Alan Henning, a 47-year-old man from Eccles, England, was said to be so moved by the humanitarian crisis in Syria that he felt he had to help. The father of two, a taxi driver nicknamed "Gadget" by his friends, began working with AID4SYRIA, an Islamic charity based in Britain. He left his wife and children at home and drove with convoy to the Syrian border and beyond, delivering aid to civilians during a bloody civil war.
By Christmas 2013, he had already made three trips to the country, and was embarking on his fourth. He was the only non-Muslim traveling in his convoy, and was aware of the risk. "It's all worthwhile," he said in a video made during this journey, "when you see what is needed actually get to where it needs to go."
That trip proved disastrous. On Dec. 26 2013, Henning was kidnapped near the Syrian city of Al-Dana. Last Saturday, his ordeal was revealed to the world when Islamic State, also known as ISIS, released a video showing the execution of British aid worker David Haines. At the end of that video, masked extremists showed Henning, pale and clad in orange like the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. They said he would be next.
The execution of Haines, like that of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff, had prompted a huge backlash in Britain: Prime Minister David Cameron called him a "hero" and said his murder was "despicable." However, in the response to the threats against Henning's life, one thing clearly stands out: British Muslims led the outcry.
In a letter to the Independent newspaper published on Thursday, more than 100 British Muslim leaders appealed to Islamic State for the release of Henning. "Mr Henning was a volunteer who traveled to Syria to help innocent civilians," the letter states. "Acts of humanitarianism are an essential element of religious practice for all Muslims, and of course they are just as significant to other people too. Islamic teachings call for charity and selflessness. Most importantly, acts of beneficence do not, and cannot, exclude non-Muslims."
The letter also urged Muslims to use the hashtag #NotInMyName to show their solidarity with Henning, part of a broader campaign started by Hanif Qadir, a former jihadist who now runs British counter-extremism charity Active Change Foundation.
Muslims who knew Henning personally have also spoken out. In a separate plea, a man believed to be the organizer of the convoys that Henning worked with has released a video pleading for his release. Speaking directly to "Brother Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," Pervez Rafiq says that "we promised Alan security and safety as Muslims, and ask you, as the leader of Islamic State, to honor our Amana [an Islamic word indicating trust]." Towards the end of the video, Rafiq appears to be overcome with emotion.
Majid Freeman, another British Muslim who was traveling with Henning in the convoy, told the BBC he was with him when extremists kidnapped him. "They came to the conclusion that Gadget may have been a spy," Freeman said in an interview this week. "Reason being, because he had a chip in his passport." Freeman says he tried to explain that all British passports now have microchips, even showing them his own, but he says he was ignored.
"Please, please, please, please show him some mercy," Freeman begged Henning's captors. "Understand he is a humanitarian aid worker... He's come there strictly to help the people."
The British press have raised some issues about AID4SYRIA, the charity that Henning was working with. The charity's parent company, Al-Fatiha Global, was being investigated by British authorities after one of its leaders was pictured with two masked gunmen in Syria last year. There has also been speculation that Islamic State may have been tipped off that Henning, a non-Muslim British citizen, was traveling with the convoy.
Some friends have also suggested that Henning was taking too big a risk. "He is good at DIY and he was a useful person to have on the trips," Mohamed Elhaddad, another convoy leader, told Manchester Evening News. "But Alan went too far into Syria. He took that extra risk, because he could have accomplished the drop-off at the border."
Even so, the vocal response from Muslims in Britain and elsewhere shows a growing anger that Islamic State's extreme Salafist view of Islam is overshadowing moderate and mainstream voices. That anger extends to facts as vocal as the group's name: Muslim leaders in Britain have called for the group to be renamed "Un-Islamic State" and there's a growing idea that the group should be referred to by their Arabic acronym "Daesh," which the group is said to loath.
Even al-Qaeda, a group with ideological ties to Islamic State, were reported to have balked at the execution of Henning. Bilal Abdul Kareem, a U.S. filmmaker who has worked from Syria, told the Independent this week that a religious leader from al-Qaeda's Syrian proxy had asked for the Briton's release. “I spoke to the emir from Jabhat al-Nusra after he came back [from meeting with Islamic State]," Kareem told the paper. "Initially, he was confident that Henning would be released because that is what ISIS was saying. But then Henning was removed from his prison in Al-Dana and never heard of again.”
The issue highlights one of the major differences between al-Qaeda and Islamic State. While al-Qaeda has embraced violence, it has sought to use it strategically in a bid to not alienate other Muslims. So far, Islamic State has not revealed that qualm.