Terror on the dole
By David Cohen, Evening Standard
20 April 2004
Four young British Muslims in their twenties - a social worker, an IT specialist, a security guard and a financial adviser - occupy a table at a fast-food chicken restaurant in Luton. Perched on their plastic chairs, wolfing down their dinner, they seem just ordinary young men. Yet out of their mouths pour heated words of revolution.
"As far as I'm concerned, when they bomb London, the bigger the better," says Abdul Haq, the social worker. "I know it's going to happen because Sheikh bin Laden said so. Like Bali, like Turkey, like Madrid - I pray for it, I look forward to the day."
"Pass the brown sauce, brother," says Abu Malaahim, the IT specialist, devouring his chicken and chips.
"I agree with you, brother," says Abu Yusuf, the earnest-looking financial adviser sitting opposite. "I would like to see the Mujahideen coming into London and killing thousands, whether with nuclear weapons or germ warfare. And if they need a safehouse, they can stay in mine - and if they need some fertiliser [for a bomb], I'll tell them where to get it."
His friend, Abu Musa, the security guard, smiles radiantly. "It will be a day of joy for me," he adds, speaking with a slight lisp.
As they talk, a man with a bushy beard, dressed in a jacket emblazoned with the word "Jihad", stands and watches over them, handing around cups of steaming hot coffee. His real name is Ishtiaq Alamgir, but he goes by his adopted name, Sayful Islam, meaning "Sword of Islam". He is the 24-year-old leader of the Luton branch of al-Muhajiroun, an extremist Muslim group with about 800 members countrywide, who regard Osama bin Laden as their hero.
Until recently, nobody took the fanatical beliefs of al-Muhajiroun too seriously, believing that a British-based group so brazenly "out there" could not be involved in something as "underground" as terrorism. The group is led by the exiled Saudi, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammad, from his base in north London. Yesterday, in a magazine article, Bakri warned that several radical groups are poised to strike in London.
For all its inflammatory rhetoric, al-Muhajiroun has never been linked to actual violence. Yet, with the discovery last month of half-a-tonne of ammonium nitrate fertiliser - the same explosive ingredient used in the Bali and Turkey terror attacks - and with the arrest of eight young British Muslims in London and the South-East, including six in Luton, extremist groups such as al-Muhajiroun are under the spotlight like never before.
Detectives fear that the "enemy within", the homegrown extremists leading apparently normal lives in suburbia, now pose the greatest threat to security in Britain. Sayful and his friends fit this "homegrown" profile: three were born here, two came as young children from Pakistan; all were educated in local Luton schools; and they grew up in families of full employment - one of their fathers is a retired local businessman, two are engineers, and two worked in the local Vauxhall car plant.
The question is: how worried should we be? Is al-Muhajiroun nothing more than a repository for disaffected Muslim youths who have adopted an extreme interpretation of Islam - perhaps to cock a snook at the white establishment - but who are essentially posturing? Or does the group also perform a more sinister function, sucking in alienated young men and brainwashing the more impressionable into becoming future suicide bombers?
Although none of the arrested Muslims - aged 17 to 32 - appear to be current al-Muhajiroun members, rumours have circulated of informal links to the group. Moreover, parents of the arrested men have spoken anxiously of the "radicalising influence" of al-Muhajiroun militants who " corrupt" their children at mosques.
Nowhere has this public confrontation between radicals and moderates been more apparent than in Luton, which has the highest density of Muslims in the South-East - 28,000 out of a total population of 140,000 - and has long been regarded as a hotbed of extremism.
Sayful Islam, for one, is particularly proud of his contribution to Luton's hardline reputation. His exploits include covering the town with " Magnificent 19" posters glorifying the 11 September suicide bombers. "When I joined al-Muhajiroun four years ago, there were five local members," he says. "Now there are more than 50 and hundreds more support us."
The strange thing is that four years ago, Sayful Islam was a jeans-clad student completing his degree in business economics at Middlesex University in Hendon, north London.
The son of a British Rail engineer who came to this country from Pakistan, Sayful grew up in a moderate, middle-class Muslim family in Luton. At the local Denbigh High School, he is remembered as one of the smartest kids, and was selected to attend a science masterclass at Cambridge University. He would go on to marry, have two children and find work as an accountant for the Inland Revenue in Luton. He was thoroughly uninterested in politics.
THEN he met Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammad at a local event. Within two years, he had swapped his decently paid job as an accountant for an unpaid one as a political agitator. What turned him into an extremist? And how far is he prepared to go to achieve his aims?
Prior to seeing the group at the fastfood restaurant, Sayful meets me at his semi-detached rented home in Bury Park, Luton's Muslim neighbourhood. He no longer works, even though he is able-bodied, he admits, preferring instead to claim housing benefit and jobseeker's allowance. He smiles sheepishly and says the irony is not lost on him that the British state is supporting him financially, even as he plots to "overthrow it".
"I made a decision that I wanted to follow what Islam really said," Sayful begins, sitting on his sofa in his thowb (a traditional robe) and bare feet. "I went to listen to all the local imams, but I found their portrayal of Islam was too secularised. When I heard Sheikh Omar [the leader] of al-Muhajiroun speak, it was pure Islam, with no compromise. I found that appealing.
"At the same time," continues Sayful, "wars were happening in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan. People were being oppressed simply because they were Muslim. Although I had never experienced racism in the UK, it opened the eyes of a lot of Muslims, including mine."
But it was the events of 11 September that crystallised Sayful's worldview. "When I watched those planes go into the Twin Towers, I felt elated," he says. "That magnificent action split the world into two camps: you were either with Islam and al Qaeda, or with the enemy. I decided to quit my job and commit myself full-time to al-Muhajiroun." Now he does not consider himself British. "I am a Muslim living in Britain, and I give my allegiance only to Allah."
According to Sayful, the aim of al-Muhajiroun ("the immigrants") is nothing less than Khilafah - "the worldwide domination of Islam". The way to achieve this, he says, is by Jihad, led by Bin Laden. "I support him 100 per cent."
Does that support extend to violent acts of terrorism in the UK?
"Yes," he replies, unequivocally. "When a bomb attack happens here, I won't be against it, even if it kills my own children. Islam is clear: Muslims living in lands that are occupied have the right to attack their invaders.
"Britain became a legitimate target when it sent troops to Iraq. But it is against Islam for me to engage personally in acts of terrorism in the UK because I live here. According to Islam, I have a covenant of security with the UK, as long as they allow us Muslims to live here in peace."
HE USES the phrase "covenant of security" constantly. He attempts to explain. "If we want to engage in terrorism, we would have to leave the country," he says. "It is against Islam to do otherwise." Such a course of action, he says, he is not prepared to undertake. This is why, Sayful claims, it is consistent, and not cowardly, for him to espouse the rhetoric of terrorism, the "martyrdom-operations", while simultaneouslylimiting himself to nonviolentactions such as leafletting outside Luton town hall.
He denies any link between al-Muhajiroun and the Muslims arrested in the recent police raids. But, as I later discover at the fastfood restaurant, not everyone attaching themselves, however loosely, to al-Muhajiroun draws the same line. Two members of the group - Abu Yusuf, the financial adviser, and Abu Musa, the security guard - scorn al-Muhajiroun as "too moderate".
"I am freelance," says Abu Yusuf, fixing me with his piercing brown eyes. What does that mean? I ask.
"The difference between us and those two," interjects Abu Malaahim, pointing to Musa and Yusuf, "is that us lot do a verbal thing, [but] those brothers actually want to do a physical thing."
Referring to the latest truce offered by Bin Laden, and Britain's scathing rejection of it, Abu Malaahim adds: "He tried to make a peace deal. When terrorism happens, you will only have yourselves to blame."
How far are you prepared to go? I ask.
"You want to know how far I will go," says Abu Musa, his high-pitched lisp rising an octave. "When Allah said in the Koran 'kill and be killed', that's what I want. I want a martyr operation, where I kill my enemy."
Are you saying, I probe, that you are looking to kill people yourself ? "Yes," Abu Musa says, "to kill and to be killed." He emphasises each word.
What's stopped you doing it? "As you know from watching the news," intones Abu Yusuf, "there are brothers who do leave the country and do it." He is referring to the four Muslims from Luton who died fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the two British Muslims, said to have had ties to al-Muhajiroun, who last April left to become suicide bombers in Israel. "In-shallah [ Godwilling], there will be a time to go."
It is hard to know whether Musa and Yusuf are deadly serious or just pumped full of misguided, youthful bravado. Though I see coldness - even ruthlessness - in their eyes, I sense no malice. Both young men agree, perhaps foolishly, to be quoted using their real names, though they decline photographs - thus illustrating their uncertainty of which way to jump.
Muhammad Sulaiman, president of the Islamic Cultural Society, the largest of the 14 mosques in Luton, dismisses al-Muhajiroun as "verbal diarrhoea".
"They are an extreme Right-wing group - the Muslim version of the BNP," he says disdainfully. "They think Muslims should dominate, just like the BNP thinks whites should dominate. They use Islam as a vehicle to promote their distorted beliefs, particularly to unemployed young bloods who are vulnerable."
ALTHOUGH unemployment in Luton is just six per cent, the rate among Muslim youths is estimated at 25 per cent. "They are no more representative of our Muslim community than the BNP are of the white community."
Sulaiman insists that Sayful Islam and his crew are not welcome at the mosque. He cannot prevent them praying there, but he will never give them a platform. "I've told Sayful to bugger off and ejected him many times," he says brusquely. "Even Sayful's father, who I know well, thinks his son has been brainwashed."
But Sayful and his friends laugh at the idea that they are local pariahs. "The mosques say one thing to the public, and something else to us. Let's just say that the face you see and the face we see are two different faces," says Abdul Haq. "Believe me," adds Musa, "behind closed doors, there are no moderate Muslims."
They also mock the idea that they are attracted to al-Muhajiroun because they have suffered alienation from white society. "Do we look like scum?" they ask. "Do we look illiterate?"
As they call for the bill, Abu Malaahim flicks open his 3G mobile phone and, with a satisfied grin, displays the image, downloaded from the internet, of an American Humvee burning in Iraq.
Abu Yusuf says: "That's nothing. I downloaded the picture of the four burnt Americans hanging from the bridge." It's oneupmanship, al-Muhajiroun style.
Sayful, the only married one in the group, prepares to go home to his wife and children. Before he departs, he says he has a message to deliver.
"I want to warn that the police raids - if repeated - could create a bad situation.
"Islam is not like Christianity, where they turn the other cheek. If they raid our homes, it could lead to the covenant of security being broken.
"Islam allows us to retaliate. That would include" - he tugs his "Jihad" coat tight against the night air - "by violent means."
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