On the front lines of God’s war

British Muslims are in a race to defeat Islamist extremists in their midst, before terror can strike again

Commemorations to mark the third anniversary of the July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks in London were subdued this year. A little more than 1,000 people gathered at King’s Cross station, where the first and deadliest of the four bombs exploded that day. Mayor Boris Johnson placed flowers, as did several survivors and relatives of the victims. Then most people got back on the subway and went to work. Stereotypes about British emotional reticence are accurate, and partially explain the restraint. But there’s a deeper reason for Britons not to dwell too deeply on the bombings three years ago. Several attacks have been thwarted since. More will come.

Last year, Jonathan Evans, the head of Britain’s MI5 domestic secret service, said the agency was watching some 2,000 people who posed a threat to Britain’s security, a number that had risen by 400 since the previous year. He added that the threat had not yet peaked. “Al-Qaeda has a clear determination to mount terrorist attacks against the United Kingdom,” he said. He rejected the idea that these threats come mostly from homegrown freelancers who have been radicalized on the Internet, noting that MI5 estimates half of the suspects it is monitoring have been trained at camps in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.

This Pakistani connection is one of the reasons why Britain is so vulnerable. Al-Qaeda has suffered setbacks in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and across the world clerics and scholars who were once supportive have turned against it. But al-Qaeda continues to thrive in Pakistan—where it may have played a role in the horrific Sept. 20 suicide bombing at Islamabad’s Marriott hotel that left 53 people dead . “The group has retained or regenerated key elements of its capability, including top leadership, operational mid-level lieutenants, and de facto safe haven in Pakistan’s border area with Afghanistan,” Mike McConnell, the American director of national intelligence, told Congress earlier this year. British Pakistanis make thousands of visits to Pakistan every year. Many come from conservative and poorly developed regions such as Kashmir. They are particularly sought-after al-Qaeda recruits because their passports promise easy access to Europe and the United States, and some are sympathetic. Tahir Pervez, an uncle of the July 7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer, travels frequently between the two countries. This year, as mourners gathered at King’s Cross to commemorate those murdered by Tanweer and his co-conspirators, Pervez hosted a celebration at his nephew’s grave in Pakistan.

According to Paul Cruickshank, a fellow at New York University’s Center on Law and Security, British Muslims are among the most radicalized in western Europe. “Britain is a key battleground in the fight against al-Qaeda,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. “The trends that are going to appear in the future are likely going to appear in London first.”

There are good reasons to worry about how these trends are developing. Britons have been spared further fatalities since the 2005 attacks through a combination of luck and skilled policing. Two summers ago, British authorities said they had uncovered a plot by two dozen British Muslims to blow up as many as 18 passenger planes crossing the Atlantic. Several suspects had links to Pakistan, and Pakistani authorities detained at least seven men at the same time as the British arrests, including at least two British nationals. Three of the accused have since been convicted of conspiracy to murder. An amateurish attempt to drive a car loaded with propane canisters into the Glasgow airport failed last year when the assailants set themselves on fire. This attack took place one day after two car bombs were discovered and disabled outside nightclubs in London. Also last year, five British Muslims were convicted of plotting bomb attacks in London. Four of the five men are of Pakistani descent and all had spent time in that country, including in training camps. A sixth alleged conspirator, Canadian Momin Khawaja, was also charged and is now awaiting a verdict in his trial that wound up earlier this month.

Eventually, inevitably, there will be a plot that British law enforcement agents miss. Conclusively defeating Islamist terrorism requires defeating the extremist ideology that feeds it. The police, intelligence agents, and other counterterrorism officials have an important but limited and supporting role to play in this ideological conflict. It will be won or lost by British Muslims themselves. Those who have decided to fight this battle are few in number, and they are engaged in a difficult, often lonely struggle. Many are former radicals themselves. Most are deeply religious and have been motivated to confront Islamist extremism, in part because of concern for and love of their faith.

Usama Hasan must have cut a striking figure cycling around the grounds of Cambridge University wearing robes and a turban almost two decades ago. He was studying theoretical physics, but his heart was inflamed by other causes. Hasan belonged to Jamiat Ihyaa Minhaaj Al Sunnah (JIMAS), a student Islamist group. When several of his colleagues planned to visit a jihadist training camp in Afghanistan, he jumped at the opportunity to go with them. The other members of JIMAS were pleased to have him come along. Although he was raised in London, Hasan had memorized the Quran by the age of 10 and spoke fluent Arabic, which they reasoned would come in handy. This was December 1990. Muslim fighters from all over the world who had helped defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan were now battling Afghan Communists still clinging to power in Kabul. Hasan and his parents were going to be in Pakistan visiting relatives anyway. They worried, but gave him their blessing.

The British group spent 10 days at the training camp with other foreign jihadis, including dozens of Algerians and Palestinians. They ran up mountains and learned to fire AK-47 assault rifles. Normally foreign volunteers had to spend two or three months in training before they were allowed to fight. But the camp leader, an Afghan who also ran camps for Pakistanis and Pashtuns, was so happy to have Western Muslims join the jihad in Afghanistan that he made an exception. The British volunteers were allowed to visit the front lines and spent a night exchanging artillery fire with Afghan Communists. “You can imagine for a 19-year-old bookworm like me, to be in a war zone, it was an awesome experience,” Hasan told Maclean’s. “We were taking part in what for years we believed was the highest expression of our faith. We were fighting for God, and we might be accepted as martyrs.”

Hasan returned to Britain and, although he disagreed with some London preachers who advocated attacks against Western civilians, he moved in Islamist circles. He had few non-Muslim friends, regarded Shia and Sufi Muslims as heretics, and sympathized with Osama bin Laden. Before Sept. 11, 2001, Hasan told himself that al-Qaeda didn’t target civilians. He knew about the terror group’s 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 civilians, but says that he and his Islamist friends were in denial: “We thought it was the Mossad or something.” Hasan’s thinking began to shift, first with the 9/11 attacks in the United States, and conclusively with the July 7, 2005, bombings in London. “July 7 was a shock, a wake-up call,” he says. “After that we realized we had to confront it, a problem we had contributed to with our early rhetoric.”

He is now an outspoken opponent of al-Qaeda and extremist Islamist ideology in general. As a part-time imam at the al-Tawhid Mosque in east London, Hasan has a platform to preach tolerance. He also teaches artificial intelligence at Middlesex University and gives lectures on astronomy at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. “For me, astronomy is seeing evidence of God in the heavens,” he says, over lunch at a diner near the mosque. Hasan is a charismatic man with none of the self-importance occasionally displayed by clerics and other leaders. He now has many non-Muslim friends, including a Catholic priest. He’s ditched the robes and turban he wore at Cambridge and delivers his sermons wearing a suit. When people complain that such attire isn’t Islamic, he tells them Islam can and should adapt.

Earlier this year, Hasan helped launch the Quilliam Foundation, a “counter-extremism think tank” created by former members of radical Islamist organizations. It was co-founded by Ed Husain, who used to belong to Hizb-ut-Tahrir before leaving and then denouncing the global Islamist group in a bestselling memoir. The foundation’s members believe Western Muslims should “revive Western Islam, our Andalusian heritage of pluralism and respect . . . free from the cultural baggage of the Indian subcontinent, or the political burdens of the Arab world.” To this end, they host debates, deliver lectures, publish articles, and engage in research. Their goal, they say, is to support British Islam as a modern, pluralistic, tolerant religion, and oppose Islamism, the political ideology.

Several Muslim groups and clerics have denounced the foundation and its members. Critics include the Muslim Council of Britain, the largest umbrella organization of Muslim groups in the U.K.—some of which have close ties to the Pakistani Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood. One critic, Abu Khadeejah Abdul-Wahid, an imam in Birmingham who preaches the orthodox Sunni strain of Salafism, believes the extremist ideology of al-Qaeda can best be confronted by teaching traditional, orthodox Islam. He rejects the Quilliam Foundation’s call for a modern British Islam and described Husain to Maclean’s as a “trickster.” Some non-Muslim liberals have also attacked the Quilliam Foundation and the similarly moderate Sufi Muslim Council. The headline on a recent Guardian newspaper column by Seumas Milne describes both groups as “clients and stooges” of the British government.

But Hasan, who regularly receives nasty emails and the odd death threat from other Muslims because of his stance, says it is his religion and concern for its future that drives him. “There is a battle going on for the heart and soul of Islam,” he says. “It’s a question of our faith. The Quran and Islam are very dear to my heart. I’m a believer, like the fundamentalists I suppose. They’re very passionate about their interpretation of Islam. I’m very passionate that Islam has to be understood in a very generous and merciful and balanced way. So the very nature of our faith and how it’s practised and presented is at stake here in the West. That’s why I persevere. The stakes are very high.”

The Quilliam Foundation claims it does not receive financial support from the British government, although it adds it would welcome such funding as long as it came with no strings attached. The British government, for its part, is funding a number of Muslim groups and organizations that say they are working to de-radicalize their communities. In June, the Home Office made available another $25 million for projects that “undermine extremist ideology” by “amplifying mainstream voices.” The Metropolitan Police Service’s Muslim contact unit is another example of efforts by British authorities to win over Muslim communities and marginalize extremist voices within them.

But among the hundreds of mosques, community organizations and lobby groups, whom should the government and police be supporting and seeking alliances with? It’s a difficult and important question. The British government has been heavily criticized in the past for promoting the Muslim Council of Britain and accepting its claims to represent mainstream British Muslims. “You had people who were essentially Islamists walking in and out of Downing Street, up and down Whitehall, pretending to be ordinary Muslims,” Ed Husain said in an interview with Maclean’s last year. On the other hand, if it were only to support the most liberal of British Muslim voices, does the government not run the risk of isolating large numbers of Muslims? As long as an organization is opposed to blowing up subways in London, does it really matter what its members feel about the Palestinian question, Kashmir, sharia law, or whether women should leave the house without a veil?

British authorities appear ready to compromise. In 2005 police teamed up with the Muslim Association of Britain, an arm of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, to remove a group of al-Qaeda supporters who had taken over the North London Central Mosque in Finsbury Park. The extremists were followers of Abu Hamza al-Masri, a one-eyed, hook-handed cleric who urged Muslims to kill “kafirs,” a derogatory Arabic term for non-Muslims. When interviewed by this reporter in 2002, Abu Hamza explained his statements by saying he was simply citing Muslim law. He is now serving a seven-year prison sentence for soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred. Under his leadership, the mosque had served as a refuge for jihadis, including foreigners, who camped out in its basement. It is now unquestionably a more peaceful place. But does clearing out a group of radical extremists justify strengthening a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the world’s largest and most powerful Islamist groups?

“One must take a pragmatic approach,” says Paul Cruickshank, the New York University fellow. “Just because you might not agree with everything these groups espouse doesn’t mean they can’t be incredibly helpful combating extremism. Given the severity of the threat in the United Kingdom right now, [denouncing these groups] is probably not the right thing to do.”

Usama Hasan is not so sure. “I don’t accept the conveyor belt idea that Islamism or Wahhabism or Salafism leads to terrorism,” he says. “But it does contribute to the mood music, this sympathy for suicide bombings, for example. You find a lot of sympathy for this kind of nonsense.” He adds that even non-violent Islamist parties are too often obsessed with a foreign agenda, which prevents integration into the larger British society and stifles debates on how Islam in Britain should evolve.

Hasan says this while strolling down Edgware Road one night after hosting a gathering of mostly young Muslims to hear talks by a survivor of the July 7 attacks and a Muslim doctor who treated some of the victims. Edgware Road is a main street in central London with a large Arab presence and many small restaurants offering kebabs, Turkish pide, and other affordable Middle Eastern food. A handful of evangelical Christians are spread out along one stretch of sidewalk and call to passersby in Arabic, offering a “free gift,” which turns out to be copies of the New Testament in Arabic. Hasan takes one, laughs shortly and asks if they have copies of the Quran.

One of the many counter-extremism projects supported by the British government is led by the chairman of a mosque once frequented by Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber who is now serving a life sentence for attempting to blow up an American Airlines jetliner in December 2001, and Zacarias Moussaoui, also serving a life sentence for conspiring to kill Americans as part of the 9/11 attacks. Abdul Haqq Baker is the founding director of STREET, a de-radicalization program aimed at Muslim youth in danger of being seduced by al-Qaeda’s jihadist rhetoric.

He’s also the chairman of the Brixton Mosque in south London. Many who worship at the mosque are converts to Islam, and it has attracted several notorious extremists over the years. Abdullah al-Faisal, jailed and then deported from Britain for soliciting the murder of Jews, Americans, and Hindus, preached here in the 1990s, until Baker kicked him out after a tense standoff in which some of al-Faisal’s followers carried weapons. Abu Hamza also tried to make inroads here but was rebuffed by Baker, a large, well-built man who nevertheless refused to use violence against extremist clerics and their armed supporters. He convinced al-Faisal to leave by shutting off electricity in the mosque so al-Faisal was unable to see. He says he also banned Zacarias Moussaoui after suspecting Moussaoui had become irreversibly radicalized.

Baker’s latest project seeks to engage extremists and change their minds. The program involves about 120 young Muslims. Some of the weekly activities are not explicitly religious. They play soccer and box. But Baker, who has studied in Saudi Arabia and spends much of his time there, also fights al-Qaeda’s message on theological grounds. Baker, and other members of his team with religious training, dismantle jihadist propaganda such as the July 7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer’s “martyrdom” video, picking apart the arguments line by line. “Extremists don’t allow them to think for themselves. We do,” he says. For instance, Tanweer declared that all Britons were guilty because they voted a government into power that oppresses Muslims all over the world. But the July 7 attacks were indiscriminate, Baker tells the young men in the program. “Are you saying it’s okay to kill your mum? Where does the chain of guilt stop?”

Baker, 42, says he was involved with street gangs before converting to Islam in 1990. He later studied law and is now pursuing a doctorate at the University of Exeter. He’s an energetic man who peppers his educated manner of speech with the odd bit of dated Cockney slang, such as “guv.” But Baker also practises the conservative Salafi strain of Islam that is prevalent in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. He believes Muslim orthodoxy is a strong defence against al-Qaeda’s ideology, and although he says he likes Usama Hasan, he thinks Hasan’s desire for a more modern, British Islam is misguided. He describes the Quilliam Foundation as the “liberal extreme” and says its members are always ready to appease the government. He might share the same opposition to al-Qaeda as British Muslim modernizers such as Hasan and Ed Husain, but it’s difficult to see how their opposing views of how this battle should be fought can be reconciled.

A long subway journey on the Victoria Line will take a traveller out of Brixton, with its streetside market stalls and West Indian food shops, where Abdul Haqq Baker runs his STREET project, across the Thames River and through the trendier neighbourhoods of central London, before finally arriving in Leyton, another working class London suburb where David Beckham grew up and which is now home to large numbers of immigrants from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Here, on street signs and walls across from Kashmir Hairdressers on Lea Bridge Road, someone has affixed homemade placards that say, “Stay Muslim, don’t vote.” Several women walking nearby wear niqabs that cover their faces.

Hanif Qadir and his two brothers, Imtiaz and Abad, lived and worked in this suburb for decades, running successful car garages and becoming deeply involved with Islamist extremist groups that were present in the area. They also funded extremists in Afghanistan, and in 2002, following the overthrow of the Taliban, the three brothers decided that Hanif should go to Afghanistan himself. He is now reluctant to discuss the details of what happened, but he admits he was teetering on the edge of becoming a jihadi. The experience changed his life.

“I need to be very careful about what I say,” Qadir, a barrel-chested man in his early 40s, told Maclean’s. “Without going into the details of why I went and who we were funding, what is important to understand is, through that experience, through going on that personal roller coaster, we had a unique experience of how violent extremists work, and the tools they use to recruit young people. What I signed up for wasn’t what I saw in Afghanistan. I signed up to prevent the loss of innocents. What I saw were old men, children, who weren’t just being attacked by Western forces. There was a lot of chaos and confusion. It was very difficult to determine who was right and who was wrong.”

Qadir returned to Leyton determined to stop young Muslims from following in his footsteps. His brothers supported him. They sold their garages and opened a youth centre and gym. The enterprise is called the Active Change Foundation. Qadir and his brothers invite former gang members and Islamic scholars to speak at the centre. They have organized pool tournaments between young people and police and hosted a trip to the Lake District in northern England for 18 young Muslims and three police officers. A madrasa attached to the youth centre teaches both Arabic and respectful etiquette.

There are still extremists active in Leyton, Qadir says. They can best be countered, he believes, through a combination of theology and street smarts. “You need to have someone who can challenge the person who has been told that faith justifies this violence,” he says. Another leading member of the foundation, Mike Jervis, was a gangster before becoming a successful businessman. He provides balance to clerics and scholars who may not understand what it feels like to be young, poor, and angry.

Qadir receives some government funding. But he and his brothers have also poured their own savings into the foundation. “I’ve lost everything I’ve had,” he says. “But I’ve gained a lot. Now I have a better understanding of what a real jihad is. Before, I used to think that if anyone attacks a Muslim, defending him is a jihad. This is our jihad—the Active Change Foundation. Changing lives for the better, improving communities. There are Muslims suffering here, from drugs, prostitution, people every day facing disaster. Preventing that is our jihad.”

British Muslims who are actively confronting Islamist extremist ideology—people like Usama Hasan, Ed Husain, Abdul Haqq Baker, and Hanif Qadir—are not the loudest or most dominant voices in their communities. The imam at a large east London mosque, who asked not to be named, told Maclean’s that the problem of Islamic extremism in Britain is “very much exaggerated.” Asked if it exists at all, he said: “This is a difficult question, because I haven’t come across it.” When Maclean’s mentioned the various terrorist attacks, successful and foiled, that have occurred in Britain over the past few years, he said that some of these stories were made up or exaggerated by the government.

Earlier this summer, a massive, four-day event called Islam Expo was held at London’s Olympia exhibition centre. The event was sponsored by the London Development Agency and was widely promoted at mosques throughout London. Much of it, especially the food, art and entertainment, was pleasant, and some thinkers with diverse opinions were welcomed. But Islamists were prominent. Azzam Tamimi, a vocal Hamas supporter and unofficial spokesperson, was featured in at least three lectures and seminars and is reportedly listed as a director of Islam Expo Limited. He has praised suicide bombings in Israel as “legitimate struggle” and “jihad.” Another notable speaker, the journalist Yvonne Ridley, converted to Islam after she was captured by the Taliban in 2001, and has since praised the late Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord responsible for the massacre of schoolchildren in Beslan, as a martyr. Many of the displays featured accounts of Israeli atrocities against Palestinians. Iran’s embassy had its own booth.

A panel discussion titled “Is radicalism a failure of multiculturalism?” never really got off the ground, because most of the panellists couldn’t agree whether radicalism existed in British Muslim communities or, if it did, if this was a bad thing. Only Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a columnist at the Independent newspaper, dissented. She said that radicalism among British Muslims is real and growing. Members of her generation, those who immigrated decades ago, are more likely to have non-Muslim friends than their children. And she challenged British Muslims to ask themselves why Sikh immigrants, who arrived in Britain at the same time as Muslim Bengalis and Pakistanis, have thrived while so many South Asian Muslims have not. The audience response was polite but restrained.

Usama Hasan, the imam and astronomy aficionado who was once a jihadi in Afghanistan, is used to receiving a similarly tepid, if not outright hostile reaction to his calls for a more moderate, modern version of Islam. But despite the slurs that he is a government lackey, despite even the death threats, Hasan remains hopeful about the future of British Islam. The challenge, he says, is massive. But he’s confident that the struggle for the heart and soul of his faith in Britain will end well.

“You have to be an optimist if you’re a person of faith. God is a spring of hope,” he says. “I’m very optimistic that an enlightened and deep and balanced version of Islam that is in harmony with its context will emerge, and is already emerging—a Western British Islam. And that will win out, because the alternatives are just not viable in the long run.”