AN ISIS jihadist’s link to Scotland has rocked Muslims, renewing debate on how to counter radicalisation, writes Dani Garavelli
IT IS a pattern becoming all too familiar. Just a few years ago, Abdul Raqib Amin, a member of Aberdeen’s small but well-established Bangladeshi community, was an affable, if slightly “hyper” teenager always up for a game of football or a night out with his friends. Today, he is a jihadist recruiting for Isis, the al-Qaeda-backed terrorist organisation sweeping across the Middle East. In a video – There is No Life Without Jihad – he and two other Britons, Nasser Muthana and Reyaad Khan from Cardiff, sit crossed-legged amidst lush, green vegetation and urge other westerners to join the Sunni insurgents in Iraq and Syria. “Are you willing to sacrifice the fat job you have got, the big car you have got, the family you have? Are you willing to sacrifice this for the sake of Allah?” Amin asks.
Until his radicalisation, Amin had lived a very ordinary life in Aberdeen; the son of Bangladeshi immigrants he lived in the Froghall area of the city, attended Sunnybank primary and St Machar Academy and played centre-back with Aberdeenshire Rugby Football Club. Classmates remember him as cheeky – when teachers told him off, he would respond with Ali G’s “Is it cos I is black?” – and prone to “dangerous” tackles on the pitch. Some say he was a bit too ready with his fists – “a little bit aggro” as one put it – but there was nothing really to distinguish him from dozens of other cocky young men who frequent the city’s nightclubs.
By late 2012, however, his growing preoccupation with Islam was already evident. In November, he posted the message: “Truly loving the Prophet Muhammad … could only be demonstrated by following His teachings, not by singing His praises” on what is believed to be his Facebook page and in April he added: “Muhammad is the messages [messenger] of Allah and those who are with him are severe against the disbelieves [sic] and merciful among themselves.”
The mystery of what caused his transformation has been exercising the minds of his former friends and fellow Muslims who fear his actions will rebound on the rest of the community. Some say the break-up of a relationship opposed by his family had left him depressed and easy prey for militants, others that the process began much earlier when he grew a beard and swapped his western clothes for Islamic ones. One former acquaintance remembers him openly advocating jihad, but Sheikh Ibrahim Alwawi, imam at Aberdeen Mosque and Islamic Centre where he volunteered as a prayer-caller, insists there was no hint of extremism in his time there and says he must have been radicalised after leaving Aberdeen for Leicester a few years ago, or via the internet.
The families of the Cardiff men are equally bewildered by the journey their sons have made from reliable, hard-working boys to mujahideen, particularly Ahmed Muthana who has lost not only his elder son Nasser, a brilliant student who had been offered a place a medical school, but also his younger son Aseel, to the conflict in Syria.
Of course, they are not the first parents in the UK to have to face up to the radicalisation of apparently westernised children. Three of the 7/7 bombers – Mohammad Sidique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer and Hasib Hussain – were born in the UK, as was would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid.
In Scotland, both men responsible for the attack on Glasgow Airport grew up overseas, but James McLintock, a convert dubbed the Tartan Taleban who has twice been detained on suspicion of terror-related offences but subsequently released, was raised a Catholic in Dundee, the middle-class son of a chemistry lecturer and a maths teacher.
Still, the scale of the radicalisation process taking place just now far exceeds anything in the recent past. Since the beginning of the year there has been a steady flow of Europeans joining Isis (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) whose aim is to create a radical Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Last week, Labour MP Khalid Mahmood said he believed 1,500 Britons had already travelled to join the insurgents, making it difficult for the security services to keep track. The fear is that when these jihadis return to the UK – radicalised, trained and with access to arms – they will pose a long-term domestic terrorist threat.
Up until now, the consensus seems to have been that Muslims north of the Border were less likely to embrace violent extremism than their English counterparts because of their strong Scottish identity. But with the emergence of the Isis video – and Amin’s role in it – isn’t it time to accept that they are as susceptible to radicalisation as anyone else?
The factors behind the current exodus to the Middle East are multi-layered. No doubt some young Muslims have been influenced by the images of atrocities carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and their own disaffection with western culture. But there has been much talk too about the dramatic rise of Salafism, an ultra-conservative brand of Islam which originated in Saudi Arabia and is often linked to extremism and terrorism.
In fact, Salafism is a broad movement; as Innes Bowen, author of Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent, a book about Sunni and Shia networks in the UK, points out it has several strands, one of which expressly prohibits jihad in Syria. But the simplicity of its creed and the way it challenges the orthodoxy has made it attractive to extremists and militants. Some of them embrace the Salafist jihadism espoused by the likes of Abu Qatada and Osama bin Laden.
According to Mehmood Naqshbandi, who runs the Muslims in Britain website, the rise of Salafism in the UK began in the 1980s when a significant number of British Muslims started getting into university and mixing with students from the Middle East.
The British Muslims were mostly from the Indian sub-continent which had a continuous tradition of Islam passed down through the generations via the madrassas (religious schools). But between 1870 and 1970, many Arab countries had becomes increasingly secular with children taught little about Islam. After the Iranian revolution, there was a burgeoning of Islamic identity, but, without a long-standing tradition, the Arabs were free to create a new DIY version. Naqshbandi, who charts the ideology of mosques across the UK, says the British students – tired of their parents’ staid traditions – were intrigued by this sect which set itself up as a challenge to orthodoxy. They brought it home and it filtered into the heart of their communities. More recently, the narrower, more violent strand has also flourished across north Africa in the vacuum left by the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Salafism is the fastest growing sect of Islam.
According to Naqshbandi, there are now 100 Salafi mosques in the UK, including the Al-Manar Centre in Cardiff where the Muthana brothers worshipped (and where radical preacher Mohammed al-Arifi once spoke) and the Masjid al-Farooq in Crosshill, Glasgow. There are also others, such as the Edinburgh Central Mosque, where the Salafi influence is very strong.
More significant in fostering extremism than the brand of Islam followed by particular mosques, Naqshbandi believes, is their factionalism and tight management control structures, which create a cliquey, secretive atmosphere. So keen are those in charge to ensure their ideology prevails that dissent is suppressed. As result in most mosques there are groups of Muslims – particularly converts or returnees – who are pushed to the margins where they hook up with other disaffected worshippers. With lots of people whispering in corners, it is easy for extremism to slip under radar.
While accepting radicalisation is possible north of the Border, SNP MSP Humza Yousaf, Scottish minister for culture and external affairs, says he has spent his life in and out of mosques without encountering anything that has given him cause for concern. “The Muslim community is not homogeneous in terms of ideology: you get those who follow a more conservative brand of Islam and those who follow a more liberal brand and everything in between. So, are there people who follow their religion more strictly and conservatively? Yes. But do I see that translating into acts of violent extremism? No.”
Yousaf insists since Scottish cities have mosques of every creed, anyone who felt excluded in one could simply move to another. And he says Scottish mosques have done a lot to help bring young people into the fold. “You will now find under-30s on committees at Glasgow Central Mosque. Ten years ago, there wouldn’t have been anyone under 60.”
Where recent events have led to questions being raised about the efficacy of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent, Yousaf says the composition and scale of Scotland’s Muslim community makes it less likely extremism would go unnoticed. “South of the Border you have Somalis, Egyptians, Arabs, people from the Indian sub-continent, whereas in Scotland it’s by and large Pakistanis and it’s much smaller,” he says. “Because the community is close-knit, the chances are if someone was expressing extreme views, someone would notice and pass on their concerns to the individual, their family or the police. Also the police have built up a really good relationship with Muslim communities.”
In 2007, the Council for British Pakistanis (Scotland) found half of the imams in the country’s then 31 mosques believed there was a problem with extremism in Scotland. Two years later, two Scottish Muslim scholars, Shaykh Amer Jamil and Shaykh Ruzwan Muhammed, set up the Solas Foundation, an initiative which gives a platform to moderate voices and attempts to counter the extremist narrative in precisely the way Cooper suggests. “I sat in one of their lessons where they took something in the Koran which extremists will often twist to suggest anyone who is non-Muslim is fair game and completely deconstructed the extremist interpretation of it,” Yousaf says.
This is a clearly a positive development. Yet the lure of Isis is strong and not everyone is open to hearing an alternative perspective. Since those who have gone overseas to fight jihad have come from across the UK and the social spectrum – many have come from liberal homes and lived liberal western lifestyles – it is almost impossible to predict who is most susceptible.
What is predictable, however, is the impact their actions have on those moderate Muslims who bear the brunt of the backlash. “There must be a better way of helping people in Syria and Iraq,” Dr Salah Beltagui, of the Muslim Council of Scotland, said last week as he urged other young Muslims not to follow in Amin’s footsteps. “You are making things worse for your family and your people at home here.”
Keen though British imams are to suggest radicalisation is confined to the internet, most experts believe there is a subtle interplay between real-life and virtual recruiters. “These people are being radicalised by charismatic figures – maybe imams, but maybe people who are not affiliated to mosques – who lead them down a path towards a situation where they are more susceptible to online propaganda,” says Charlie Cooper, a researcher for the Quilliam Foundation, which was set up to combat extremism.
Bowen says fanatics may also avoid detection by meeting under the pretext of running a bookshop or by hiring a hall as a “youth group”. The father of the Cardiff brothers believes they were radicalised by “pop-up” Islamic sessions advertised by word of mouth or leafleting and held in a variety of venues.
At the same time, there is no under-estimating the role played by the internet in encouraging westerners to fight jihad. Isis has proved itself adept at using Facebook and Twitter to spread its message. And although the recent All Eyes on Isis campaign, which encouraged Twitter-users to post pictures of them making gestures of support, was answered with a #No2ISIS backlash, many believe not enough is being done to counter the extremist narrative.
“Isis has been extremely sophisticated in its use of social media; it knows spreading the idea that the West is engaged in a war against Islam and that going to fight jihad is an act of brotherhood is very effective,” says Cooper. “Non-extremist Muslims need to speak up more to counter the narrative being peddled – otherwise what we have is an echo chamber in which these ideas just bounce around.” «