John Letts and Sally Lane in London, England in September 2018 to face charges of making money available for suspected terrorist activities. A conviction on one charge has left them destitute, Letts says.
Jack Letts, the Muslim convert dubbed “Jihadi Jack” by British media.
Jack Letts, second from right, with his parents and younger brother Tyler.
It almost always unfolds the same way. John Letts is in a combat zone, trying to rescue his son but managing to reach him just moments too late: Jack is already dead.
Canadian-born Letts says the chilling nightmares have prevented him from sleeping more than a few hours a night for the last four years, as he and his wife faced the prospect of prison time after being charged under a U.K. terrorism funding law — for sending money to their son in ISIL-held Syria.
Letts’ great fear was landing in jail and being unable to help Jack, who is accused of being part of ISIL and is now being held in a Kurdish-run prison in northern Syria.
Their closely watched trial in a London court ended last week with a conviction on just one of three charges — over a $386 cash transfer to a friend of Jack’s in Lebanon. The couple were spared jail but say the unusual prosecution has laid waste to their lives, forcing Letts to sell his organic-farming business, all but ending wife Sally Lane’s career and leaving them destitute.
Based on their lawyers’ own fees — which the advocates have mostly waived — they estimate the case has cost British taxpayers at least $11 million.
“You never relax. You can’t enjoy food, you can’t enjoy a warm shower,” said Letts. “It’s caused so much stress it has destroyed a family. We don’t have any money, so somehow we have to rebuild our lives.”
Letts is forthright in speaking about the prosecution, but his voice falters briefly as he describes the “constant” nightmares, which he said he’s never discussed before publicly.
“I wake up all the time,” he says. “I’m always in some war. It’s often that I get to Jack and he’s lying there and I’ve missed him by five minutes, and he’s dead.”
But freed from the worry of the trial itself and a related gag order, Letts said the couple plan to re-double efforts to get their son — dubbed “Jihadi Jack” by British media — to either the U.K. or Canada, where he also has citizenship.
That likely means the 23-year-old would face justice in one of those countries, Letts acknowledged.
“If Jack has done something wrong, he should be prosecuted, put on trial and put in jail, to keep the country safe and punish him for what he’s done,” the father said. “I don’t have a problem with the concept.”
Global Affairs Canada had previously seemed eager to help get Jack out of Syria but now refuses to engage with the family, said Letts, born and raised in the Chatham, Ont., area.
In a far-ranging interview — the father’s first with Canadian media since the trial — he also said police initially vowed to work with the couple to repatriate Jack, before turning on them with the terror–funding charges.
And he said that statements Jack made in recently aired TV interviews, including that he would have once been willing to commit a suicide bombing, were uttered under pressure after being tortured by his keepers.
Jack Letts converted to Islam at 16 and in 2014 travelled to Jordan at his parents’ expense, saying he wanted to visit a friend there. He ended up in Iraq, married a local woman, then announced to his family he was in Syria. He says he was taken to Raqqa, de-facto capital of ISIL’s so-called caliphate, after being injured by a bomb in Mosul, Iraq.
His parents say he became disenchanted with ISIL and fled Raqqa four months before the city fell to U.S.-aided forces in 2017, only to be captured by Kurdish forces.
Letts said the couple’s first contact with police about their son was actually encouraging.
“We were told to co-operate and we did,” he said. “We gave them access to everything: we gave them all of our phones, all of our computers, every communication we had … They said ‘It’s a two-way flow of information, let’s work together, we just want to bring him back, just like you.’ ”
Officers at first also condoned the cash transfers, but voiced their objections a couple of days later. Then came charges under terrorism-financing legislation.
A jury convicted Letts and Lane last Friday of making a payment with a risk some of the money could end up in terrorists’ hands. It was cash that Sally wired to a friend of her son’s in Lebanon, a suggestion he made after she offered the money to him, Letts said.
They were found not guilty on another charge — for trying to send Jack $1,660 to help him pay for a people smuggler to get him out of Raqqa. Jurors failed to reach a verdict on a third count, over $830 they attempted to send him when the first transfer was blocked.
The court had heard some eye-opening evidence about Jack’s alleged behaviour in Syria, centring around comments on Facebook about a photo of a school friend with his army unit, saying he would like to conduct a “martyrdom operation” against the soldiers.
Challenged about the post by his mother, he went on to suggest that he wanted to cut off his schoolmate’s head.
Letts said in the interview he remains convinced that another ISIL member had hijacked his son’s Facebook account. Jack said he gave his password for the site to others in Raqqa, the father said.
Yet in a BBC interview aired recently, Letts seemed to confirm he had earlier held such convictions, saying he was at one time “an enemy of Britain” and would have taken part in a suicide car bombing.
He told the network he now believes suicide bombings are “haram” — forbidden by Islam — and that his whole journey into the heart of the jihadist movement was “a big mistake,” made as a result of a “weird sort of confusion.” In an interview with the ITV channel, he said his biggest wish now was to see his mother.
Letts said his son told human rights lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith after the interviews that they had taken place in the same room where he was earlier tortured, and he made false comments about his supposed jihadist beliefs under threat.
“Clearly, they wanted these people to implicate themselves,” said the father. “How do you know what happened before or after that interview?”
Letts says he and his wife have no tolerance for terrorism; he is actually friends with the father of a victim of the 2007 London transit bombings. But he believes the terror-funding law, when applied to families just trying to help loved ones, is draconian and counter-productive.
“(British) Muslims have gone to jail for this … literally for sending running shoes and glasses,” he said. “If we’re going to beat terrorism, of whatever form, we have to work together at the community level.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019