By Kimiko De Freytas-Tamura
25 Aug, 2014
The beheading of American journalist James Foley, apparently by a British jihadist, has drawn renewed attention to the dangers posed by radicalized young British Muslims.
The government estimates that 500 or more British men and women have gone to fight for militant groups in Iraq and Syria, some of whom have already returned.
Britain monitors its citizens on social media sites as part of its counterterrorism strategy. But the government has also turned to anti-extremist Imams for help to prevent British Muslims from adopting radical views and to persuade those who have returned from the battlefields to moderate their beliefs.
After the killing of Mr. Foley, Quari Asim, the Imam of the Makkah mosque in Leeds, urged Muslims “to work with the intelligence services and the government to make sure that this poison doesn’t reach our borders.” Speaking to the BBC, he said that the risk of British Muslims joining the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was increasing because of Britain’s involvement in Iraq.
Mohammed Hadi, 18, sneaked out of his house in Coventry one morning in March and, like scores of British Muslims before him, went to fight for a militant group in Syria. His parents were shocked and confused.
“He was normal at home, a moderate Muslim,” his father, Mahir Hadi, said in an interview. After three months without a trace, Mohammed began posting messages on Twitter in June. He had taken an Islamic name, Abu Yahya al-Kurdy, and claimed that he had joined ISIS.
His mother told a newspaper, The Sun, that Mohammed received very little pocket money, suggesting that someone else paid for his plane ticket.
The only clue to his son’s sudden departure, Mr. Hadi said, was the local Imam, Mohammed Shoaib, who had taught the young man at his madrasa and, according to a person who knows the family, accompanied him on a trip to Turkey near the border with Syria, without his parents’ knowledge. Mr. Hadi said he suspected that the imam had radicalized his son, so he confronted him.
According to Mr. Hadi, Mr. Shoaib denied the claims. The imam has not been charged with any wrongdoing, and he declined a request for an interview. “Of course I have my suspicions,” Mr. Hadi said. “But there’s no proof. What can you do?”
Only a minority of religious leaders plants the seeds of radicalisation, experts and officials say. The intended audience is disaffected youth, alienated from local mosques and searching for answers about the typical concerns of young people, as well as the conflicts in the Middle East.
Those imams often preach a brand of Islamic supremacy, the experts say that demonizes non-Muslims and gays and justifies militant acts with extreme interpretations of the Quran. They are careful not to suggest taking up arms, but will talk about the situation in Syria, Iraq or Gaza, and then talk about a Muslim’s duties. Their views are extreme, but rarely illegal. Radicalization is heightened by views found on the Internet and social media, and in small lectures and workshops outside the mosque.
“You don’t go online looking for a pair of shoes to buy and suddenly end up becoming a Jihadi,” said Haras Rafiq, a former member of the government’s counter extremism task force and now with the Quilliam Foundation, a research group that studies and tackles religious extremism.
A Cardiff mosque attracted attention in June when it was reported that three young men who joined ISIS were regular attendees. The mosque, Al-Manar Centre, insists that the men were radicalized by information picked up on the Internet, not at the mosque.
But in March, the Home Office barred one of its preachers, Sheikh Mohammed al-Arifi, a Saudi, from entering the country, calling him a “threat to society.” The Al-Manar Centre has also occasionally invited speakers from the Islamic Education and Research Academy, which aims to convert people to Islam. Its members have in the past said that gay men, apostates and Jews deserve to be killed.
“There are some mosques that are of particular interest to us,” said Peter Fahy, chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police, who leads the government’s strategy to prevent people from embracing extremism. “But a lot of these people are not stupid,” he said, referring to radical preachers, “and are pretty careful in terms of the way they stay just on the right side of the line” of hate speech and encouraging terrorism.
Part of the problem is that not enough imams challenge extremist narratives that captivate vulnerable youth, said Timothy Winter, dean of Cambridge Muslim College, which trains about 100 imams a year. Most imams avoid preaching on divisive political and social issues, he said, and, “They can’t spend quality time every day with every young angry man.”
The role of the government is limited, he said, because it lacks “the competence of the traditional scholars,” and not all who take part in deradicalisation efforts are linked to the government.
“You could compare it to exit counseling in cults,” said Mr. Winter. “It can take weeks. It works, but it’s extraordinarily labor-intensive.”
One imam who works with the government, and asked for anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue, described a boy, 16, who was angry about the Afghan war. He told the imam that he planned to poison the water supply of an army barracks near London. “This young boy was very upset and was quite ready,” the imam said. He spent days talking with him, and at one point, grabbed him and yelled, “What is the matter with you? Are you crazy?” In the end the boy abandoned his plan, he said. “He’s gone back to normality.”
More recently, the imam has worked with youngsters back from Syria. Not all are militants and can be “mentored out of radicalization,” he said, but many have difficult family situations or psychological disorders.
Another imam, Muhammad Manwar Ali, who runs a charitable education center in Ipswich, tries to help young men understand the complexity of politics and the Middle Eastern conflicts.
But he is careful not to insult the idea of jihad. “It’s chivalrous, you want to sacrifice your life for a noble ideal,” he said. “But I say it has to be done in a responsible way. And God is not what you conceive him to be: an angry, vengeful god.”
The young men, while often impatient, listen, he said, because of his own history. Mr. Ali, 54, said that for 20 years he had recruited and trained fighters, and fought, himself, in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. His friendship with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who worked with Al Qaeda in Yemen before he was killed, impresses his listeners.
But he quit jihadism in 2000, he said, after long reflection and the loss of 20 friends in combat. “Certain things impact you,” he said. “You begin to ignore things less, you dare to listen, dare to open up.”
Men in their 30s and 40s resist persuasion, he said, but his work with younger Muslims often pays off. And many, who return, scarred from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, are “already fed up and want to settle back into normal life.”
Mr. Hadi, Mohammed’s father, said he was hopeful. “I’m still waiting for my son to come back home,” he said.