“I used to want to [explode myself] at one point, believe it or not. Not a vest. I wanted to do it in a car. I said if there’s a chance, I will do it,” British-born Jack Letts told the BBC. Nicknamed “Jihadi Jack” by some of the UK media, Jack Letts left his Oxfordshire home in 2014 to travel to Syria to join ISIS and spent about three years inside their territory.
According to an interview I conducted with him through the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) in September, while he was in the custody of the Syrian Kurdish Asayish (Internal Security Forces) in northeast Syria, Letts was suffering from a serious mental disorder before he left for Syria, and is still clearly mentally ill. His case brings up the fact that not everyone that embraces a violent ideology, or joins a terrorist group, is mentally ill, but mental illness is an important factor for some in why they become involved in terrorism, and is also an important factor in whether their home country has a responsibility now to risk repatriating and prosecuting them at home.
Despite his mental disorder, the UK stripped Jack of his citizenship in August, the decision being one of the last made by Theresa May as prime minister and Sajid Javid as home secretary, and also endorsed by their respective successors, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel. At the time Letts had already admitted to journalists that he was not innocent, telling a British journalist, “I’m not going to say I’m innocent. I’m not innocent. I deserve what comes to me. But I just want it to be… appropriate… not just haphazard, freestyle punishment in Syria.”
Return and prosecution in the UK is unlikely now, however Jack still holds Canadian citizenship. Ralph Goodale, Canada’s public safety minister, protested the UK move, reminding the UK that “terrorism knows no borders, so countries need to work together to keep each other safe.” Likewise, given Letts had grown up and set out for ISIS from the UK, the Canadian government stated they were “disappointed that the United Kingdom has taken this unilateral action to offload their responsibilities.”
Jack left the UK in 2015 while he was only 17 years old, still a minor – another issue that begs consideration by authorities quick to dump their responsibilities to their former citizens. Once inside ISIS, Jack had to grow up quickly as he took on adult militant roles, morphing into the type of monster that ISIS likes to use to taunt those back home.
During his time in ISIS, Jack was sent to Fallujah for a year and a half where, according to the BBC, he married and had a child whom he’s never seen. Jack told me that he fought the Syrian regime during his time with ISIS. He also admitted to the BBC that he fought on the frontlines and was badly injured in Iraq.
In 2015, Jack shared a photograph of himself, the Mosul Dam in the background, as he held up his index finger as jihadists often do to signify the oneness of God. That same year he also posted a threat on Facebook in response to his school friend’s posting of a group of UK soldiers completing their commando artillery course. It read: “I would love to perform a martyrdom operation in this scene.” In 2016, Letts also posted in an online statement that he “hated” his parents “for the sake of Allaah,” because they are non-believers, and called on them to convert. He added: “They reject the religion of truth, so I reject them. I hate the Kuffaar [non-believers], and am free from them.”
Like many of the ISIS fighters that I’ve interviewed, Jack told the BBC that in the first phase of his time in ISIS he loved living in Raqqa, something he also repeats to me. But he was turned off by the U.S.-led Coalition, Syrian and Russian bombings of ISIS territory, feeling it was immoral. In a Telegram interview conducted while he was still in ISIS territory, Jack complained to the Independent that “the Muslims in Syria are burned alive, raped, abused, imprisoned and much more.” He claimed that the bombings of ISIS were the cause for them to attack back in Europe. He added, “I also think that some of Muslims I met here are living like walking mountains. Full of honour.”
He answered the Guardian asking in 2016 if he is a terrorist with a question: “Do you mean by the English government’s definition, that anyone that opposes a non-Islamic system and man-made laws? Then, of course, by that definition, I suppose they’d say I’m a terrorist, khalas (and that’s that).” Jack also told UK journalists that he had found people of truth in ISIS and had benefited a lot from them. However, in the same time period he also said that he had already become disillusioned of ISIS and was no longer fighting for them. Yet, he took pains to point out that stopping his fight for ISIS did not put him on the side of “dirty non-Muslims.”
In 2017, Jack was arrested trying to escape Raqqa and taken into Syrian Kurdish custody. Later, when the BBC challenged Jack on whether he was a traitor, he told them: “I know I was definitely an enemy of Britain.”
However, he also noted to many that he was at odds with ISIS as well for much of his time spent inside their territory. He claims that ISIS imprisoned him on three different occasions for denouncing them as un-Islamic. Jack also gave as one of the main reasons he stopped serving ISIS was that they started to kill people who he knew were Muslims. 
Jack’s parents, John Letts, 58, and Sally Lane, 57, are desperate to get their son home. Prosecuted in the UK for funding terrorism after having sent, and attempted to send him, money while he was inside ISIS, his parents said in a statement following their trial, that they did “what any parent would do if they thought that their child’s life was in danger.” 
Detained in northeast Syria for over two and a half years and not knowing if he’ll ever make it home, Letts’ mother referred to him as being in a “legal back hole”. From my interview with Jack, it would seem to be a black hole of even deeper magnitude than just legal wrangling. Jack Letts is in dire mental straits, imprisoned untreated with a serious mental disorder, and as a result suffering from what some could call cruel and inhumane punishment.
The hot August day we drove to the Asayish prison to see Jack, the temperature was soaring close to 45 degrees Celsius (well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit). His prison guards didn’t know we were coming and summarily turned us away – until we made the right phone calls to remind them it had been arranged ahead of time. When we entered the prison, the guard who let us into the interrogation room told us that we would be strictly restricted to exactly one hour with no exceptions. As we set up our video camera and prepared for the interview I thought about whether it was worth going through his experiences in ISIS – many of which are already well-documented in press interviews he’d already given and through his social media postings. Or if I should try to get at the real issues in his case, what was going on in his head when he left his family and country behind to join a brutal terrorist organization and what is going on with him now, in prison.
Entering the room Jack seemed in good physical health and eager to talk to Westerners. Explaining our research protocol and warning him not to incriminate himself while speaking on video, Jack responded by saying that his previous statements to journalists may not have been true. “Everything said in prison is not necessarily true,” he explained anxiously, although he was clearly mentally alert and aware of the dangers of misspeaking. “If there is a court of law, I said things on news I didn’t do actually.” Nodding, I dove in to take his history, explaining that we had only an hour to cover a lot of ground and I wanted to understand his upbringing and what motivated him to have come to Syria.
“My parents split up when I was 3,” he responded to my questions about his early childhood. “When they split up, my mom took us to a foreigner neighborhood for Indians and Pakistanis. For 2 years we lived with the whole family one room. [The place] was full of narcos.” He continued to tell about a heroin addict who came into the room one day and stole his Jungle Book cassette, an affront that seems to still bother him to this day. Later, he explained, “We lived in an area run by an Albanian mafia and there were revolutionaries always in our house. We had a crazy drug dealer in our neighborhood. She had a big problem with the Albanians.” He said his parents would leave him for entire days under this drug dealer’s care.
Jack’s parents got back together after a few years apart, resuming life in their old home, but things were still not right. “My father is Canadian,” Jack explained, as he searched for how to best describe his father. “My father is eccentric. My dad is almost insane. [He’s] sort of unique, sort of a strange guy.” Jack goes on to explain how his father hosted “strange friends” from East Timor, leaders of opposition groups, fighters and others who were in the UK on political asylum. One of these opposition leaders lived in their home for two years. “My dad sympathized with their cause,” Jack explained.
Looking back on his childhood, Jack recalled, “I started weed… at [age] 11 with a group of British friends. When I went to secondary school most of my friends were from Sudan. I had one Iranian friend with them. They were sort of like a gang, a stupid, makeshift gang. We smoked a lot of weed every few days. It didn’t affect my studies, but it affected my character. I used to get in fights a lot.” Like many youths from troubled families, Jack was likely emotionally checking out by smoking up, but the inner turmoil surfaced from time to time, and he’d play out his anger, pain and irritability in getting into fights with other kids.
“Before I was 11,” Jack recalled, “My dad didn’t used to drink, but if you saw him you’d think he was an alcoholic. He’d lie on the couch and not move at all.” Jack’s mother was also battling depression, according to his childhood recollection. “Mom would leave the house, but [she was in] the same shape. I used to get in fights a lot then,” he explained, still confused by it himself. Jack dates “the dark times” when problems started between his parents to age 9 and thereafter darkening his teen years.
Like many youths who play out the pain in their families, Jack became mentally disturbed in his teens, developing obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental disorder in which the individual experiences uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (i.e. obsessions) and/or behaviors (i.e. compulsions) that he feels compelled to repeat over and over again. Obsessive thoughts and compulsions often occur in a person that is in deep pain over something deeper than the obsessive/compulsive thought or behavior which brings immediate relief of sorts from the deeper pain.
“When I was around 14-15, I was diagnosed with OCD. [They said it was] the most severe case they had seen. It crippled my whole life,” Jack recalls. While his diagnosis occurred in his early teens, and worsened with marijuana smoking, Jack recalls that he had OCD before ever using marijuana. “[Even] when I was still playing football, I had basic rituals and the weird concept that if I didn’t do the rituals I wouldn’t be successful.”
Jacks obsessive-compulsive rituals soon took over his life. “I used to sit in my kitchen. I had rituals that were connected to my OCD. I tried to calm myself down with the rituals. I had maybe seven. It completely ruined my life.” When asked to explain what his compulsions or rituals were, he explained that it had to do with “the idea of things of being even, trivial things. If I‘d take something from the fridge, I had to do it again to make the click.” This would then magnify geometrically where he’d have to do things repeatedly to keep them even, always keeping count. “I’d reach literally thousands. I’d feel a strong sense of anxiety,” he explained of the driving force behind his rituals. “If you don’t do it, the whole world is going to collapse. Your mother is going to die, and your father is going to run away,” he added, a pained expression filling his face. “I stopped focusing. It crippled my life. I’d do it for 3 hours! It ruined my studies as well.”
Jack remembers asking for treatment and being referred to a specialist in OCD, but when the specialist recommended psychotropic drugs he recalls, “My dad wouldn’t let them.” Another specialist diagnosed Jack with Tourette’s syndrome, a mental disorder involving repetitive movement or making sounds or words in an uncontrolled manner. However, as he explained, what she saw as Tourette’s was Jack compulsively repeating words. “I would repeat particular words. If I didn’t repeat it, something terrible would happen. It looks like I’m speaking to myself.” This specialist also diagnosed OCD, and Jack recalled her also saying his case was the “most severe case I’ve ever seen.” She also recommended psychotropic medications.
Both Jack and his father declined medications, so his treatment focused on “breathing techniques, how to control the anxiety, how to move through the thoughts.” The behavioral techniques helped, but Jack also continued to self-medicate with marijuana. “I think it made it a lot worse,” Jack recalled. “I got paranoia, and I got really crazy, [like] people around me are going to turn into devils.”
“Some people really shouldn’t smoke weed,” Jack stated, smiling wryly. Jack dabbled in some other drugs as well, recalling a bad MDMA trip: “It’s not a hallucinogen, but I got the weird imagination that my friend is going to turn into a devil. I would see that he is about to turn into a devil! I ran away because I was so afraid he’d turn into a devil.”
Jack dropped out of therapy but continued to self-treat with the behavioral coping skills he had learned and smoking marijuana. But his self-treatment for his OCD was an abysmal failure. “When I convinced myself I could treat it myself, it got a lot worse. I’d do the rituals for 3 hours. I couldn’t leave the house at all. I couldn’t go to school.”
Jack was 14 or 15 at that time and he began searching for answers. Since many of his friends were Muslims, he recalled, “I started to search about Islam. My whole family is very philosophical. My brother studies philosophy. My dad is eccentric and questions everything. I wanted to question also. I was drawn to Islam, even before I believed it was the true religion,” He added. “It does affect you when people you love are Muslims. It makes you want to go on the path.”
“OCD was attacking me even more,” Jack recalled of age 16. He wanted to drop out of school even though, despite his mental health challenges, he was getting good grades. “I got A’s in the classes I liked,” he told me, and explained how he won a coveted place in the 6th form of his school. “I got in, but that’s when I decided to be a Muslim. I lost interest in school.”
From then on, Jack did poorly except in the only class that still held interest for him: philosophy. He had to repeat the year, but ashamed by failure he changed schools. “I was 17 and really started to practice Islam,” Jack told me. “Then, I used to speak to some British guys who were in ISIS.” His mind was elsewhere. “I’d be in lessons, but I would only be thinking about Syria.” Eventually, he left school altogether.
Meanwhile, things worsened at home. Speaking of his parents, Jack explained, “They have a weird, crazy relationship. My dad is very depressive. It was a black period. I would check on him every three hours to make sure he hadn’t killed himself. They had serious problems between them. They used to hit each other.”
The heavy responsibility he felt to save his family was taking its toll on Jack. “I got really depressed and tried to kill myself, because of the OCD,” he said, blaming the symptom rather than the underlying problems in his family who were driving his disordered attempt to institute control where, in reality, he had none. “I hated life. I spent five years in which I wanted to go back to sleep.”
Unable to do anything about his parents’ and his own emotional pain, and stressed to his limits, Jack couldn’t stand the changes in himself as he fell deeper and deeper into depression and obsessive compulsions. No matter how much he practiced his rituals he had no control and could do nothing to alleviate the pain. “I changed completely,” he recalled of how his disorder took over his life, “until I found Islam. Then I became normal [again]. I came back to my real character. I came back to reality.”
While he suddenly felt normal again, Jack acknowledges that his “OCD never went away. I still have it,” he said, speaking of the present. “People in my cell think I’m crazy. It’s bad at the moment.”
“In Islam it took an Islamic form,” Jack said about his OCD. “The problem with OCD is that when you don’t conform to the rituals you’ve created for yourself, you can’t do anything else. You can’t function. I couldn’t function in my life when I became a Muslim. I forced myself to conform to these Islamic rituals. It was OCD, and if I didn’t [do all the rituals],” he told himself as he had previously about his sports, “I’d go back to my old life.”
“In Islam, you have to make wudu,” Jack explained about the ritual cleansing in Islam that is carried out before the five daily prayers. “I would take a whole hour,” he recalls of what should be a five-minute cleansing ritual. “People would think I’m crazy. I’d come out of masjid [the mosque] and I missed the prayers. They thought I was crazy. I think I was crazy, to some extent. I had to go home to pray. I’d miss the prayers. Anything to do with Islam, I’d do it completely exaggerated.”
He was also suffering from the self-persecution that youth watching their parents divorce or otherwise fall apart often experience. “I had this notion that I was the worst person in the world. And, I was always sure I was doing something wrong. You are convinced you are the worst human in the world and you are trying to redeem yourself. [But] the problem stops you from doing that. It’s a circle and quite destructive.” Even with Islam, Jack recalls, “I had this notion that I was terrible person. I wanted to kill myself.”
All of this mental exhaustion of trying to control his anxieties through ritualistic behaviors was reflecting the world that had existed around him from early childhood onward. He was overwhelmed with the emotional pain in his parents’ unhappiness and their inabilities to cope. “My dad tried to kill himself. He stood on a bridge, but they convinced him not to do it,” Jack recalled. His own suicidal impulses to follow in his father’s footsteps started as well, from age 9 onward.
Then with Islam and the call to come and help the downtrodden in Syria, Jack suddenly had a mission – and it offered to take him far away from the pain at home. “My parents know this,” he explained of his self-styled heroism. “I came [to Syria] because of what Bashar was doing. It was 2015. I’d sit for hours on Twitter with the ISIS Twitter guys. My initial idea was that I had to get rid of Bashar,” he stated, as if it was his own personal responsibility to fix the Syrian issue. Who would replace Bashar was still a question in his mind – possibly the Islamic State?
Mentally tormented and escaping a life of overwhelming psychic pain, Jack at age 17 headed out on a mission to save Syrians from Assad. Not knowing how to enter Syria, he headed first to Jordan to cross into Syria, but found that impossible. “So I went to Kuwait for 3 months,” he recalled. “I thought to get into Iraq from Kuwait.” That too proved too difficult. Then he hit the jackpot. “I went to Turkey and I got in, just like everyone.”
“They put me into a training camp,” Jack remembers of his entry into ISIS. Even though his Arabic was limited he was put in charge of translating for the other English-speaking foreign fighters. “I was very surprised that they used someone like me,” Jack stated, noting how ISIS was running a military organization much more interested in producing fighters and winning battles than being Islamically correct. “There was a lot of neglect. Creed didn’t matter, believe what you want, just fight,” was how it felt to him. “You could be anything, as long as you fight for them and were supporting Baghdadi. But, if you say anything against them, they consider you a spy.”
“I got put in prison three times,” Jack recalled of his time in ISIS. He hypothetically compared it with his current prison experience, in which he notes “there is no meat served, not 40 persons in one room, not held for 2.5 years without any contact with the world. I had hot water and I wasn’t put in solitary confinement like other prisons,” he added, smiling wryly to see if I get it. It seems he is trying to tell me in a roundabout way about his current conditions. I know not to ask about it – it’s a forbidden topic and our interview will be cut short if I stray into those topics, so I just nod, letting him know that I understand what he’s trying to say.
Turning back to ISIS, Jack recalled that he quickly realized that although ISIS was fighting Assad, which he lauded, they were not following any Islam that he recognized as authentic. “I hated them. I didn’t consider them to be [real] Muslims.”
“I was in prison three times in ISIS because I openly opposed them,” Jack said. “I used to write on Facebook that I was against them. They were going to kill me.” In one of his ISIS incarcerations, he recalled, “There was a Turkman from Talafal. He spoke to me and asked, ‘What do you have against the state? What’s your creed?’ I knew what to say to him. I started from A to Z,” but left out the things he objected to in ISIS. “I knew they would kill me, so I said things to make them agree. They let me out. I knew I can’t speak against them in an open way. They’ll kill you.”
Now willing to denounce ISIS, he states, “I didn’t believe they were the correct group. It’s not an Islamic State. No one should join them. Fighting them is better than joining them. My friends wanted to fight the state, [but] I was a coward.”
As I speak with him it’s clear to me that Jack is a bundle of contradictions and confused thinking. Having joined a group that at its very core endorses suicide terrorism as a form of Islamic “martyrdom” and having said he’d like to make such an attack himself, he later told the BBC that he now believes suicide attacks are haram, or forbidden by Islamic law. In June 2019, after his parents’ trial, the BBC reported an interview with him in 2018, in which he said ISIS used to “encourage you in a sort of indirect way” to put on a suicide vest. He said he made it obvious to ISIS at the time, “If there was a battle, I’m ready.”
Yet, speaking to me now, Jack says, “Now I realize it’s not an Islamic State.” Having become sick of the ISIS hypocrisy and falseness in their actions, he now notes, “Most annoying are those who think all they do is good.”
“After 2.5 years I want to go home,” Jack tells me. “I want to see my mom.” Despite having told some journalists that he fought for the group, he now claims, “I’m not a murderer. I never killed anyone. I fought against Bashar.” Yet ever philosophical and fair in his self-assessments, he admitted to the BBC, “If I was a member of the British public, I wouldn’t give me a second chance, probably.”
When I ask how he’s doing in prison now, Jack’s eyes widen and look wild with pain. “I am going more crazy every day,” he responded. “I speak to myself. I’m getting worse and worse.” Worried that he might completely lose his mind, he adds, “If I am leaving [here] insane I don’t want to see myself.”
Jack has been actively suicidal since his arrest. “I tried to hang myself twice and I cut my wrists. I’m going more and more crazy.”
Without medications or psychological help to offer, Jack’s Kurdish jailers don’t know what to do with him. “35 days in solitary,” he states about how they’ve removed him from the group cell when he’s lost control. “I speak to myself. There’s 40 people in this caravan,” he explains of his temporary prison setup. “It’s very bad, and gets worse and worse. My cellmates are convinced I have jinn,” he states, referring to the Islamic belief that mental illness comes from a form of possession. He looks terrified that it might be true.
The prison guard signals that our time is up as I try to reassure Jack that he can make it through this, that he doesn’t have jinn, but his brain is responding in a genetically programmed manner to stress overload. He gives me his mother’s phone number and tells me that I can share his interview with both the Canadian or UK justice authorities. He wants to face justice at home.
While no one can argue that he shouldn’t be prosecuted for having willingly joined and served a terrorist group, clearly Jack’s current mental condition is dire, and as it appears from this interview he is getting worse. From his claims and what his mother has also shared with press, he was mentally ill before he even converted to Islam and far before he even knew about ISIS.
From my experience interviewing over 600 terrorists to date, the pathways into terrorism usually require four things: a terrorist group to recruit and equip, a terrorist ideology to convince, some kind of social support for joining, and individual vulnerabilities and motivations that make one resonate to the first three. As a youth, Jack was in overwhelming psychic pain, suicidal even, when he found Islam and Islam provided new rituals that seemed to offer him a pathway out of the pain. He began to compulsively follow Islam in an attempt to escape from the pain at home, which might not have proven so dangerous if it hadn’t been right when ISIS was on the rise. Jack was also suffering self-condemnation for not being able to fix his family’s pain and, needing to prove himself as a good person, especially as a new Muslim, he easily fell for the idea that it was his Islamic duty to save other Muslims from Assad’s atrocities. But in taking a ready escape from his family and a geographic relocation as a type of psychological first-aid, he fell into something far worse.
He needed help then, he needs it even more now.