Brit who planned to join Abu Sayyaf “just wanted to live off grid”

A British supermarket worker accused of trying to join Abu Sayyaf has claimed he was inspired to visit the Philippines by a TV show about living off grid.

Ryan Counsell, aged 28, a white Muslim convert from Nottingham, had spent two years stockpiling military equipment for his trip with his wife and child, Woolwich Crown Court was told.

(Read our report on the case for the prosecution here)

Counsell, who worked at a branch of Asda in his home city, had allegedly booked days off to travel to Basilan Island, in the region of Zamboanga, in order to join the ISIS-affiliated terror group.

However, Counsell claimed his interest in the Philippines had been prompted by watching the series Lives in the Wild by TV presenter Fogle, about an American man who had moved to the islands.

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Speaking in his own defence, he told the court: “It was about a man from America who wanted to find a life sustainable with his income, so he moved there.

“That appealed to me because I want to live a life I can afford. I don’t want to live outside my means and I wanted to live a simple life.”

Counsell claimed he had considered other countries for his venture, including Egypt, Somalia and Bosnia. But Somalia was rejected because his Somali-born wife considered it too dangerous.

The shop worker said he “always planned to go there alone at first,” and did not discuss his plans for the Philippines with his wife.

He explained: “My wife is very sceptical about the life I want to live. She believes in it in theory but she is not prepared to make any sacrifices. I wanted to research it in depth and present her with a more rounded view.”

Counsell told the jury that he thought he could get there and back without his wife noticing while she was visiting her mother and brothers in the Netherlands.

He said: “The trip was short and I would have been able to keep in touch with her by Whatsapp.”

Counsell claimed that he had no plans to join Abu Sayyaf, and said: “Since I was 18, I have been interested all terrorist movements, especially since I became a Muslim. I am very interested in Islamic terrorist movements.

“My interest is simply something I want to use in religious research and for journalistic purposes.”

Counsell described his interests as religion, conspiracy theories, history, and military equipment, along with “wanting to live off-the-grid so to speak, living without connection to electricity or gas in a caravan or a tent”.

His interest in religion began when he was eight years old and it was his favourite subject at school, he told the court.

Meanwhile his interest in military matters began when he was four, he said: “My father introduced me to his collection of war movies, which I would watch day after day.”

At an earlier hearing, the trial had heard how Counsell had spend hundreds on combat uniform including boots, trousers and camouflage clothing.

Explaining these purchases, Counsell said: “I have my own sense of fashion. I have struggled to wear jeans from a young age because I don’t like how they feel. I normally wear cargo or combat trousers and since I was 16, I wear boots because I like how it feels under my heel.”

Counsell converted to Islam at the age of 21 in 2011. He said: “I was interested in Islam to the extent I would spend time researching about it and writing about it. I was always religious and always praying but I didn’t associate myself with any religion until I came across Islam.’

At first he hid it from his parents, saying: “I like to keep things to myself. I don’t like to rub my religion in people’s faces. I am a very quiet person.”

Counsell met his wife, Fatima, though a matchmaking service and they were married in 2012.

He told the court: “She wasn’t someone I knew a great deal about before we got married. We interviewed each other and asked a few questions about marriage.”

Fatima was originally from Somalia and her parents lived in Holland. She had two sisters in London and a married sister in Nottingham.
Counsell said: “For me it was a good marriage without many arguments. It was a little bit unfulfilled because I expected different things from a relationship and she expected different things from a relationship. I put a lot of effort into it.

“I wasn’t pleased with the way she cleaned up and things, because I am a little obsessive. Ideally I wanted to stay at home and do these things and she would go to work.

“I have always been a very obsessive person. I have an obsessive personality. I have to collect things, I store things and struggle to throw things away.

“I was addicted to computer gaming, using the internet and aspects of hygiene and cooking.”

The only time he went out apart from going to work, he added, was to take his daughter to the park every day and he spent at least four hours a day on the internet.

The court was told how from the age of 18, he had been downloading material such as military field manuals and three years ago he had started to collect Islamic material.

He said: “I made it a personal mission to collect every PDF book about Islam in the English language and I think I did a very good job of that. I wanted to challenge myself to research.”

Counsell had studied on his own and had also been to Islamic classes. “I wanted to develop my own opinions and see how other people approached the religion,” he said.

He had also studied Arabic at home, beginning before he converted, because he wanted to learn “an international language spoken in a lot of places”.

Counsell denies preparing acts of terrorism by obtaining information about Islamic terrorist groups in the Philippines, arranging to travel to the Philippines to join and fight for an Islamic terrorist group, and purchasing equipment and clothing for use when having joined such a group.

Counsell also denies possession of electronic documents containing information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.

The trial continues. 

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