Daryl Jones, the New Zealander killed alongside al Qaeda militants in Yemen, was first introduced to Islam by a cluster of co-workers at Qantas, says his best friend.
The Sunday Star-Times can reveal the alleged terrorist had links to the aviation industry, including working as a "pre-apprentice" for Air New Zealand.
Jeremy Rex of Christchurch has described how he and Jones travelled to Sydney around 2003 to take up jobs with Qantas in its aircraft maintenance division. Qantas placed Jones in a flat with three Muslim men, and half his co-workers were Muslim.
Jones, from a strong Christian family, initially resisted their pressure, but over the three years he was with Qantas he gradually became more and more immersed in Islamic culture and eventually converted. "He was a stubborn guy but I guess they just wore him down. He'd be surrounded by the culture at work and then go home and be surrounded by it. I'm pretty sure he wasn't seeking it."
Qantas confirmed Jones worked for the airline as an apprentice engineer after finishing a pre-apprenticeship with Air New Zealand. There were no issues with him during his time with the airline. "All of our staff, especially those employees with access to restricted areas including airports and aircraft, are subject to rigorous security checks by the Australian Government and Australian Federal Police," a spokeswoman said. "He would have also gone through very strict security checks while working at Air New Zealand."
Rex said he found it hard to believe his friend could have joined al Qaeda, and called on the New Zealand Government to provide proof Jones was a terrorist. "Where is the evidence? I haven't seen any evidence at all relating to why they justified killing a guy without a trial. What justifies an unmanned plane flying above you and shooting a rocket into your car?"
Jones, 30, and Australian Christopher Havard were killed in a US drone strike in Yemen in November. They were not the primary targets of the attack, but were described as "collateral damage". Australian media have quoted anonymous intelligence officials as saying Jones, also known as Muslim bin John and Abu Suhaib al-Australi, and Havard were "foot soldiers" for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Last week the Sunday Star-Times revealed details of Jones' background for the first time, including that his father was a former Australian police officer who worked in a sensitive security role for a government agency in Christchurch, and his younger brother, Nathan, helped run a drop-in centre in Christchurch promoting a puritanical form of Islam.
Jones' heartbroken mother, an education sector worker, wants answers about her son's death.
Rex and Jones met while studying at Aranui High School's electronics academy, and Jones went on to do a two-year diploma at Christchurch Polytechnic. "He was very smart, one of the top in the class." When Rex was hired by Qantas he "managed to sort of just drag Daryl along". Once Jones converted, he became very serious, praying up to five times a day. "It was like they'd sapped the fun out of him and he became this robot."
Around 2005, Jones travelled to the Middle East for an arranged marriage with a Somali woman. The couple then returned to Christchurch to live and went on to have four children, although Jones was killed before he met his youngest.
Rex said Jones wanted to become an imam, or priest, but then decided to teach English so was shocked to hear he had been killed alongside alleged terrorists. "That's not the person I experienced, quite the opposite. I guess they could brainwash anyone."
- Sunday Star Times