A mosque frequented by the leader of the airline plot terrorist cell has been a recruiting ground for extremists for more than 20 years.
The Queen’s Road mosque in Walthamstow, northeast London, where Abdulla Ahmed Ali met his associates, is controlled by the ultraorthodox Tablighi Jamaat. Intelligence services around the world believe that Tablighi’s fundamentalism makes some of its followers easy prey for terrorist recruiters.
Two decades ago the same mosque was hosting talks by followers of Omar Bakri Mohammed, one of the first Islamic clerics in Britain to preach jihad. The disclosure of the mosque’s history indicates that, despite the focus on the Pakistan-based terrorist threat, the roots of Islamist radicalisation are deeply embedded in Britain.
The men involved in the fertiliser bomb plot of 2004, the July 7 and July 21 bombings of 2005 and the airline plot were all radicalised in Britain.
Their initial contacts with the al-Qaeda network were through fundraisers and recruiters in Britain and Rashid Rauf, who has been identified by security sources as a key link man in Pakistan, was from Birmingham.
Ed Husain, of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist think-tank, said the first contact with radicals for many young Muslims was at British colleges and universities. “In the 1990s it was Arab political refugees, not Pakistanis, that helped radicalise many British Muslims,” he said. “Pakistani militants provide training for would-be violent Islamists. But they go out radicalised and willing — it is folly to think that visits to Pakistan are points of first contact with extremism.”
Ali, who will be sentenced for the airline plot next week, was heavily influenced by a suspected al-Qaeda facilitator who is known to the authorities. That man, who has not been arrested and lives freely in East London, claims that he has no links to terrorism and is a Tablighi missionary. But long before the Walthamstow mosque came under Tablighi influence, it hosted “study circles” led by Bakri Mohammed’s followers. I attended one of those meetings as a reporter in August 1989 and heard young men decry the evils of drink, discos and “free intermingling of the sexes”. One called Kysar, then aged 19, told me: “Islam isn’t a religion where you can only adopt part of it. You have to adopt the whole Islamic viewpoint on society. There can be no compromise with the divine system revealed to us.”
The threat of Islamist terrorism was not recognised at the time but the ideology of the supremacy of Islam was present in Kysar’s fundamentalism and “no compromise” attitude.
Bakri Mohammed, a Syrian who had arrived here after being expelled from Saudi Arabia, later set up al-Muhajiroun, which he used to radicalise young men. His followers included the two Britons who carried out a suicide bomb attack on a Tel Aviv bar in April 2003. Bakri Mohammed now lives in exile in Lebanon but his followers in Britain persist in advocating jihad.
That the airline bomb plot was based in Walthamstow has shocked residents of this northeast London suburb. The area prides itself on having a mixed and well-integrated community and, unlike in many areas of East London, there are no ghettos. But the plot has revealed that Islamist extremism is deeply rooted in elements of the large Muslim population.
Many of the people whom Ali tried to recruit to his terrorist cell were his Walthamstow school friends and his bomb factory was an upstairs flat in the busy Forest Road. In the flat, Ali — who had lived almost all his life in Walthamstow — experimented with bottle bombs and liquid explosives and recorded martyrdom videos. Bombmaking components were disposed of in the rubbish bins across the road in Lloyd Park, once the garden of the philanthropist William Morris.
Afzal Akram, the local councillor whose brief includes “community cohesion”, insisted that Queen’s Road mosque itself was not part of the problem. “It’s got nothing to do with the imams or the mosque — some of my friends and family pray there, I’ve been there myself,” he said. “None of the mosques here have been used to preach extremism. Individuals may have met at particular mosques and individuals may live within a stone’s throw of the mosque. But I wouldn’t put two and two together.”
Mr Akram says that extremism locally is little more than youngsters “mouthing off” and “spouting conspiracy theories”. But the Government is spending £90,000 in the borough to teach “leadership” to young Muslims.
The Queen’s Road mosque declined to comment, despite approaches made through the Muslim Council of Britain. However, two years ago Tablighi Jamaat set up a website, to publicise its plans for a giant mosque next to the Olympic site, on which it said: “We do not teach an extremist line, but we clearly can’t speak for every single one of those who have ever attended our mosques — there are several thousand people at our weekly gatherings.”
They added: “We utterly refute any links to terrorism or terrorists.”
One community leader, who is involved in interfaith work in Walthamstow, said the Muslim community did not recognise that extremism was a problem.
“I don’t want to add fuel to the fire, but the problem is within the Muslim community and its attitude to the extremists,” he said. “You speak to the community elders and they smile and say, ‘It’s not a big problem, if we ignore them they’ll go away’. That seems a dangerous attitude to me and the wrong one to take.”
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