The Hate Factory (Part 1)
The Story of the UK’s Most Radicalised Town
This is the story of a town’s descent into madness.
When I left the train station, I was exhausted. I’d had to take three train-trips and two long walks, while hauling along three luggage bags, with only Google Maps to guide me and intermittent reception on my phone.
My position on the map kept freezing and then darting around, so I blindly wandered off the main roads and into a network of backstreets and alleyways in the shadows of age-blackened factories.
I stopped and looked around for my map reference — the Hat Factory— but there was no sign of it.
The place was calm. There was the far-off clanging of industrial machinery. Occasionally a car hissed by in the distance.
Anxiety crept up on me. My blood felt like it was effervescing in my veins.
I was lost. But, more chillingly, I was in Luton.
I’d read much about the town. Some things had been relatively benign, such as the town being regularly voted the UK’s worst place to live.
Others were more disturbing, such as its constant association with violent extremism. It has been linked to dozens of major terrorist plots, as well as several far-right rampages. It is a stronghold of the UK’s deadliest jihadi terror group, al-Muhajiroun, and the birthplace of the UK’s largest anti-Islam hate group, the English Defence League (EDL).
In short, this drab industrial town, 30 miles north of London, has gone from once being famous for hat-making, to now being infamous for hate-making.
And that was why I had come; to find out why.
This report is a document of my findings — comprising local testimony, court documents, press cuttings, online research, and a little speculation — from which I have pieced together an extensive history charting the development of extremism in Luton. It is not like most of today’s journalism, which seeks to caricature a complex sequence of events into an easily digestible fairy-tale narrative for mass-consumption. Nor have I written this report with a preconceived notion of what took place in Luton. Instead, I have approached it much as I approached the town when I first moved here — lost.
My report has no Google Maps to guide it, no agenda to colour it. It is just a perambulation of events, an effort to sketch the truth, and as such, it is as messy and convoluted as reality (though, unlike reality, it has a point).
So, what exactly is the point?
Luton’s story is important because it is a microcosm of the wider world — a clash between religious tradition and secular innovation — and the events that turned the town into a cesspool of hatred parallel the events that led the entire Western world to the same fate.
As an account of Luton’s two-decade history of hate, my report is necessarily long — 30,000 words, split into three parts — but I have tried to make it entertaining, and crammed it with exclusive revelations that will shock as well as enlighten.
Come, let me show you how this mess was made.
I — THE EXILES
Shortly after settling into Luton, I ventured out into the town’s most infamous neighbourhood, Bury Park.
It is home to a large Kashmiri community, and as such is strongly Islamic; clothes shops have well-covered mannequins, newsagents periodically close for prayer, pubs do not sell alcohol.
But among this traditionalist infrastructure, elements of modernity have begun to bloom, from internet cafes to betting agents. The district now exists in a cultural limbo, somewhere between east and west, theocracy and secularism, past and present.
The contradictions are readily apparent: the adhan (call to prayer) echoes from minarets, mingling with the screams of Lady Gaga from passing hatchbacks. Women walk by in burqas while carrying Hilfiger bags. Islamic charity banks sit on roadsides for locals to deposit garments, next to weapon-banks for twitchy youths to deposit knives.
It wasn’t long before I encountered a shifty group at a stall on Leagrave Road. They were twenty-something British Kashmiris dressed in thawbs, distributing leaflets about the Syrian Civil War.
I decided to approach them. One of them handed me a leaflet, which showed corpses of children killed by bombs, their flesh scorched to flakes, their lips peeled away into vicious grins. Noticing my shock, the activist told me, “This is happening to Muslims in Syria and across the world. You wanna know why? Blame our so-called governments.”
I asked why.
“They had a chance to stop this,” he said, prodding the picture of the corpse. “They chose not to.”
I asked the man what he thought of the West’s last intervention, in Iraq.
Another member of the group stepped forward. He had a wild-eyed stare and a thick straggly beard like a frozen explosion. “Where you from?” He asked, eyeing me with paranoid saccades. “Are you even Muslim?”
I am an atheist of Punjabi Sikh origin — the worst possible combination for the Kashmiri jihadis of Bury Park. To prevent a potential cold shoulder (or worse), I lied that I was indeed Muslim.
They didn’t seem convinced. I tried to deflect attention to themselves, but they were only interested in talking about how evil the rafidah (Shia) and the kuffar (infidel) West were.
I asked if I could take a photo, and was curtly denied. “If you don’t care about the brothers and sisters in Syria, you ain’t a Muslim.”
I wished them well and left.
As I later learned, the rickety little stall was a front for an international terrorist organisation responsible for more attacks in the UK than any other group. The organisation became nameless in 2010 for legal reasons, but in this report I’ll refer to it by its original name, al-Muhajiroun (“The Exiles”, or “The Emigrants”).
I wanted to know more about them. I approached those I thought would be most privy to town gossip, the taxi drivers, and asked them.
One taxi driver, Ishi, said “They live in their own world. They think there’s a holy war, here, outside the supermarket.”
I asked him if they were dangerous. “I wouldn’t mess with them,” said Ishi.
I asked how they had been radicalised. Ishi told me that certain mosques in the town preached highly intolerant versions of Islam. He named one specific mosque, the Luton Islamic Centre.
Several other locals, Muslim and non-Muslim, also seemed to believe the Luton Islamic Centre was shady. One figure associated with the town’s largest place of worship, Luton Central Mosque, told me Luton Islamic Centre was worrisome because it refused to take part in community cohesion programmes such as interfaith dialogues, preferring to live in its own ideological bubble. It was also the town’s only major mosque not to sign up to the government’s counter-terrorism programme, Prevent.
After a quick google, I discovered that even some national newspapers, including the Daily Mail and the Times, had described the mosque as “radical”, claiming it published extreme material on its now-defunct website, and that Westminster terrorist Khalid Masood had been the mosque’s contact person.
And yet, I also heard from locals that worshippers at the mosque had beaten up a notorious jihadi called “Sayful Islam” because of his hate-preaching. I considered giving the mosque the benefit of the doubt, but the anti-Islam activist Tommy Robinson, who has had a long enmity with the local al-Muhajiroun, told me on Twitter that the beating was “all staged”, and that in reality the Luton Islamic Centre was the “first point of radicalisation” for young Muslims before they joined al-Muhajiroun.
I asked Dawood Masood, senior imam at the Al Hira Educational and Cultural Centre — a progressive, reformist mosque. He too believed Luton Islamic Centre was problematic. He said the root cause was its ideology; the mosque apparently shared the same “intolerant, puritanical” Salafi (aka Wahhabi) worldview as most jihadi terror groups.
Salafis believe that the best possible generation of humanity is the generation to which Muhammad belonged (the Salaf). They believe that the innovations (bid’ah) in belief and worship that Islam has since accumulated have corrupted it, causing Muslims to go astray. Thus, the solution to mankind’s problems would be to restore the way of life that Muhammad shared with his disciples in 7th Century Arabia.
As a result of their literal interpretation of Muhammad’s words, and their wish to return Islam to the past, Salafis are often regarded as more “extreme” than other sects, such as Sufis, whose beliefs are more adaptive to modernity. They are also often associated with terrorists, as many major jihadi groups, from al-Qaeda to Isis, consider themselves Salafi.
As I found, not only did Luton Islamic Centre share a Salafi ideology with al-Muhajiroun, it also shared a name; the centre’s official title is the “Al-Ghurabaa Mosque”, and “Al-Ghurabaa” (“The Strangers”) is an alias of al-Muhajiroun.
It was time for me to visit Luton Islamic Centre. Wary of standing out too much, I camouflaged myself in my complexion, allowing people to assume I was a born-and-bred Muslim.
Inside, Luton Islamic Centre is sparsely decorated, lacking the filigreed ink patterns prevalent in other mosques. This is befitting of its Salafism, which seeks to return society to a simpler, “purer” form of existence.
While undercover at the mosque, I found the people there friendly, if a little homophobic, antisemitic, and anti-Western. I overheard one worshipper tell another that someone was “worse than a Jew”. Meanwhile, the mosque’s chairman, Abdul Qadeer Baksh, called homosexuality an “abomination”.
However, I had expected this kind of thinking, as it is common in Bury Park.
What surprised me more was hearing Baksh and another senior imam, Farasat Latif, speak out against jihadism as a “false path”, and call al-Muhajiroun “Khawarij” (a historical group who deviated from Islam by becoming too fanatical). This did not quite fit with what I had been told.
Local EDL members said that the town’s preachers claimed to be against violence, but were merely engaging in taqiyyah, a form of deception that is supposedly allowed by Muslims faced with persecution. Like Robinson, they believed the mosque had the same goal as al-Muhajiroun, but simply used different methods.
Although I knew the EDL members were skewed by hatred, I was initially sceptical of Latif and Baksh’s anti-jihadi sermons. However, the more I came to understand of their worldview, the more I began to suspect that maybe their mosque wasn’t quite the horror show it had been painted as.
I accessed a cached version of the Islamic Centre’s old Call To Islam website, labelled by national media as “extreme”. I found that the website contained hundreds of articles by a diverse range of scholars and preachers, and, although there were a number of passages that were antisemitic, homophobic, or warlike, they constituted a tiny proportion of the totality of articles, many of which condemned violence and enjoined kindness. Some may argue that even the presence of a single hateful article is too much, but if we are going to condemn a place for being associated with disturbing literature, we would need to condemn every mosque, church and synagogue in the world, which would upset a lot of people.
After hearing several sermons at the Luton Islamic Centre, I eventually decided that the mosque’s leaders would not call for jihad against me if I came out of the woodwork and approached them directly, so I did so.
Baksh was unwilling to speak to me, as he was tired of being misrepresented by journalists, and evidently felt I would only do the same.
Latif, on the other hand, was very generous. I had a series of long conversations with him — he even fact-checked this report for me — and his testimony and insight form a crucial part of this story.
He was born in Stockton-on-Tees to Kashmiri-migrant parents, but moved to Hatfield at the age of one, before moving again to St Albans at the age of 11. A precocious child, from the age of 13 he became active in the revolutionary left and antifascist movements, campaigning against apartheid. In 1991, he received a BSc from the London School of Economics. A year later, he started practicing Islam, and a year after that he became active with the Luton Salafis, quickly becoming a leading figure in the movement, and eventually obtaining an MA in Islamic Studies.
While in Luton he has played a central role not just at his mosque, but in a variety of community projects, such as helping migrants adjust to life in Britain, mentoring young offenders as they try to straighten their lives, and organising aid for famine-stricken countries.
Latif told me that his mosque had been treated unfairly by both the other mosques and the mainstream press, who have simply equated Salafism with extremism due to lack of understanding.
He conceded that he did hold some unpopular beliefs — for instance, that homosexuality was immoral — but argued that so did most Muslims, and even Christians, so such beliefs were not “extreme” but rather average (at least among devout monotheists).
Latif said that while his ideal Islamic state would indeed make use of punishments such as stoning, beheading and amputations, these would only become active after a spiritual awakening had occurred among the people, and so would never need to be used except in isolated circumstances. It would apparently be nothing like the indiscriminate killing of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Isis). In the meantime, Latif said, his religion required him to obey the law of the land in which he lived, even if it contravened the Qur’an.
Despite Latif’s explanations, I still had strong reservations about Sharia. But I hadn’t come here to argue against it. I had come to investigate terrorism.
Latif said he had good theological justifications to oppose terrorism. He explained that his mosque followed a form of pure Salafism that is apolitical (“quietist”). This belief system considers jihadi terrorism haram (forbidden), not just because it kills innocent people, but also because it is an appropriation of the violent tactics of secular political groups like Baader-Meinhof, and therefore a form of bid’ah, leading people further away from the Salaf, and from Allah.
For these Salafis, politics itself is ultimately just another distraction of the dunia (temporal world). True government can only come through God alone. Thus, Muslims should seek to prioritise not the landscape of their country, but the landscape of their soul. Only when society is spiritually awakened would a genuine Islamic state be able to form, without violence or coercion.
Salafism is often regarded as the ideological basis of jihadi terrorism. However, it alone does not sanction terrorism, and some jihadi terror groups, such as the Taliban, are not Salafi at all. The actual provenance of jihadism appears to lie in the revolutionary Islamist movement known as Qutbism, named for its originator Sayyid Qutb, who believed that democracy was worthless because sovereignty belongs to Allah alone (a concept called al-hakimiyya). In his seminal book Milestones, Qutb wrote that the establishment of a caliphate — the ultimate expression of al-hakimiyya on Earth — surpassed all other worldly considerations. He believed that the efforts of Muslims to re-establish a caliphate were hampered by the West, which was controlled by Jews trying to destroy Islam. He hence decreed that all acts of mass-murder, as long as they furthered al-hakimiyya, were in fact acts of self-defence.
So, if Qutbism rather than Salafism was the ideological basis of jihadism, why were locals associating the Luton Islamic Centre with al-Muhajiroun? Latif said people had sought to scapegoat his mosque for the town’s problems, which began even before his mosque was established. A handful of al-Muhajiroun’s members had once attended services there — he’d even watched a few grow up, from shy, wide-eyed kids to raging worshippers of death. But he said that media and local reports of his mosque being a recruiting ground for jihadis were a wild exaggeration. In actuality, he and his colleagues had been fighting al-Muhajiroun longer and harder than any other mosque in Luton, as they hated the fact that the terrorists claimed to follow the same branch of Islam as them, besmirching its name.
After looking through newspaper archives and other sources, I found that Latif has indeed been at the forefront of the fight against al-Muhajiroun — for over two decades. In that time he has fought extensive propaganda campaigns against al-Muhajiroun and also worked to deradicalise many local youths, while fighting allegations of extremism from locals and the media.
Clearly, then, Salafism alone could not explain Luton’s terrorism problem.
So what could?
II — STRANGERS ESTRANGED
I spoke to various locals old enough to recall the first generation of Muslim migrants. They all agreed that this generation, who arrived in Britain between the fifties and seventies, were not radicalised; although many were deeply religious, and some had strong nationalistic feelings about Kashmir, they had all witnessed jihadism warts-and-all in their home countries, most notably in Bangladesh during the 1971 Genocide. Many had in fact come to Britain precisely to escape murderous zealotry.
However, shortly after the community settled in Luton, it became a prime target of far-right groups like the National Front, who would often enter the town to engage in “Paki-bashing”. In defence, the Kashmiri youth formed their own gangs, such as the Rajas and the Tiger Khans, the glue of which was Pakistani nationalism.
These gangs would police the streets as vigilantes, driving off racist mobs, but they began to lose their purpose when the National Front went into decline in the eighties. By this time most members were used to street life, and unable to get well-paying jobs, so they began dabbling in petty crime and drug-dealing. They called themselves Muslims because it was part of their gang identity, but most had never opened a Qur’an in their lives.
In short, these angry and disenfranchised youths were perfect for Islamist indoctrination.
But who indoctrinated them?
The extremist mentality has existed to some degree in Luton since at least the seventies. Some members of the Kashmiri gangs joined fledgling Islamist movements such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and campaigned for Sharia in Britain. One shopkeeper, Tariq, told me that in the eighties there were small numbers of local extremists who tore down billboard adverts showing too much female skin, or publicly called for Salman Rushdie’s beheading during the Satanic Verses controversy.
However, although the extremist mindset existed in Luton at this time, the jihadi terrorist mindset did not. There were many Muslims who sympathised with, say, the plight of the Palestinians, but no one from Luton planted a bomb on a bus due to Britain’s role in the creation of Israel.
One reason for this was the lack of pervasive electronic media such as the Internet, which prevented locals being poisoned by propaganda in their bedrooms.
But there was also a more important reason. Radicalisation is essentially indoctrination into a cult, and all cults are built around a charismatic central figure. An idea alone rarely has the power to radicalise; what is needed is a powerful personality to articulate that idea, and to act as a paragon for it.
In the Middle East, the first global jihadi terrorist networks formed in the eighties around the alluring characters of Abdullah Azzam and his protégé Osama bin Laden. Unlike the jihadi terrorists before them, they were able to win the allegiance of foreigners through force of personality alone.
And yet, in the dingy, uneventful town of Luton, few people had any idea who they were. Luton’s radicalisation would instead begin in the early nineties, when it received its own magnetic cult leaders.
They were a pair of Qutbi-Salafi preachers who lived 30 miles to the south of Luton, in London. You may have heard of them: Abu Hamza al-Masri, and Omar Bakri Mohammed.
Hamza had become radicalised in Mecca, 1987, by Azzam himself, and later joined his Afghan Mujahideen — the forerunner to many of today’s jihadi terror groups.
Bakri, meanwhile, was leader of the fledgling UK branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, while secretly developing his own, more revolutionary group: al-Muhajiroun.
Both Hamza and Bakri seemed unlikely figures to build a national cult around; they didn’t have bin Laden’s solemn gravitas, or Anwar al-Awlaki’s rhetorical pyrotechnics, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s choreographed mystique.
They were, in all honesty, comical figures. Hamza, a former strip-club bouncer, had a glass eye and hooks for hands, causing satirists to portray him as a pirate or a Bond villain. Bakri, meanwhile, had an uncanny knack for bathos. In one example, at a jihadi event in Trafalgar Square, he ranted about the coming victory of Islam from the top of a podium, beneath which was a net holding thousands of black helium balloons with notes attached that called for holy war. After proclaiming the fall of Western civilisation, he released the balloons, intending them to float upward and carry their warnings across England. But the messages attached to them were too heavy, so they remained on the ground, bobbing and rolling around.
Hamza and Bakri initially spent most of their time in north London, where they influenced each other in a game of hate-preaching one-upmanship. They both claimed it was acceptable to carry out random attacks on civilians, drawing their authority from Qur’an verses such as 8:12:
“I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”
If any Muslim scholars tried to point out that such verses needed to be interpreted within a wider context, Bakri and Hamza would turn to their own scholar, al-Qaeda philosopher Abu Qatada al-Filistani, who spent his time pondering such existential conundrums as “Is it morally permissible to obey Western traffic lights?”
Given how clownishly quirky Hamza and Bakri appeared, they were soon picked up by tabloid journalists, whose attention they found addictive. Bakri in particular was a born showman, describing himself as “delightful”, and constantly emphasising how important he was to anyone who would listen.
In August 1996, a meeting was held at an isolated manor house in Birmingham, featuring a who’s who of international jihad: UK leaders of Hamas, the “Algerian Liberation Party”, and even the Shia Hezbollah were in attendance. The meeting was supposed to be top secret, but Bakri turned up with a Channel 4 film crew. When he was taken aside and questioned by the others, he proudly told them the crew was making a film about him. “Long term project,” he said. “Ten-fifteen years.” He later told the film crew they had to leave, but as an apology gave them chocolate-covered ice cream, which the jihadi overlords had brought to eat while they secretly conspired.
This kind of buffoonery caused the country’s other, more secretive jihadi leaders to regard Bakri and Hamza as liabilities, too magnetic to media attention, so they began to exclude them from private affairs. As a result, the two hate-preachers were soon isolated, and forced to build up their own networks, preaching wherever they could get an audience, such as in parochial towns like Luton, where their outrageousness could instead form the basis of personality cults.
Bakri and Hamza first came to preach in Luton around 1995, having been invited by local Islamists who had attended their talks in north London. However, they did not get the welcome they had expected; all the main mosques knew what they stood for and shunned them. Bakri was reportedly awed by Luton Central Mosque — then one of the largest in Europe — and tried to buy it out, but failed.
Hamza, meanwhile, had just returned from Bosnia, and made his home in a shack of a mosque on Luton’s Leagrave Road, to which he began inviting Bakri and other hate-preachers like Abdullah al-Faisal.
They began preaching in Luton in the wake of the murder of Mark Sharp by four Muslim men, who were only jailed for four years each, igniting severe tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims — including riots, beatings, and vandalism — that at times came close to a race-war. The two hate-preachers thus came to a town already divided, making their objective easier.
They told any Muslims who would listen that all non-Muslims were the enemy, and that the Muslim community’s leaders had betrayed Islam by compromising with the West. They said that one either followed Islam in every single aspect of their life, or didn’t follow it at all. Their view of Islam thus differed from that of mainstream Salafis in that it was a total system dictating every aspect of life, no matter how trivial. A former student of Hamza’s once told me his mentor had warned that anyone who slept on his belly rather than on his side was not a true Muslim. Bakri, meanwhile, told filmmaker Jon Ronson that Islam even dictated the direction in which one must fart (“toward the unbeliever”). Many will assume he was joking, but those familiar with his worldview will not.
This kind of “absolute Islam” is a hallmark of the jihadi ideology. It may seem disturbingly authoritarian to most of us, but it also has its appeal; for some, freedom can be a burden, evoking feelings of being lost, and leading to anxiety and indecisiveness. In such situations, a system that directs every single aspect of your life, and allows you to outsource your agency to a higher power, can seem like the perfect solution.
In January 1996, Hamza distributed five audio cassette tapes to Luton’s mosques. In the tapes, entitled “Allah’s Governance on Earth”, the hate-preacher spoke out against Muslim leaders who deviated from his vision by not following every letter of the Qur’an all the time.
One of these tapes found its way to Latif’s place, which was then the Call To Islam Centre, a cramped hall above a shop. Latif and his fellow quietists decided they should try to answer Hamza before he further discredited the local Salafi scene, so they invited him to the centre to attend a talk by the Jordanian scholar Sheikh Saleem Hilaali, a fierce opponent of Hamza’s brand of totalitarian Islamism.
In July, Hilaali gave his sermon at the centre, in which he warned of the dangers posed by totalitarianists to Islam, and emphasised the need to seek knowledge on Islamic matters from bona fide scholars and not rabble-rousers.
Hamza, the rabble-rouser, soon turned up with his henchmen. They sat down at the back, and proceeded to disrupt the meeting by drowning out the speech in a chorus of abuse and interruptions. They repeatedly asked Hilaali to declare King Hussain of Jordan to be an apostate because he didn’t rule by every word of the Qur’an, having committed such transgressions as speaking with former Israeli prime minister Yitzak Rabin. Hilaali insisted that the king was a Muslim because he followed the core of Muhammad’s message. Hilaali then tried to continue his talk but Hamza began shouting, “Why are you ignoring the real issues?” The scholar, upset at the disruption to the lecture, began to argue with the hate-preacher and his neophytes, many of whom did not speak Arabic so required Hilaali’s interpreter. The exchange became increasingly caustic until Hilaali’s interpreter, exasperated, refused to translate any more.
Over the following months, Hamza and Bakri’s uncompromising vision of Islam slowly began to catch on in the town. Although the two hate-preachers had initially lacked the pulling-power of traditional cult leaders, their quirkiness made them the darlings of both the local and national media, who essentially advertised their services by creating for them a reputation of outrageousness that proved irresistible to many.
Furthermore, they both proved adept at living up to this wild reputation, competing to outdo each other in controversy. The stark simplicity of their vision — and the boldness with which they expressed it — attracted many young and ideologically restless Muslims, particularly from nearby university Islamic societies.
As their congregations got larger, Hamza and Bakri began to hire out local community centres, one of which was owned by the disturbingly puritanical Rabia Education Trust, which also owns a girl’s school that (still) teaches its students to live culturally isolated lives.
Latif and his associates, realising the two hate-preachers were becoming more than a mere nuisance, decided to do something about it. They printed leaflets, gave public speeches, and challenged the jihadis to theological debates, which were apparently never accepted. If the two groups met in the streets, it often led to fights, with punches and water being thrown. For their part, the jihadis would sometimes knock on the doors of quietists late at night, and leave threatening messages by post and phone.
Despite the best efforts of Latif and his associates, they were not able to dissuade youngsters from falling for Hamza and Bakri’s sermons. Aware of Luton’s large Kashmiri population, the two hate-preachers stirred up anger by talking about Indian atrocities in the disputed region, such as rapes and supply blockades. In the face of powerful irrational forces like rage and blind faith, Latif’s learning and tafsir (exegesis) were largely powerless.
Bakri and Hamza also appear to have exploited local religious ignorance. They were both ultracrepidarians; they claimed to be authorities on Islamic jurisprudence, but neither had any scholarly credentials. However, they were fluent in the complex language of the Qur’an — Arabic — while those they indoctrinated spoke only Urdu or Bengali. Thus, the hate-preachers could twist any passage to mean what they wanted it to mean, and no one could argue unless they too spoke the authentic language of scripture.
During their speeches they would tell locals it was their God-given duty to help their Muslim brothers and sisters in Kashmir. Their henchmen would pass around tins for donations. They also mentioned jihadi training camps in Pakistan, for those who “really” wanted to help.
Both Bakri and Hamza had their own “fixers”. These were well-connected men who co-ordinated the transit of jihadis from the UK to training camps abroad.
One of those based in Luton was a mysterious figure known as Abu Munthir, who may in fact be Sami al-Saadi, a leader of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which would later influence the Manchester suicide bomber Salman Abedi.
The other prominent fixer in Luton was taxi driver Mohammed Qayyum Khan (whom I will call by his codename, “Q”). According to the former president of Luton Central Mosque, Haji Sulaiman, it was Q who brought Bakri to Luton.
During the 2006 trial of the fertiliser bomb plotters, the prosecution’s star witness, Junaid Babar, asserted that Q had been the “emir” (leader) of the plot, and was al-Qaeda’s top guy in Britain. This point was echoed by several of the other plotters. Oddly, Q has never been jailed.
I tracked down Q’s old workplaces. He had driven taxis for two companies in nearby Dunstable — Elite Cars and Express Cars — and once managed a takeaway called “Nibbles” in the town centre. Unfortunately, all three of these companies had long closed down.
Summoning up courage, I decided to visit his home, on Stratford Road. I spent some time ringing the doorbell, to no avail. I then spoke to his neighbours. Most of them said they didn’t know him. Two people told me he had relocated. Another man tensed up and demanded to know who I was and why I was asking about him. After I explained my research, he advised me to copulate with myself.
Fortunately, while tracking down Q, I came into contact with someone who had attended al-Muhajiroun meetings with him. This man said he was no longer a jihadi, but that he had things he wanted to say. It took me a month to convince him I was not trying to “trap” him, showing him all my research, and when he finally agreed to tell me his story, he did so strictly on condition of anonymity. For the purpose of this report, we agreed to call him “Raheem”.
He said he had been introduced to Bakri by a friend, and through him learned of atrocities against Muslims in places like Kashmir, Palestine, and Chechnya. He claims he began to regularly attend al-Muhajiroun talks because they were the only ones who seemed to care about the atrocities. Bakri told him that the only solution against oppression was to fight back, and that the town’s theologians, who generally condemned jihadism, were “scholars for dollars” (i.e. in the pocket of rich Arabs or Western governments). Raheem loved Bakri’s knowledge and confidence, feeling he had all the answers, and was someone he could trust to guide him in every aspect of life.
Raheem said he didn’t know Q very well as there was a big age gap between them. But he did know that Q had chauffeured Bakri around Luton several times. He also knew that he’d lived a long time in Pakistan and knew many people there, including, apparently, high-ranking jihadis. He thus became a main contact point between al-Muhajiroun in the UK and groups like al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan.
According to Raheem, a big jar would be handed around at meetings, in which attendees were expected to put donations for Kashmir. The jar would then be given to Q, who would leave the hall and put it in his car. Apparently, Q was also the go-to guy for travel to the camps in Kashmir, helping the youngsters fulfil Bakri and Hamza’s commands to fight jihad abroad.
Raheem said it was strange that Q had never been prosecuted, given the central role he played in Luton’s jihad network. But he said it should have been expected.
“Why?” I asked.
He hit me with a bombshell:
“In ’96 or ’97, coppers wearing suits used to come to the centre, sit at the back, listen to Bakri while he spoke about Kashmir, and Chechnya, and all that. He’d mention the training camps in Pakistan, and say going there was fard (obligatory). He’d talk about blowing up buildings and beheading the enemies of Islam. He’d say this in English. The police officers were sitting there listening to it all. They even saw the money being collected for the camps in Kashmir. Then after the sermons, they’d stand and shake our hands and talk to us like friends.”
I found this hard to believe. Why would police officers allow hate-preachers to publicly encourage terrorism?
It then occurred to me that British intelligence may have tried to use Hamza and Bakri as honeytraps or agents provocateur, to spy on their fellow jihadis.
But Raheem offered another, more surprising reason. “We knew what they wanted,” he said. “They thought they could use us, like they’d used the Sikhs and Gurkhas. They wanted us to kill people for them.”
That sounded hard to believe. Was Raheem telling the truth, or was this just an elaborate prank?
Let’s find out.
III — COVENANT ONE
To understand how intelligence and security services saw men like Bakri and Hamza in the nineties, we need to take a look at the geopolitics of the time.
Although global jihadi terrorism as an idea can be traced to Qutb, its actuality has its origins in the Carter Doctrine, established by President Jimmy Carter in conjunction with Saudi King Khalid at the height of the Cold War in 1980.
The Cold War was really a Warm War, in that there was a source of heat but it was usually far away from the main actors. The hot aspect of the war was conducted mainly by proxy forces.
Throughout the entire war, the US had been directly or indirectly encouraging the spread of Islamist insurgencies in Asia and North Africa to counter Communist encroachment, to some success.
In 1978, the Communist regime of Nur Muhammad Taraki seized power in Afghanistan. Shortly after, US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski presented his Arc of Crisis thesis, claiming that the Soviet Union was at risk of spreading Communism throughout Asia and North Africa. He called for the US to begin wholesale funding of local insurgencies against the impending takeover. This call was echoed by the US’s ally, Pakistan’s puritanical Islamist dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
Throughout the year, CIA officials held meetings with their colleagues in the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) to work out the best groups to fund against Taraki. They eventually settled on tribal jihadi forces such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezbi Islami.
It is not difficult to see how US intelligence officers would have considered jihadis to be more worthy of funding than secular groups. Not only did their religious tribalism make them a highly organised fighting force, but their fanaticism also made them implacable foes, unswayed by fear or guilt, and determined to continue fighting when more sane fighters might give up hope.
In 1979, a loose alliance of jihadi forces, called the Mujahideen, led a revolution against the Afghan Communist government, prompting the Soviet Union to invade the country. In response, the Carter administration launched Operation Cyclone, under which the US began funneling money through the ISI to the Mujahideen. The money was spent on training, travel, weapons, and indoctrination into the Qutbi ideology.
One way the Mujahideen received money from the West was through the Maktab al-Khidamat; this was an international jihadi training and funding project, set up by the “father of global jihad”, Abdullah Azzam, with the help of the CIA. Maktab al-Khidamat would later become al-Qaeda (“al-Qaeda” means “the base” and is what bin Laden called the CIA-funded training camp in Afghanistan).
Through various Western-based Islamic charities such as the Al-Kifah Refugee Centre in Brooklyn, Western intelligence services sent money and supplies to Maktab al-Khidamat offices in Afghanistan (and later to Bosnia and Chechnya).
In the late eighties, jihadi extremists thus became seen as allies of the West. In the UK, many were offered asylum from foreign governments who wished to kill or imprison them. As a result of this, London became a hub of Islamist revolutionaries (known as “Londonistan”).
This was when hate-preachers like Bakri and Hamza settled in London.
When they arrived, they were questioned by intelligence agents, and claimed they would not raise hostility against the UK because it was their home. They appear to have justified this with a passage from the Qur’an, in which Muhammad is allowed refuge in the Christian Kingdom of Aksum, present-day Ethiopia, and in return agrees not to wage jihad against the King.
Unlike this pact, the deal between Bakri/Hamza and the government was never formalised, but was tacitly agreed upon by both parties, becoming known as the “Covenant of Security” or “Covenant of Peace”.
Numerous sources attest to the existence of the agreement. Crispin Black, a former Cabinet Office intelligence analyst, described the Covenant as “the long-standing British habit of providing refuge and welfare to Islamist extremists on the unspoken assumption that if we give them a safe haven here they will not attack us on these shores”.
Bakri himself confirmed the agreement in an August 1998 interview with the Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat: “I work here in accordance with the Covenant of Peace which I made with the British government when I got asylum.” In a further interview the following year, he said:
“The British government knows who we are. MI5 has interrogated us many times. I think now we have something called public immunity.”
Hamza has also attested to the Covenant. At his trial he said that Special Branch assured him: “You don’t have anything to worry about as long as we don’t see blood on the streets”. Hamza’s statement was corroborated by former MI5 agent Reda Hassaine in an October 2012 interview with Al-Jazeera: “They [the UK government] told them [Hamza and his men], “as long as there is no blood in UK streets, you [can] do whatever you want”.
Hassaine said he tried to warn UK authorities to Hamza’s hate-preaching at the notorious Finsbury Park Mosque:
“I told them [MI5] Hamza was brainwashing people and sending them to al-Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, that he was preaching jihad and murder and that he was involved in the provision of false passports. I told them he was a chief terrorist.”
Hassaine added: “The MI5 officer told me Abu Hamza was harmless and that MI5 thought he was a clown.”
Apparently, the government did not mind what the jihadists did as long as they didn’t attack the UK. But it appears to have been much more than a live-and-let-live agreement.
In 1998, one of Bakri’s aides, Makbool Javaid, was appointed by Jack Straw, then Home Secretary in Blair’s government, to the newly-established Race Relations Forum. That same year, Javaid signed his name on a fatwa issued by Bakri declaring war on the UK.
Another Islamist with radical ties, Mockbul Ali, headed a Foreign Office committee entitled “Engaging with the Muslim World Group”. He has expressed a variety of worrying views.
Yet another Islamist extremist, Azad Ali, was appointed by the Crown Prosecution Service to sit on a community involvement panel advising on matters of racial and religious hatred. Ali once wrote praise for the notorious al-Qaeda preacher, Anwar al-Awliki.
Now, it is possible that all of these people were appointed by mistake. Except, the Covenant goes deeper. Much deeper.
We already know that the West funded jihadis in places like Afghanistan during the Cold War. But Graham Fuller, former Deputy Director of the CIA’s National Council on Intelligence, said that Western support of jihadi groups continued even after the Cold War, in the Balkans and Central Asia, to further roll back Russian and Chinese influence.
Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the joint CIA/Maktab al-Khidamat operation at the Al-Kifah Refugee Centre is believed to have continued for at least another three years, during which it appears to have blocked attempts by the FBI to investigate a jihadi training camp in Pennsylvania. It also switched its priority from supporting jihadis against the Soviets in Afghanistan to supporting jihadis against the Serbs in Bosnia.
In July 1994, Osama bin Laden opened the UK office of Maktab al-Khidamat, which he called the Advice and Reform Committee, in London. Through this, he sent money from the UK to jihadi groups in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, and across the world.
He appears to have done this with the knowledge of UK intelligence services. A memorandum presented before the House of Commons in 2009 by the Institute for Policy Research and Development states:
“The role of British and American intelligence policy in directly and indirectly facilitating the activities of Islamist extremist networks…[is] significant. According to senior government and intelligence officials, at the time of al-Muhajiroun’s founding in 1996, the network was mobilized by MI6 to send British Muslims to Kosovo — coinciding with British and American military assistance to the Kosovan Albanians.”
According to former US intelligence officer John Loftus, Bakri and Hamza in particular were recruited by MI6 from 1996 — while they were frequently preaching in Luton — to influence Islamist activities in the Balkans.
As a result, they appear to have been allowed to send thousands of young British Muslims for training and indoctrination at jihad camps abroad.
Upon completion of these courses, the jihadis would be sent to fight for their “brothers and sisters” wherever they were needed. The UK government would have wanted them to focus on the Balkans (to depose its enemies), but the nature of Qutbi jihad is that it is a global struggle. And so, while some jihadis were indeed sent to Bosnia or Kosovo to fight against the Serbs, others went to Kashmir to fight the Indians, or to Chechnya to fight against the Russians, or to Egypt to fight its government, or to Yemen to fight both its governments.
At this time, the assailed states were generally not considered UK allies — some were in fact hostile — so jihadi aggression against them would not have been considered a problem by the UK government.
Meanwhile, Hamza and Bakri became so relaxed about their de jure illicit activities that they began to train jihadis in the heart of Britain. From 1997, Hamza organised jihadi training camps in Brecon Beacons, Wales, as well as at an old monastery in Kent, and in Scotland. At Brecon Beacons, the teachers were all British army veterans, apparently contracted privately through an advert in a military magazine. After training, the recruits would allegedly carry out a kidnapping in Yemen.
Bakri was also heavily involved in UK jihad camps. In 1999, it was reported that al-Muhajiroun ran camps in the UK which trained around 2000 British jihadis per year.
The UK was used for some camps because it was logistically easy, but it was hampered by its tight weapon laws, which precluded full military training. Hamza and Bakri thus set their eyes on the US as an ideal place to create new training camps. They obviously liked the US’s lax gun laws, but were also drawn to the ease of travel from the UK, and of course the CIA’s strong partnership with Pakistani jihadis.
Ever since the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, the CIA had been nervous about courting jihadis, closing down the joint CIA/al-Qaeda operation at the Al-Kifah Refugee Centre. However, the Al-Kifah was quickly replaced by offices of other jihad-funding companies, such as Benevolence International, through which money continued to pour into training camps from US-based al-Qaeda operatives. Hamza and Bakri must have seen the CIA’s apparent idleness in cracking down on such extremists as a welcome.
In 1999, Hamza sent his schizophrenic aide (and suspected 7/7 mastermind) Haroon Aswat to buy land in Oregon for a new jihad training centre. At Hamza’s trial, several witnesses spoke of the camp. Eva Hatley, the Muslim-convert whose ranch Hamza wanted to base his camp around, said she watched as “carloads” of men took over her home, using it and the surrounding grounds to train in shooting and knife-fighting, learning such things as how to properly poison people. “It wasn’t anything like I envisioned for the property,” she said.
Bakri apparently also worked with training camps in the US. In an interview with the Arabic-language newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, he claimed that, in the late 1990s–early 2000s, he was sending 300–400 militants a year on guerrilla warfare courses in “Michigan and the Missouri desert” (Missouri doesn’t have a desert, so he may have meant another place, such as the Mojave desert).
Throughout this time, it appears that the UK government was not only facilitating the spread of jihadis, but also protecting them. In 1995 and 1999, the Egyptian and Yemeni governments requested the extradition of Hamza and several of his British associates for terror-related activities. The UK government denied the requests based on a “lack of evidence”.
In April 2000, Hamza and Bakri, buoyed by the apparent protection they were receiving from the UK government, decided to combine their operations, and co-founded Sakina Security Services through an intermediary, Frank Etim. This company functioned much like the Al-Kifah Centre in the US, laundering money (and men) sent to camps abroad.
By 2001, Hamza and Bakri had sent many thousands of young Muslims between the UK and terrorist training camps overseas.
Now that we have established the geopolitical context, we can return to the story of Luton.
IV — THE CAMPS OF KASHMIR
As we have seen, there is evidence that from 1996, Bakri and Hamza were abetted (or at least allowed) by British intelligence to send young British Muslims for terrorist training and indoctrination at jihad camps abroad, in the hope that they would eventually become part of insurgencies to destabilise geopolitical enemies.
There is thus reason to suppose that Raheem’s claim of seeing “coppers in suits” at Bakri’s community centre speeches is true.
Raheem said Bakri would regularly organise camping trips to scenic places in Wales, where wannabe-jihadis would learn survival skills. This generally consisted of such things as building fires, fishing, climbing and swimming. They would talk about jihad, but the trips were otherwise little different from regular camping trips, and didn’t really change anything.
The real training — the kind that transformed people into accomplished terrorists — had to be done overseas.
Raheem said Luton was convenient for jihadi recruiters not just because of its large population of angry young Muslims, but also because of its airport, which allowed easy transit to and from foreign jihad camps.
Given that most of Luton’s Muslims, including the town’s main fixer Q, are Kashmiri, the camps of choice for locals to travel to were in Afghanistan and Pakistan, from which they could quickly enter the Kashmiri front.
Any Luton locals who wanted to travel to these camps only had to ask Bakri or Hamza, or one of their lieutenants. They would then be put in touch with local fixers like Q and Abu Munthir, or one of the many London fixers, who would arrange their transit.
According to Raheem, some of these trips would be sponsored by members of a British-Pakistani charity called Tehreek-e-Kashmir. I contacted the charity for more information. They responded with silence.
Raheem said many of his friends travelled to these terror camps in the nineties, but that he himself never did because he wasn’t so dedicated, and had a baby son to take care of. He claims he was also slightly put off by some of the horror stories he heard (apparently, everyone who went to Pakistan got violent diarrhoea, which was widely seen as a test by Allah).
Yet, travelling to train at a genuine jihad camp was much sought after among Luton’s dejected Muslim youth because it was seen as a test of strength and honour, and bestowed huge street cred, earning titles like “Veteran” and “Certified Mujahid”.
So, what exactly went on at these camps?
The camp instructors had been trained by the Pakistani ISI, and would teach recruits espionage, shooting, explosives, survival, and unarmed combat. Angry clerics would also indoctrinate the recruits into the most violent and intolerant versions of Islam, inculcating them with the belief that all non-Muslims were less than human and worthy of extermination.
Raheem told me some of his best friends only went to jihad camps for a few weeks before appearing back in Luton or London. When they returned they would be full of energy and unable to stop talking about their experiences. But they would also be more political, and more hateful. They now appeared to see themselves as wolves living among sheep, unable to any longer engage with normal life. Raheem recalled how one football-loving friend had been an avid Arsenal supporter, but upon his return he tore down all his posters and threw his Ian Wright shirt in the bin because he considered them “satanic”.
These men had disliked the West even before they left for the camps, but the indoctrination and training they received abroad meant that on their return, they had both an intense hatred of the West and the skills to harm it. They now knew how to avoid surveillance, and build bombs, and their jihadi handlers had filled their minds with warlike Qur’an verses, and tales of colonialists carving up countries, and pictures of dying Muslims, and rumours of US soldiers fornicating on holy land in Mecca, and prophecies of a Muslim victory over the kuffar.
These angry, brainwashed young men would form the vanguard of the UK’s jihadi terror threat, and many would become associated with Luton.
Among them were Omar Khyam and Mohammed Sidique Khan, who both learned bomb-making at the Malakand camp in Pakistan prior to 9/11. Khyam would later oversee the 2004 fertiliser bomb plot, while Khan would lead the 7/7 bombers.
I will discuss both of these men and their relation to Luton in due time, but first I want to consider another graduate of the Pakistani terror camps, who would eventually form a terror group known simply as the “Luton cell”: Dhiren Barot (aka Abu Issa al-Hindi).
Barot had a nightmarish imagination and a creepy way with words, which makes him an almost cartoonishly unsettling figure. But like all human beings, he is complex. He liked to write, and is quite good at it too, so he is an important source of information about how jihadis operated prior to 9/11. He is also an significant figure in Luton’s history of radicalisation.
Born to Hindu immigrants, he grew up in London and worked in the tourism industry before being radicalised in 1994 by Hamza, who gave him a “jihad scholarship” on which he trained at various camps, from Wales to Kashmir. Barot later wrote about this in his book, The Army of Madinah in Kashmir, which was both a record of his experiences and an attempt to convert his beloved Hindu sister to Islam.
In the book, he claims he became radicalised after hearing of the injustices in Kashmir. He then goes on to describe how his desperation, and the silence he was met with, caused him to embrace the violence advocated by Hamza. In one verse he provides an answer of sorts to Latif’s view that terrorism is immoral and a form of bid’ah (innovation):
“Maybe we harbour a ‘fundamental’ fear of being labelled as innovators and terrorists even in our own communities by our own brethren in faith. Simply because we wish to wrest power from those who are diametrically opposed to this Deen (ideology); but terror works and that is why the believers are commanded to enforce it by Allah.”
(Esa al-Hindi, The Army of Madinah in Kashmir, 107–108)
It is a simple argument — the end justifies the means — which is perhaps why it would eventually become popular among Luton’s brash youths.
But Barot was anything but brash. He had a sharp, methodical mind, and throughout his time in foreign jihad camps, he became highly proficient not just in weapons training but also in espionage and counter-espionage. At an Afghan camp, his al-Qaeda handlers were quick to recognise his intelligence, and allowed him to teach other recruits.
In spring 2000, Barot was selected to attend a top secret al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur alongside some of the terror group’s most senior agents, many of whom were former members of the Afghan Mujahideen. It was at this convention that major attacks on the West such as 9/11 and 7/7 were first conceived of by al-Qaeda leaders like Riduan Isamuddin (aka Hambali) and Walid bin Attash.
After the convention, Osama bin Laden ordered Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, architect of 9/11, to dispatch Barot to the US to pinpoint potential “Jewish” targets in New York. Barot received funds from al-Qaeda — possibly through Sakina Security Services — and made two trips to the US, in August 2000 and March 2001, to scout potential targets, identifying such sites as the International Monetary Fund and the New York Stock Exchange.
He wrote a series of meticulously researched reports, describing such things as the layouts of the buildings, what materials they were made from, the times that employees took smoking breaks, where surveillance cameras were positioned, what public events were scheduled nearby, the routes that emergency services would need to take to get there, and how many cars and pedestrians typically passed by per minute.
He calculated that one building contained 67,000-square-feet of glass, and added that this “could be devastating in an emergency scenario … that is to say, that when shattered, each piece of glass becomes a potential flying piece of cutthroat shrapnel!”
In addition to his detailed reports, Barot also visited and filmed the targets, footage of which was discovered in the middle of a copy of the movie Die Hard with a Vengeance.
Barot did not focus on the World Trade Centre. But, eerily, a few months before 9/11, he filmed the twin towers, and made the sound of an explosion.
V — THE VOCABULARY OF VIOLENCE
For many UK jihadis, the sheer impact that the destruction of the World Trade Centre had on the West’s collective consciousness validated jihad as a legitimate way to express their grievances.
Among them was Dhiren Barot. He had carried out extensive reconnaissance of US targets prior to 9/11, including of the World Trade Centre, but he is not believed to have played any significant role in the attack. It is likely he would have been disappointed that his al-Qaeda superiors had not greenlit his own proposed operations. Following 9/11, he appears to have become intent on demonstrating to his superiors exactly how dangerous he could be. He visited a house on Dallow Road, in Luton, to begin preparations for one of the most ambitious terror schemes in British history. Exactly what he did at this house is something we will discuss later.
Meanwhile, one mile away from Dallow Road, on Kenilworth Road, a young accountant called Mohammed Istiak Alamgir had just watched the twin towers collapse, and for him it was an epiphany, filling him with ecstatic fervour, and convincing him to quit his job and claim Jobseeker’s Allowance, so he could dedicate his life to jihad. He would eventually go on to become Luton’s most notorious hate-preacher.
Alamgir was a member of the local al-Muhajiroun street gang, which was quietly celebrating the 9/11 attacks. The gang was led by a young ethnic-Bengali known simply as “Shahed”.
He was clean-shaven and dressed in jeans and a swanky jacket, so tended not to attract much of the anti-Muslim abuse that followed 9/11. That was reserved for those who “looked” Muslim (with beards and turbans, including Sikhs), the vast majority of whom were as shocked and confused by the terrorist attacks as everyone else.
30 miles south, in London, Shahed’s mentors Hamza and Bakri were cautiously praising the attacks. But they assured the press and police that their men did not intend to attack the UK, due to the Covenant of Security.
However, this all changed the following month, when the UK joined the US in its invasion of Afghanistan.
Bakri reacted by declaring that this was an assault on the entire Muslim world, and that the Covenant had hence been broken. He and Hamza started a recruitment drive to send young British Muslims to Afghanistan to fight the British Army. Luton became a central recruitment ground.
Farasat Latif and his fellow quietist Salafis had anticipated this, and organised several talks at local community centres urging young Muslims not to get involved in the war because a Covenant of Peace was still in effect. Latif pointed to examples of prophets such as Yusuf and Muhammad obeying the laws of (sometimes hostile) non-Muslim countries while staying in them, and to scriptural verses such as Qur’an 4:59, and Sahih al-Bukhari 2796 & Sunan Tirmidhi, which states: “It is necessary upon a Muslim to listen to and obey the ruler, as long as one is not ordered to carry out a sin.”
But al-Muhajiroun members believed that to obey the laws of a country that was at war with a Muslim nation was itself a sin. In their view, since the UK was now at war with some Muslims, it was at war with the entire Ummah (global Muslim community). Thus, the Covenant was no longer in effect.
On Bakri’s orders, Shahed’s street gang flooded Luton with jihadi literature that provided justifications for violence against the West.
Some bellicose passages from the Qur’an and ahadith were disseminated, as were works written by fellow jihadis. One book that was used as a recruitment tool was Dhiren Barot’s The Army of Madinah in Kashmir.
Through writings like Barot’s, and audio CDs of Bakri and Hamza’s rants, and pamphlets quoting apocalyptic scripture, al-Muhajiroun spread their simple, uncompromising view of jihad throughout Luton. One of their most fertile recruiting grounds was the University of Luton Muslim Society, which was filled with impassioned and impatient young Muslims who had no time for the nuance and compromise they found at the mosques. These hormonally-charged youths, stricken with the banality of life in Luton, found a sense of release in giving themselves totally to hatred, and began to set up their own, highly political meetings at the university, until they were banned. One attendee, Afzab Munir, allegedly beat up his lecturer and had to go to court.
Unsurprisingly, Munir was a regular at al-Muhajiroun meetings — along with friends Aftab Manzoor, Muhammed Omar, and Crawley man Yasir Khan.
According to Latif, the four had also once attended the Call To Islam Centre, but ended up arguing with Baksh, accusing him of being a “sellout”.
A few weeks after 9/11, Manzoor called his father, Luton grocer Chudry, from Pakistan and told him that he was going to join the Taliban. He then met up with Munir, Omar, and Khan, and they crossed the border into Afghanistan, to wage jihad against the British Army.
Their compound was bombed, and they were killed.
Concerns had now grown throughout Luton’s Muslim community about the dangers posed by al-Muhajiroun recruiters. The town’s mosques, including Latif’s Call To Islam Centre, officially banned al-Muhajiroun members from worshipping at them, and issued statements telling them they were no longer welcome in the town or the country.
With the ban in place, Latif thought he had seen the last of the gang.
But one morning he entered his centre to find a TV crew packing up their cameras. When he enquired what was going on, he was told that they had just been filming a press conference.
“For whom?” he asked.
“Al-Muhajiroun,” came the response.
It turned out that Shahed’s gang had entered Latif’s centre without permission, inviting a TV crew so that they could relay a message to the nation. Shahed had used the limelight to loudly and publicly praise Munir and the other three “martyrs of Afghanistan”.
Naturally, Latif and his quietist associates were livid. One of them stormed out, tracked Shahed down, and beat him senseless, almost throttling him.
But this was just the beginning. Over the next few weeks, more and more young men from across the UK went to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban. British intelligence, realising that al-Muhajiroun was now posing a serious national security threat, decided to act. Police launched Operation Full Circle and began clamping down on networks believed to be sending men to jihad training camps domestic and overseas. As part of this operation, Bakri and Hamza’s jihad-training company, Sakina Security Services, was shut down and its assets were frozen.
But by now it was too late — thousands of UK Muslims had already been trained and indoctrinated at camps abroad, and most of these were now in the UK, furious at its invasion of Afghanistan.
A new age of terror was about to begin.