In the wake of news about Abdul Waheed Majeed, the first British suicide bomber in Syria, the case of a young man from London called Mohammed Hasnath might seem small beer. But it demonstrates the same things: the risk of extremism that this country faces, and the failure, or refusal, of the authorities to tackle it at source.
In February 2011, dozens of stickers appeared across the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, proclaiming it a “gay-free zone” and promising that “verily Allah is severe in punishment” on those who transgressed. From the very start, as this newspaper discovered, the police had clear CCTV pictures of the unidentified culprit, putting up the stickers at a local station.
But they refused to release the images for more than two months. Peter Tatchell, the gay human rights campaigner, said: “The police said no one was allowed to talk publicly about this because they didn’t want to upset the Muslim community. We’ve made very clear the difference between the Muslim community as a whole and these particular fundamentalists, and the fact that the police wouldn’t publicly say what they knew was an absolute disgrace.”
When the CCTV pictures were finally published, in early April, the culprit was quickly identified as Hasnath. In June, he pleaded guilty to a public order offence and was fined £100. He was already on bail, it turned out, for another offence of defacing posters with images of unveiled women on them.
The reason this story is of more than local interest is that while the authorities were ignoring Hasnath’s minor crimes, he and his associates were already on what has sometimes been called the “conveyor-belt” to more serious ones. The following year, he was jailed for terrorism offences after being caught with bomb-making instructions and uploading propaganda videos to YouTube, urging others to fight jihad against the West.
Last year, Hasnath’s co‑accused in the posters case, Jordan Horner and Ricardo McFarlane, were jailed after they assaulted white drinkers and intimidated couples holding hands as part of a so-called “Muslim Patrol” to enforce sharia values in Tower Hamlets. This kind of activity has been going on in the area for years, mainly against other Muslims deemed insufficiently sharia-compliant, but the police have seldom done much about it.
What we saw in the acts of these low- and medium-level bigots is something we see in more serious extremist-related crime: persistent attempts by the authorities to treat them, and tackle them, as isolated events when in fact they are very often closely linked.
In a striking number of cases, the link between extremist-related criminality in Britain can be described in two words: al-Muhajiroun, the terrorist-sympathising group formed by Omar Bakri Muhammad and now led by that evergreen BBC favourite, Anjem Choudary.
Hasnath, Horner and McFarlane all have links to al-Muhajiroun. Choudary describes Horner as his “enforcer”. Earlier last year, before his Muslim Patrols sentence, Horner was jailed for beating up a photographer outside Choudary’s home. Hasnath is alleged by the anti-extremism group Hope Not Hate to have been the narrator on a video promoting Choudary, calling the Woolwich murder of Lee Rigby an “eye for an eye” and urging Muslims to fight in Somalia.
The Woolwich killer, Michael Adebolajo, had close links with al-Muhajiroun. So did Abdul Waheed Majeed, the suicide bomber in Syria. According to Bakri Muhammad, he was his driver. Majeed’s hometown, Crawley in West Sussex, is an al-Muhaijiroun hotbed.
It started in Crawley with a man called Sulayman Keeler. Born Simon Keeler, he converted from Catholicism in the Nineties, attended the town’s Langley Green mosque, and ran an al-Muhajiroun front called the Society of Converts to Islam. After being jailed for assaulting a police officer on an extremist demonstration, he was then sent to prison for four years in 2008 for recruiting young Sussex Muslims to fight for jihad – in Iraq, at that point.
Al-Muhajiroun meetings at the Langley Green mosque also provided a crucible for several of the key figures in another terrorist plot, to plant massive fertiliser bombs at the Bluewater shopping centre and a nightclub. Omar Khyam, leader of the plot and a key supporter of al‑Muhajiroun, was from Crawley, as was Jawad Akbar, another plotter. Khyam met one of the other convicted plotters, Waheed Mahmoud, under al-Muhajiroun’s auspices at the Crawley mosque. Bakri Muhammad held training camps near the town.
In 2011, nine men were sentenced to a total of more than 94 years for their part in the so-called “Christmas bomb plot”, to attack targets such as the London Stock Exchange, Big Ben and the London Eye. All nine, according to Hope Not Hate, had “confirmed links with al-Muhajiroun”. The ringleader, Mohammed Chowdhury, attended the group’s events, made phone calls to its activists and had Anjem Choudary’s number in his phone. Weeks before his arrest, he was filmed by Norwegian television helping Choudary set up a Skype call with Bakri Muhammad.
In 2008, al-Muhajiroun’s Manchester organiser, Habib Ahmed, was also one of the first two people in the UK to be convicted for membership of al‑Qaeda. In total, at least 30 people convicted of terrorism in the UK have links to al-Muhajiroun, and a further dozen or so connected to the group, like Majeed, have died in suicide or jihad attacks abroad.
Now, of course, Majeed’s death has focused attention on Syria and the deep and growing concern about the danger that the 2,000 or so European jihadis estimated to be fighting in that conflict might pose when they return home.
Entire camps in rebel-controlled Syria are filled with Western extremists, with social media footage showing many of them fighting (or, alternatively, struggling to communicate in English with their Arab counterparts). At least 400 Britons are estimated to have travelled to fight. In a closed session of the Intelligence and Security Committee last week, a senior member of the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism command said that 200 of them are estimated to have returned home.
“One of the key things you are seeing is the repopulation of global terrorist networks,” says Shiraz Maher, an expert in the Syrian jihadi conflict at King’s College London. “If you look at the pattern of terrorist activity in this country, a number of plots that were otherwise put on to the streets failed for a lack of experience and ability within those cells to construct viable devices. Unfortunately, you will now see people gaining those skills in an environment that allows them to do so.”
“In no previous conflict, with the possible exception of Afghanistan in the Eighties, have we had more than a few hundred Europeans in a given theatre,” says Dr Thomas Hegghammer, an insurgency expert who has studied the impact of terrorist “blowback” on the West from previous foreign wars. “Now we have 10 times that.”
Dr Hegghammer’s research suggests that as many as one in nine of the foreign combatants in previous jihadi wars went on to become involved in terrorist plots against their home countries on their return.
There has, however, already been at least one alleged terror plot in Britain itself with a potential Syrian connection – that of two men arrested in the City of London last October. The case is shrouded in secrecy, with not even the accused’s names reportable, but, given their diverse background, it is believed that they met in Syria.
“I think it is extremely unlikely that we will not see at least some plots in Europe involving Syria veterans,” says Dr Hegghammer. “The crucial factor that determines whether this becomes a low blowback or a high blowback destination is the strategy adopted by organisations on the ground in Syria. Foreign fighter destinations produce many more plots if there is a group in the theatre that adopts a strategy of systematically targeting the West. That is what we have had in Afghanistan since the mid-Nineties and, to some extent, what we have had in Yemen since 2009. Those two destinations have by far the highest return rate of any foreign fighter destination.
“Today in Syria there is no group that has such a strategy, so if this situation continues, I suspect that the blowback rate will be relatively low, but it could change.”
And as with domestic terrorism, the role of al-Muhajiroun in funnelling British citizens to Syria may be crucial. Hope Not Hate claims that the group has sent at least 60 to 80 Britons to the jihad, around a quarter of the total, and names a south London supporter of the group as the key recruiter. Others, such as Maher, are more sceptical about al-Muhajiroun’s role, saying social media plays a bigger part.
But the facts on the ground suggest that there may be some validity to the Hope Not Hate estimate. In addition to Majeed, at least one of the six other Britons killed fighting jihad in Syria, Ifthekar Jaman, from Portsmouth, has links to al‑Muhajiroun: in other words, not far off a third of those Britons who have died.
Maybe, just maybe, Syria might be finally be the prod the British authorities need to do something serious about al‑Muhajiroun.
Andrew Gilligan is London editor for the Sunday Telegraph.