of Unity.

Among the schools he has visited is Quintin Kynaston, the Westminster secondary that was alma mater to Emwazi and two other terrorist suspects. While Haines does not count himself in the hug-a-jihadist camp — he believes killers such as Emwazi should face “cold, hard British justice” — he reserves his real condemnation for Choudary and others.

“When I was a boy myself I got up to mischief, bending the law,” says Haines, a father of two who took early retirement after an injury received during his work as a mental health nurse.

“We all rebel against our parents, but now you have these nasty, manipulating people who twist kids’ perceptions and then sit well back from any fighting. I’m pleased to see Choudary face justice, though it isn’t just him: it’s the far right as well.”

The two extremist movements, he argues, feed off each other: “I met one British ex-jihadi who told me it had all started after he’d been called a ‘sand n*****’ and a raghead and then his mosque had been attacked.”

Although a decade has passed since Emwazi attended Quintin Kynaston, Haines’s visit was still a sensitive matter. At one point, he says, he nearly pulled out because he was asked to avoid mentioning his brother’s name or showing his picture.

As it turned out, the audience knew exactly who he was talking about and surprised him by knowing as much as he did — if not more — about the risks of extremism: “Some of them left me thinking I am the bloody thicko here.”

Haines does not profess any great knowledge of religion, despite being invited to meet the Pope last year, and confesses to the occasional faux pas. While staying with a Muslim preacher he had befriended, he found himself thirsty one night and drank from a mineral water bottle in the fridge. It turned out to be from the “Zam Zam” well in Mecca, which produces the Islamic equivalent of holy water: “Luckily my hosts saw the funny side.”

Still, Haines says that wherever he speaks — be it at Eton, which he did in April, or at a young offenders’ centre — you can always “hear a pin drop”. As someone who has lost a loved one in such an awful fashion, he is a living, breathing — and sometimes sobbing — case study of how Isis’s horror affects people.

He paints a touching picture of his close — and sometimes stormy — relationship with David, whom he describes as his best friend and also as a stubborn, opinionated “pain in the arse”.

Both joined the RAF after school and then worked as bouncers in Dundee where they “took a pasting” several times. David then found his vocation in aid work which took him to Syria as a logistician with Acted, a French charity.

Despite what happened to his brother, Haines believes his death should be kept in perspective. For one thing, he thinks David was sedated before he was killed, as otherwise he would almost certainly have resisted. And for another, he points out that David was just one of thousands of Isis victims, most of them Muslims. “The way it was splashed around the world was ridiculous,” he says.

Nonetheless, he is aware that many Britons see things differently and his message is as much for them as for young Muslims thinking of becoming the next Emwazi. He worries about Islamophobia and points out that even Scotland, which welcomed Syrian refugees last year, now has its own branch of the English Defence League, the SDL.

“David and I were brought up to respect and embrace other cultures — my dad was an engineer and used to say an alloy was stronger than a base metal,” he says. “People sometimes come up to me and say ‘you are a wonderful man’ and all that bullshit, but all I’m doing is standing up for what my parents taught me.”

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