The five men jailed for life in London last week for a fertiliser bomb plot were all members of a violent Islamist group. With a worldwide influence and a radicalised following, is al-Muhajiroun waiting to strike again?
Jamie Doward and Andrew Wander report
Sunday May 6, 2007
The following correction was printed in the Observer's For the record column, Sunday May 20 2007
In the article below, the Bluewater shopping centre was said to be in Kent. It is in Essex. This has been corrected.
Rewind to London, Sunday, 8 September, 1996
, an obscure Islamist organisation, has booked the London Arena in Docklands
for a conference dedicated to 'the struggle for Khilafah', the creation of an Islamic state. Speakers are to include Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, al-Muhajiroun's leader, who 10 years later will flee Britain to Lebanon after praising the 7 July London bombers.
Video addresses will be beamed in and letters of support are to be read. There will be one from Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader held in an Israeli prison for authorising the execution of two Israeli soldiers. There is another from Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, jailed in the US for plotting to set off bombs in New Jersey and New York.
There will also be an address on behalf of a man called Sheikh al-Jihad, better known as Osama Bin Laden, who a month earlier had publicly declared war on America.
Bin Laden's address, according to the conference organisers, will refer to the heroes of the Taliban. It will talk about Muslim suffering, about injustice, about the need to take action. For al-Muhajiroun this is a coming of age moment, the day the group emerged from its hinterland and on to the world stage.
At the time the conference, which the organisers cancelled at the last moment
[no doubt the mailing address list for tickets/enquiries was retained
], raised hardly a blip on the radar of British intelligence. Now The Observer can reveal how al-Muhajiroun became the incubator of a global terror network that played a decisive role in radicalising the five 'fertiliser bomb' plotters jailed for life last week for planning a multiple bombing campaign at targets that included the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London and Britain's domestic gas network.
The fertiliser bomb plotters were typical of those al-Muhajiroun found and indoctrinated. The parents of many of those the group attracted pleaded desperately with their sons to break away. But al-Muhajiroun's appeal was irresistible. Hundreds embraced Bakri's call to jihad and, with al-Muhajiroun's help were dispatched to terror training camps in Pakistan.
The bomb trial heard how the five - Omar Khyam, Waheed Mahmood, Anthony Garcia, Jawad Akbar and Saladhuddin Amin, all Home Counties twentysomethings interested in sport and studying - were transformed from moderate Muslims into angry radicals keen to fight abroad. And at the heart of their conversion lay Bakri and his network of lieutenants whom he despatched to campuses, mosques and prayer centres to spread his message. 'While extremists are not always terrorists, terrorists are always extremists,' said Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies. 'The fertiliser bomb trial has given us the smoking-gun evidence that groups like al-Muhajiroun have had an important part in radicalising young British Muslims, and that this can create terrorists.'
With hindsight the Islamic International Conference should have set off alarm bells. But the reaction from on high to the group's emergence was muted. Few politicians wanted to be seen to criticise ethnic and religious minorities when what passed for multiculturalism was an all-encompassing ideology. Instead the rantings of Bakri, his acolyte, Abu Hamza, the hook-handed cleric now serving seven years for inciting murder, and their growing number of followers, were dismissed simply as the headline-grabbing posturings of a lunatic fringe. The security service's assessment was that those brainwashed by al-Muhajiroun would simply end up dying in some corner of a foreign battlefield that was of no concern to Britain.
As Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard's Counter-Terrorism Command, said last month: 'In the Nineties many people believed extremists from overseas regimes who were active in the UK were, if anything, pursuing agendas against foreign governments, and posed little or no threat to the UK.'
This failure allowed a dangerous global network to flourish. A network that has come back to haunt Britain and shows no sign of being dismantled.
Forward: New York 2002. Everyone who knew Syed Hashmi
says he was a good kid. Born in Pakistan but brought up in New York's gritty borough of Queens, friends recall Hashmi as a caring, bright young man, whose devotion to Islam was passionate but not of the sort that marked him out from any other Muslims. But things changed when Hashmi switched colleges, leaving Stony Brook University in Long Island for the more mixed Brooklyn College, from where he graduated with a degree in political science in 2003.
It was at Brooklyn that Hashmi, 23, discovered al-Muhajiroun, inviting a member to speak at his campus. At the time the memory of the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre was hardwired into New York's consciousness. People were edgy and security services more vigilant. One prominent Muslim radical who lived in Queens had been a particular concern.
In November 2001 Mohammed [Junaid] Babar
, a naturalised US citizen who had been born in Pakistan, attracted the interest of US intelligence when he openly declared in a TV interview that he was willing to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. 'My loyalty will forever be with the Muslims,' he said, despite his mother having narrowly escaped from the World Trade Centre when the planes struck.
Shortly after 9/11, Babar, who had been recruited by al-Muhajiroun in 2000, disappeared off the US intelligence service's radar. He had fled to Pakistan where he stayed at al-Muhajiroun's office in Lahore
before buying an apartment in the city's Eden Heights suburb in 2002.
Over the next two years, the flat became a temporary home to a conveyor belt of radicalised British Muslims, many of whom, like Babar, had been born in Pakistan and wanted to fight. Angered by what they saw as the West's failure to protect Bosnian Muslims in the Nineties war in the former Yugoslavia, their sense of grievance was heightened by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the turmoil in Chechnya and Kashmir.
Many of those who stayed there ended up at the Malakand training camp
hidden in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. It was there that Mohammed Siddique Khan
, an al-Muhajiroun convert and the ringleader of the 7/7 plot that killed 52 people in London, learnt his murderous skills. Other Britons at the camp in the summer of 2003
included Omar Khyam
, ringleader of the fertiliser bombers. He attended the camp with Saladhuddin Amin
, later to play a key role in the plot. Along with scores of other militants the pair practised making explosives, detonating devices in the camp.
Until now the details of how Babar met the fertiliser bomb plotters have been hazy. But documents filed by the US authorities who are extraditing him from the UK, say it was Hashmi, described as one of al-Muhajiroun's top recruiters, who brought the American, Babar, into the organisation where he later met the British fertiliser bomb plotters.
Hashmi, who moved to Britain
from Queens in 2003
, allegedly allowed his London flat to be used to store supplies and money that Babar was shipping out to Abdul al-Hadi al-Iraqi, then head of al-Qaeda's operations in Afghanistan. The supplies included ponchos, torches and boots, useful for recruits fighting US troops in remote parts of Afghanistan.
Hashmi was arrested on 8 June  last year as he tried to board a plane from Heathrow to Pakistan carrying thousands of pounds in cash. If convicted in the US he faces up to 54 years in prison. His lawyers say he will deny all the charges and that much of the evidence against him is conflicting.
A Canadian, Momin Khawaja
, said to be a close associate of Babar and al-Muhajiroun, will soon stand trial in his own country for his alleged role in the fertiliser bomb plot. Both trials threaten to shine new light on the links between al-Muhajiroun's operations in North America and Britain - links the US authorities are playing down. Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Secretary, quickly blamed British Islamists, but it is increasingly clear al-Muhajiroun's influence in the US spawned a small army of jihadists who exported the movement's ideology around the world.
As Babar, who turned supergrass against the fertiliser bombers, admitted at the trial, the US arm of al-Muhajiroun was a key component in its success. 'Most influence started in the early Nineties - Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed here in the UK,' Babar said. 'They [al-Muhajiroun] had representatives in New York. I was able to meet them on the internet. We spoke numerous times over the phone and there was a lot of literature available on the internet.'
The influence of al-Muhajiroun is apparent in the number of terrorists it allegedly influenced. The shoe bomber, Richard Reid, was seen at several al-Muhajiroun meetings in Ilford, east London, in the months before his failed attempt to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 flying between Paris and Miami. One regular visitor to the group's north London office was Asif Hanif, 21, from Hounslow, west London. On 29 April, 2003, he walked into Mike's Bar, a crowded cafe in Tel Aviv, Israel, and detonated his explosive belt, killing three people and injuring 60 others.
Haroon Rasheed Aswad
, another prominent member of al-Muhajiroun, was arrested in 2005 accused of attempting to set up a terror training camp for British and American jihadists in Oregon. In 2005 Mobeen Muneef
, 25, a Londoner, was picked up by US Marines on patrol in Ramadi, southern Iraq, after being caught allegedly passing weapons to insurgents. Muneef is believed to have attended al-Muhajiroun lectures in London.
But then, if the US needed reminding of the threat al-Muhajiroun posed to its own, it needed only to read a leaked memo by an FBI agent named Kenneth Williams. Written on 10 July, 2001, the memo warns bin Laden was attempting to send recruits to civil aviation colleges in the US. The document notes that the head of al-Muhajiroun, Omar Bakri Mohammed, had been receiving faxes from bin Laden in which the al-Qaeda leader urges Muslims to take action against the West: 'Bring down their airliners. Prevent the safe passage of their ships. Occupy their embassies. Force the closure of their banks.'
Pause: east London, the Nineties. Few people can fathom how young British men are capable of turning on their country and killing innocent people, even if it sometimes involves killing themselves in the process. The five fertilizer bomb plotters were not loners, hiding away to nurture a discernible grudge against society. Three were married and two had children.
Ed Husain, a former member of Hizb-ut Tahrir, the radical group from which Omar Bakri Mohammed split to set up al-Muhajiroun, is one of the few who knows how the conversion process from moderate to radical works.
Like most of the fertiliser bombers, Husain grew up in a moderate Muslim family, but was radicalised in his teens. 'I grew up with a sense of being both Muslim and British,' Husain said. 'I went to a multicultural primary school and I really enjoyed it. But when I went to Stepney Green secondary school the atmosphere changed. It was a single-sex school, with boys predominantly from Bangladesh. There was nothing British about that school. It could have been in Karachi. My only choice at school was to become a gang member or become an Islamist.'
Husain, who last week published a book about his experiences, The Islamist, says his first exposure to radical Islam came in religious education lessons at the school. 'We read a basic textbook that linked Islam and politics as the same and spoke about the Muslim Brotherhood as a perfectly legitimate organisation.'
It appears a culture of Islamism was entrenched at the school. 'Prayers were being led by people linked to the East London Mosque. When my father heard they were holding these sessions he asked me to stop praying at school. I refused.' By then Husain was hooked.
'Eventually I was invited to the mosque. The atmosphere was radically different to my parent's mosque. There were young, dynamic Muslims. They were people I could identify with.'
By then Husain's parents were deeply unhappy with the company he was keeping, and tried to persuade him to leave the mosque, known for its extreme brand of Islam. 'My parents knew I was betraying what they had raised me on. After trying to convince me, they gave me an ultimatum - either leave Islamism or leave the house. People at the mosque told me it was a test from God.
'So one night I wrote a note to my parents and left for the mosque. My mother phoned at nine the next morning. The caretaker answered and said I wasn't there. I was sitting right beside him. I could hear my mother crying. That was my first moment of doubt about these people. But by then I couldn't leave. My family had lost and I had won. It was a process of indoctrination.'
Husain joined Hizb-ut Tahrir after meeting Bakri. 'People at the mosque could identify problems but couldn't offer solutions,' he says. 'Bakri offered a direct solution: the establishment of Muslim state with a foreign policy of jihad. There was a powerful message: this was the only way to be a Muslim.'
The government continues to resist demands to proscribe Hizb-ut Tahrir, despite continued concerns about its influence expressed by both the Pakistan and US authorities.
Press play: Present-day Britain. Somewhere in the UK hides a deeply disturbed 27-year-old would-be suicide bomber, a close friend of Asif Hanif, who killed himself and three others in Mike's Bar in Tel Aviv and an associate of several fertiliser bomb plotters, including Babar.
The man, referred to as at the trial as 'Imran', has been on the run since last year.He had returned to the UK after a spell in a Pakistani jail, where he had been interrogated by MI6 over his links to suspected terrorists.
When he was arrested in 2005, Pakistani intelligence found 'Imran' had the telephone numbers of several defendants in the fertilizer bomb plot trial, as well as high-ranking al-Qaeda figures. The jury heard the plotters had approached 'Imran' to become a suicide bomber but he had bailed out at the eleventh hour, believing they would not go through with their side of the plan.
'Imran', who had been radicalised by al-Muhajiroun in Britain before linking up with its office in Lahore, also admitted to the Pakistani authorities that he had met two of the 7/7 bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer, at a jihadist training camp in late 2004.
His story should act as a warning: al-Muhajiroun's legacy lingers and its followers are still out there. Bakri may be in exile but he still spreads his message from his luxury flat overlooking the Mediterranean in Beirut where his neighbours include the Egyptian ambassador. 'Al-Muhajiroun are still a threat because Bakri's followers continue to operate under different names giving leaflets out at mosques and universities,' said Dr Irfan al-Alawi, director of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism.
'Bakri continues to preach his sermons via an internet chatroom from his exile, which means his evil ideology is still being practised by his followers who are part of a new group called Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah.'
These followers, notably Abu Izzadeen, charged last month with inciting terrorism overseas, have continued to preach incendiary sermons around the country. Splinter successor groups have emerged and, despite being proscribed by the government, continue to act as conduits for young radicals.
The origins of al-Muhajiroun
Formed in 1996, al-Muhajiroun established a network that stretched around the world using public meetings and lectures in radical mosques. From an office in north London, the organisation maintained a presence in the US and Pakistan, gaining a reputation for extremist rhetoric. Under the leadership of Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed
, the group recruited young men from mosques, gyms and universities. Many members travelled to Pakistan to train in 'jihad' camps before being dispatched to fight in Kashmir or Afghanistan or, as in the case of the 7/7 bombers and the fertiliser plotters, returning to the UK to plan domestic attacks. Al-Muhajiroun officially disbanded in 2004. A month after 7/7, fearing investigation by anti-terror police, Omar Bakri left the UK for Lebanon. Experts believe the organisation splintered into successor groups, which continue to operate in the UK.
source:Observer May 6, 2007