From Acton to Aleppo: how one British Muslim’s quest to Syria ended in death

Ali Almanasfi, who was killed along with a US woman and third westerner, hoped to atone for a wrong by fighting with rebels. After five months fighting in Syria with the rebels, Ali Almanasfi’s luck finally ran out. On Wednesday the 22-year-old Briton took a wrong turn and drove into a government checkpoint near the city of Idlib. Syrian soldiers immediately opened fire. They killed Almanasfi together with his two fellow passengers: an American woman and Islamic convert, Nicole Mansfield from Michigan, and a third, so far unidentified man, possibly Canadian.

 

Syrian TV showed the bloody aftermath of this one-sided encounter: a black VW Golf riddled with bullets and a haul of Kalashnikovs. Also visible was Almanasfi’s maroon British passport. It gave his place of birth – London – and date of birth, June 1990.

 

Almanasfi’s family were conservative Sunnis from Damascus, Syria’s capital. But he grew up in west London, the son of a bus driver, who later split stormily with Almanasfi’s mother and remarried twice. As a teenager, according to his friend Tam Hussein, Almanasfi drifted into trouble. He got involved in street fights with other Acton gangs and petty crime: drugs, stealing, booze. In 2008 his father sent him to Syria to cool down. Apparently this didn’t work. A year later he did something he would bitterly regret: drunk, he attacked an older man. The details are hazy. But he was caught, sentenced to four or five years in jail, and initially imprisoned in Feltham young offenders institute. In Arabic culture it is shameful to disrespect an elder, to beat up an old man an act of terrible dishonour. Almanasfi appeared haunted by this ghost. He looked at fighting for the rebel cause “almost like a redemptive act”, Hussein said.

 

It was in prison that he became interested in religion. He discovered an identity. He grew a beard. Hussein recalled: “He became increasingly religious; the ghetto talk, the accent, the slang slowly disappeared.

 

It was at this point that Britain’s secret services appeared on the scene. Almanasfi had begun attending a radical mosque in west London. He popped up on MI5’s radar, intelligence sources made clear on Friday.

 

In January Almanasfi went over, despite MI5 warnings: he left the third-floor Acton flat he shared with his mum and disappeared. He sent a valedictory text to his half-brother Safwan in Halifax. It read: “I’m off. I love you.” He seemed aware of the risks but also confident that he would survive his idealistic adventure unscathed. “He told me about some guys who were killed there. He said these guys were hotheads who didn’t know what they were doing,” Hussein said.

 

Almanasfi’s final five months in Syria are a mystery. In west London his family reported him missing; police called round at his flat, but found no trace. Like other foreign volunteers – at least 600 have gone to Syria since 2011 from at least 14 European countries including the UK.