The Hate Factory (Part 3)
XIV — THE ENGLISH DEFENCE LEAGUE
In April 2009, Abdul Qadeer Baksh received an email from a man named Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, whom I will call by his better-known alias “Tommy Robinson”.
Robinson claimed to have watched Baksh and his army of anti-jihadist Muslims drive al-Muhajiroun from Dunstable Road. He wrote in his email to Baksh that what he had seen was encouraging, but he believed Baksh was doing it for the wrong reasons.
Robinson had been born in 1982, just as the first Islamist hate-preachers arrived in the UK and British intelligence services began nurturing the growth of terrorist networks as an eventual geopolitical weapon.
He claimed that as he grew up he witnessed the gradual radicalisation of Luton, epitomised by a steadily expanding gulf between the Muslim community and everyone else. At school, he’d watched friends drift away because they became devout Muslims. In the streets, he’d overheard the violent sermons of Luton’s hate-preachers calling for holy war. On occasion, he’d had people close to him beaten near to death because they drunkenly wandered into an area policed by al-Muhajiroun.
And now, he had attended the homecoming parade of the Poachers, and watched as Alamgir and his gang besmirched the war-weary soldiers.
Robinson claimed that Baksh and Latif had stood by while all of this had happened, and were only now speaking out against al-Muhajiroun because their mosque had been firebombed.
He conceded that the Salafi quietists did not themselves condone terrorism, but argued that they still agreed with al-Muhajiroun’s goal: An Islamic state where women are subjugated to men, and where gays, apostates and blasphemers are killed. He thus believed that any Salafi or indeed any Muslim could not be trusted to lead the fight against al-Muhajiroun.
But Robinson also believed the police were useless, as they had allowed Islamism to flourish for two decades by enforcing political correctness.
Robinson was far from the only one who believed all this. In the wake of Alamgir’s protest of the Poachers, a new movement had begun to form in the town, calling itself the “United People of Luton” (UPL). It was relatively diverse, with ethnic Indians, Caribbeans, and even a couple of Pakistani Muslims among its supporters. It was, however, primarily built around the white working class, who felt authorities had long ignored their concerns about Islamic “encroachment” due to fear of being seen as racist.
On 24 May 2009, the United People of Luton held a march condemning al-Muhajiroun. They were a disorganised lot, congregating around pubs before trudging through the streets, brandishing plastic beer cups instead of placards. Some wore masks of Alamgir’s face with devil horns.
The United People of Luton was not so much a movement as a loose association of angry youths. What it lacked was a charismatic central figure to give it purpose and direction. That man became Tommy Robinson.
He quickly emerged as the leading voice of the movement, his impassioned rants stirring the hearts of poor young white lads maddened by alienation and beer. Robinson succeeded because he was able to speak to these youths in the no-nonsense (and no-nuance) vocabulary they understood, while the establishment had only ever condescended to them with platitudes about the wonders of diversity.
The town’s white working class youths, lacking hopes of well-paying jobs, had always buoyed themselves with their patriotism, but they now felt that their country had let them down. And so they sought a new object for their nationalism, which they found in a nostalgic ideal of Englishness itself, a “fantasy football” England of Winston Churchill, Richard the Lionheart, and Bobby Charlton. The group’s tribalism increasingly attracted football hooligans, whose drunken songs drowned out the movement’s more moderate voices. As a result, the group soon found it could no longer call itself the United People of Luton, and it adopted the jingoistic name of “English Defence League” (EDL).
Around this time, Robinson began using the name by which he would become widely known. He chose the name after an infamous local football hooligan called “Tommy Robinson” — and in so doing he embraced the thuggish stereotype his enemies wished to portray him as.
But initially at least, he found release through his new alias; as Tommy Robinson he became more than a man; he became the desperate cry of an England that was fast being swept under the prayer mat.
Robinson believed Islam could never be compatible with Western society. In this, he agreed with al-Muhajiroun’s narrow interpretation of Islam’s potential. He had some facts on his side, such as the Qur’an’s advocacy of violence against nonbelievers, and Muhammad’s sexual relations with a child, but refused to accept that calling Muslims “followers of a mass-murdering paedophile” — even if it were technically true — was not a solution.
Robinson’s lack of message discipline meant that his group soon began to attract “the wrong crowd”, from further right on the political spectrum. He had always been passionately antiracist, with a wide circle of friends of all ethnicities, so he immediately tried to reinforce the idea that the EDL was open to all races, and that his opposition was to Islam and not to Muslims. He expended great effort to purge fascists from the EDL, repeatedly stating that they were not welcome.
As a result, Robinson was confused when the national media began portraying him as a racist. But he found it hard to refute, given that he, unpolished and impulsive in his use of words, had a history of off-hand jokes, crude banter, and angry outbursts that with a little cherry-picking could be used to form a compelling caricature of a simple-minded bigot.
The media could have ignored his silly jokes and half-drunken rants, and instead focused on his more lucid and substantial arguments about, for instance, al-Muhajiroun preaching in the streets, as the basis of a much-needed debate about the integration of Islam in the UK, but they rarely if ever seriously engaged with him, which only marginalised his concerns and those of his countless supporters, infuriating them and pushing them even further to extremes. In addition, by labelling the EDL as racist, the media advertised it to actual racists, making it more attractive to the kinds of people Robinson was trying to rid it of.
Of course, it wasn’t all the media’s fault. If Robinson had proposed a sociopolitical solution to the problem of Islamic integration, by campaigning for reform like Maajid Nawaz, or for rationalism like Richard Dawkins, he may have been shown some mercy by the newspapers, who would have delighted in dissecting his proposals. But instead he offered little but his nostalgia for an unremembered England, and his hatred of Islam and wish for its immediate, unrealistic, eradication.
Robinson quickly lost control of the EDL, just as British intelligence lost control of the jihadis they nurtured in the nineties. Hatred became their solution, for among all their utopian dreams, it was the only thing real.
Hence, during the summer of 2009, far-right mobs rampaged through Luton, vandalising Muslim shops and homes. But instead of being confronted by al-Muhajiroun, they were met by mobs of enraged moderate Muslims who felt their community was under attack. The air was split with cries of “Inger-lund!” and “Allahu Akbar!” The town was plastered with propaganda, houses were egged, tyres were punctured, people were ambushed and beaten — Luton was more divided than it had ever been before.
Into this cultural street-war stepped a new arrival in the town. His name was Khalid Masood.
XV — THE STRANGER
Masood’s neighbours told me he was a shy, polite figure. He had moved to Dunraven Avenue, a quiet neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bury Park, with his eldest daughter Andi, who was still recovering from being hit by a car a year earlier.
The accident appears to have profoundly affected the faith of both Masood and Andi. They may have regarded it as Allah’s way of reminding them of the fragility of the temporal world. Andi responded to her recovery by immersing herself in Islam, staying at home and diligently reading the Qur’an, while her father sought to live a more productive life.
He had spent much of his time between jobs, and between jail cells. His offences included assaults, grievous bodily harm, possession of offensive weapons and public order offences. In one incident in May 2003, he drove a knife through a man’s face so hard that the blade snapped in it. In another, he lured a man into a jail cell so a fellow inmate could slit his throat.
Shortly after moving into his new home, Masood filled in his electoral roll form, for the first time calling himself “Khalid Masood” on official documents rather than Adrian Elms as he had previously been known. For him this may have symbolised a fresh start, a chance to unshackle himself from his past and be reborn anew.
Masood started work teaching English as a foreign language at a private college run by Latif — ELAS UK Ltd, on Leagrave Road. He told Latif he’d wasted his youth with crime, but that his daughter’s accident had woken him up, so he’d come to Luton to become a good Muslim and turn his life around.
Masood was apparently not very knowledgeable about Islam. “He was a very simple Muslim”, said Latif. “He prayed and knew the basics, but was too occupied with practical self-improvement — such as working and working out — to be particularly spiritual.”
Masood seemed like he was in the middle of a mid-life crisis, feeling he was getting old fast, and fearing his last chance to live a good life was fading. As such, he had little time for friends. His neighbours told me they rarely saw him, and when they did, he seemed like he was in a rush. Some were even unaware that he lived nearby. Latif said Masood never went out with his colleagues; it was always work, gym, home.
The gym he had joined was near his workplace, on Leagrave Road. Once, while he was working out, someone referred to him as a “kala” (literally “black”). He stopped what he was doing, raged that he knew what the word meant, and attacked the man.
That was not an isolated incident. In August 1998, Masood was rejected by a woman and said that she didn’t like him because he was black. She stated it was his attitude not his colour. They argued, and Masood spat at her and punched her in the face.
Two years later, Masood and a cafe owner got into an argument that apparently had racial overtones. Masood ended the argument by slashing the cafe owner’s face with a knife.
Clearly, Masood was as sensitive about race as he was incapable of controlling his temper. Indeed, part of the reason Masood converted to Islam rather than Christianity may have been due to the former’s supposed emphasis on racial equality. He may also have chosen to come to Luton due to its sizeable Muslim community, where he wouldn’t have to worry about the bigotry and racism that he apparently felt besieged by.
But he chose to come to Luton at the wrong time, just as it was riven by a quasi-racial turf war between Muslims and the EDL.
According to Latif, Masood’s hatred toward the EDL was incandescent, and he would tense up at the very mention of their name. As someone so impulsive, and so paranoid about race, he could have been an easy target for Alamgir’s gang, who in late 2009 were depicting the EDL’s rise as the beginning of a civil war between racists and Muslims.
In particular, Masood would likely have found appeal in Alamgir’s sermons about the al-Ghurabaa (“the Strangers”), which he began to give after the rise of the EDL in late 2009.
As you will recall, the official name of Luton Islamic Centre is the “Al-Ghurabaa Mosque”. And “al-Ghurabaa” is the alternative name of al-Muhajiroun (which itself means “the Exiles” or “the Emigrants” and refers to the very same concept).
The concept of al-Ghurabaa has several metaphorical meanings in Islam, but the chief one refers to the arrival of Muhammad and his disciples to Medina, where they were considered strangers, and subject to ridicule and oppression. Muhammad reassured his nervous followers that Allah loves most of all the outcasts, the misfits, the strangers.
This simple story resonates among many UK Muslims, who feel as though they are subject to the very same oppression and ridicule as Muhammad and his disciples in Medina, a people displaced from their native habitat to find themselves in a place where they are forced to adopt alien lives or be shut out from society.
Alamgir in particular exploited this concept to paint Muslims as victims of a racial conspiracy. He said the EDL were just the latest in a long line of groups dedicated to hating Muslims. He pointed to the way local whites had treated his parents’ generation when they first came to Luton, how the National Front used to terrorise them, how they were forced to form their own gangs to fight off the racists. “These people will never welcome you” he would yell, “Your only home is among the Ummah”.
Alamgir would have had no shortage of opportunities to radicalise Masood, because Masood’s workplace and gym, both on Leagrave Road, were mere yards away from al-Muhajiroun’s new stall, which they’d set up after being evicted from Dunstable Road in summer 2009. Masood would thus have regularly passed al-Muhajiroun as they proselytised, and is likely to have picked up at least one of their leaflets, if only out of curiosity.
It is of course possible that throughout his three years in Luton, Masood never saw any appeal in al-Muhajiroun. Latif believes Masood was too independent-minded to be brainwashed by sermons as crude as Alamgir’s. He thinks it is likelier Masood began suffering mental health problems, and was then radicalised after leaving Luton, via the Internet.
Whatever the case, around this time there were plenty in Luton who were falling for al-Muhajiroun’s demagoguery. One of them was a man named Taimour al-Abdaly, to whom we now turn.
XVI — THE STOCKHOLM BOMBING
Taimour al-Abdaly was born in Iraq, but as a child he moved to Sweden. After completing school, he attended the University of Luton, whose student Muslim society was infiltrated by al-Muhajiroun. Upon graduating, he got married and lived in Luton at a house on Argyll Avenue.
Morten Storm recounts in his autobiography that he first met al-Abdaly in 2005, while the young Iraqi was working in a department store. They became friends, and would often meet in the gym, on the football field, and in the mosque. Al-Abdaly was impressed with Storm’s tales of jihad, and soon began following him to al-Muhajiroun’s meetings.
Like most Bury Park locals, al-Abdaly was furious at the perceived treatment of Muslims by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. On his Facebook page there was a picture showing a blindfolded Iraqi man being taunted and abused by US soldiers, as well as sermons by radical preachers calling for vengeance.
But al-Abdaly didn’t completely agree with al-Muhajiroun’s vision — at least not initially. He had a problem with the group’s extreme position on takfir (excommunication), deeming it too loose in how it defined someone as non-Muslim (and therefore allowed to be killed). He often debated Storm on this point and others of a theological nature.
Storm eventually stopped believing in the things he’d tried to persuade al-Abdaly of, but by the time he returned to Luton as an MI5 agent in 2006, al-Abdaly was starting to become convinced of the necessity of barbarism. He now shared Storm’s old admiration for the ultra-brutal Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and used the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq as his Facebook profile picture. Further, just as Storm had once done, al-Abdaly would later name his son after bin Laden.
According to Latif, al-Abdaly came to Luton Islamic Centre during Ramadan 2006 or 2007, and his bubbly, soft-spoken nature won over the mosque’s worshippers, who were as yet unaware of his jihadi beliefs. However, rumours soon began circulating around the mosque that al-Abdaly was expressing extreme views.
Baksh confronted him in debate, and found that al-Abdaly was echoing the exact same beliefs that Abu Hamza had expressed at the Call To Islam centre in 1996. Namely, he believed that Muslim leaders should be excommunicated because they were in the pocket of infidel governments, and did not follow every letter of the Qur’an.
After Baksh “defeated” al-Abdaly in the debate, the young jihadi stormed out of the mosque, never to return.
Baksh apparently later heard that al-Abdaly was criticising him and his mosque at the university Muslim society, saying he was working for the British government and in the pocket of the Saudi royal family.
Neither Latif nor Baksh thought it necessary to warn the police, because they often encountered young Muslims with radical beliefs, almost all of whom later matured and mellowed. The imams believed the same would happen to al-Abdaly, and they didn’t want to create an atmosphere where young Muslims were reported for “thought-crime”.
But al-Abdaly’s radical beliefs would become so much more. He soon found a sympathetic local: his Algerian workmate Nasserdine Menni. The two men decided that the only way to be heard was to carry out an atrocity, and they began planning one in 2009.
They communicated by sharing email accounts in which they would type drafts that would automatically save, would be readable by the other when they logged into the same account, and could then be deleted. This way, no emails were ever sent between them.
Like all the UK’s most dangerous jihadis, al-Abdaly attended terrorist camps abroad. Menni financed al-Abdaly’s trips to Iraq and Yemen, which he undertook using three different passports, to learn bomb-making and subterfuge. Upon his return, he began building his weapons: six pipe-bombs, a pressure-cooker bomb and a gas-canister bomb.
With the explosives prepared, it was time for al-Abdaly to make his final statement.
On 19 November 2010, he flew to Stockholm. A day before his 29th birthday, he left a message for police, stating he was carrying out his attack in response to crimes by the West against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He then proceeded with his plot. He appears to have intended to set his bombs off in the heart of Stockholm’s city centre during its busy period. But en route to the area, something went wrong. A fire broke out inside his car, which he tried to put out, to no avail. He then abandoned the car, carrying his pipe-bombs in a backpack and on a belt, while holding his pressure-cooker bomb.
His car eventually exploded, and then, twelve minutes later, as he made his way to the city centre, one of his pipe-bombs prematurely went off, killing only himself and injuring just two people.
When the bomber’s identity was revealed as al-Abdaly, those who had known him pointed out that he had attended al-Muhajiroun meetings in Luton. Anjem Choudary was quick to come out and deny all links. “He was a lone wolf,” he told the press. “He was nothing to do with my brothers in Luton. We knew nothing about him or his activities.”
Al-Abdaly’s childhood best friend Pelle Johansson claimed he had been a completely different person before moving to Luton, drinking and partying and having no interest in politics or religion. As a result, rumours began circulating that al-Abdaly had been radicalised by his wife Mona Thwany, whom he’d met and married in the town.
Police raided Mona’s home and arrested her. Istiak Alamgir, never one to miss an opportunity, immediately led a protest in Bury Park, falsely claiming that the police had ripped off her veil, and raging that it was disgraceful for police to “put their hands on a Muslim woman”.
Once again, Latif and Baksh condemned Alamgir’s protest, yet many local Muslims agreed with the gist of what he was saying. They believed the bomber’s wife was being treated unfairly, and that her dignity as a Muslim woman had been hurt by a police strip-search (which police denied having carried out).
As for Khalid Masood’s opinion on the matter, he apparently didn’t have one. After the bombing, journalists from all over Europe flocked to Luton, including to Masood’s workplace, ELAS UK. Latif told me Masood silently walked past them, and just got on with his day.
But he wouldn’t get any peace; EDL gangs descended on Bury Park, trying to find out how al-Abdaly had been radicalised. It is now clear he had several links to al-Muhajiroun, whom he was likely introduced to at the University of Luton Muslim society. After graduating he attended al-Muhajiroun meetings at the Woodland Avenue community centre, was seen in the audience at Alamgir’s street-sermons, and became an admirer and protégé of Morten Storm (who may have inadvertently played a part in al-Abdaly’s radicalisation while undercover for MI5).
The EDL, however, simply blamed Islam, and on 4 February 2011, it held its biggest march ever.
XVII — THE HOMECOMING
On the morning of the march, police issued Tommy Robinson with an “Osman warning”, advising him that threats had been made on his life by people with the capability to follow through on them.
Robinson ignored their warning, but did decide to wear a stab-proof vest, as was routine for him.
Safety precautions were also taken across Luton. Over a thousand police were assigned to contain the protest. Shops in the town were closed and petrol stations were boarded up in what one resident described as a “war zone”.
After 10am, Coachloads of EDL supporters from across the country began to arrive. They were joined by other ultra-nationalist and anti-Muslim groups from all over Europe, including the Swedish Defence League, whose members were hungover from the night before, when they had gulped down booze at a local pub and yelled about revenge for the Stockholm bombing.
Numbering approximately 2000 strong, the far-right alliance then began to march through Luton town centre. Opposing them were about 1000 Unite Against Fascism (UAF) demonstrators, roughly 200 of which confronted the EDL at the train station, and later linked hands to form a human chain across the passageway to Bury Park in order to protect its Muslim community.
The Luton al-Muhajiroun had planned to confront the EDL with reinforcements from the group’s main London branch, including Anjem Choudary’s intimidating bodyguard, Mohammed Reza Haque (aka “The Giant”). But Haque was due to attend court for burning a poppy in London, and others were on control orders, so the counter-protest was called off.
The EDL was thus met with little resistance, and happily swaggered along, herded by mounted police. Their protest consisted of little more than gesturing threateningly at the air and chanting “Muslim bombers off our streets!” and their usual song: “No Sur-ren-duh! No Sur-ren-duh! No sur-ren-duh to the Ta-li-ban!” Some of the more fanatical protestors were arrested for assault and weapons offences.
At the culmination of the march, Robinson climbed a podium and gave a speech. He used it to complain about the council’s perceived favouritism toward the Muslim community, and to fight allegations that he was a racist.
Despite this, al-Muhajiroun were quick to label the rally racist. Alamgir took to the streets of Bury Park, ranting histrionically to an accumulation of slack-jawed youths. “They smashed your windows! They harassed your women! They insulted your prophet! These people will never accept you!”
Alamgir singled out Robinson as “just a racist”. His accusations were echoed by big media. Being painted as a racist was a sore spot for Robinson, who began a war of words with Alamgir that would eventually become physical.
In one encounter, during the filming of a documentary, Alamgir slapped Tommy across the face:
Robinson didn’t let that slide. The following year he and his EDL friends ambushed Alamgir and beat him up.
And on and on the cycle of hatred went, each side feeding the other.
XVIII — TOY SOLDIERS
Baksh and Latif believed the EDL protest had been directed at their mosque in particular due to its association with al-Abdaly.
In the days following the march, the atmosphere at the mosque was sombre. Latif felt he and his fellow Salafis were being unfairly targeted, not just by the EDL, but also by the national press, who repeatedly emphasised al-Abdaly’s links to the Luton Islamic Centre. Latif recalls that Khalid Masood was visibly infuriated by news of the EDL’s march, and implied he wanted to kill them. Latif understandably assumed it was hyperbole.
But there was someone else at the mosque who really was planning to kill EDL members.
He was a quiet, unassuming worshipper at the mosque, a married father of one called Zahid Iqbal.
He had fallen under the sway of Alamgir’s street gang, buying into the hate-preacher’s narrative that they were in the middle of a war between Muslims and non-Muslims. Through Alamgir’s gang, he got the contacts to a website from which he could discreetly download copies of Inspire, the magazine of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Like many jihadis, Iqbal quickly became a fan of the charismatic leader of AQAP, Anwar al-Awlaki.
Iqbal had been watching al-Awlaki’s online sermons, in which the firebrand preacher often tells his audience to kill nonbelievers in any way they can.
A few days after the EDL march, Iqbal called one of his al-Muhajiroun contacts and discussed acquiring a gun. Then, on the 21st February, he personally met another contact, and spoke further about obtaining firearms. He claimed he wanted to shoot EDL members. But this was just an appetiser for what he really wanted, which was apocalyptic worldwide jihad.
Iqbal had established contact with an al-Qaeda fixer in Pakistan dubbed “Modern Sleeve” by security services. This contact told Iqbal he could provide access to jihad camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Iqbal’s priority quickly changed from owning a gun to owning an international terrorist recruitment and training operation. He made dozens of calls to mysterious phone numbers in Pakistan.
Iqbal bragged about his Pakistani contact to his al-Muhajiroun associate Mohammed Sharfaraz Ahmed, and recruited him to his new project. Ahmed in turn recruited his friend Umar Arshad, and another local, Syed Hussain.
The plan had been for Iqbal to meet Modern Sleeve in Pakistan, but he was concerned about leaving his wife and child behind, so Ahmed stepped up to pioneer the meeting. Iqbal called Modern Sleeve and arranged for him to take Ahmed to a jihad training camp on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. He himself and the other two planned to eventually follow in Ahmed’s footsteps when they had settled their issues in the UK.
They discussed how best to make Ahmed blend in, determining everything from what he should wear to how he should say hello. Iqbal gave Ahmed £850 for the jihadi effort, while Arshad gave him £100 and some Pakistani sim cards so he could remain in touch with them.
From March 2011, Ahmed, Arshad and Hussain began physically preparing for Pakistan. They chose to train in Snowdonia because its mountainous terrain resembled Pakistan’s, and it gave Ahmed an opportunity to overcome his fear of heights. The budding jihadis were watched by MI5 as they engaged in climbing, marching, and mock warfare using broken tree branches as guns.
Around this time, Ahmed also began working out at the Leagrave Road gym, where Khalid Masood was a regular. The two may have interacted in some way, because Masood appeared on MI5’s radar as a possible accomplice in the plot. But MI5 quickly dismissed Masood as a peripheral figure, and investigations into him were dropped.
After weeks of physical and psychological preparation, Ahmed travelled to Pakistan on 9 March. He had booked to return on the 25th but in fact returned much earlier, on the 15th. In low spirits, he told Iqbal he had been rejected by Modern Sleeve’s camp contacts because he didn’t speak Pashto or Arabic. Iqbal tried calling Modern Sleeve but couldn’t get through to him. He would never hear from him again.
It is likely that Modern Sleeve was an undercover agent working for either the ISI or British intelligence. This would explain why he spontaneously cut contact with Iqbal, and why his men rejected Ahmed for the bizarre reason of not speaking Arabic or Pashto (which has never stopped British jihadis attending camps before).
In any case, the four jihadis were distraught; none of them spoke the requisite languages, so their dreams of jihad looked shattered.
But then, in April, Iqbal downloaded an issue of Inspire that contained an article called “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom”, and showed how to cook up explosives from ordinary household objects. Iqbal probably believed the article was a blessing from Allah, a way for them to fight jihad without having to attend training camps.
He told Ahmed about the article, and they excitedly discussed what to do with such a bomb. They had considered attacking an EDL march, or the local shopping mall. But Iqbal’s favoured plan was to bomb the nearby Territorial Army centre in a somewhat inventive way. He said:
“I was looking and drove past like the TA centre, Marsh Road. At the bottom of their gate there’s quite a big gap. If you had a little toy car it drives underneath one of their vehicles or something.”
However, MI5 had bugged their cars, and overheard everything.
On 2 September 2011, the four plotters’ homes were raided and copies of Inspire and other terrorist reading materials were found. Also found were more than 150 mobile phones, and thousands of pounds in cash.
The four men said they never intended to carry out any terrorist attacks. Ahmed said he was ashamed of his past and his Islamist days were behind him. Police concluded that the four men were naïve, immature and probably not dangerous. They issued them with a warning, and then departed.
A few weeks after the raid, the men behind the plotters’ instruction manual, Inspire — Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki — were killed in a drone strike. President Obama had sanctioned the extrajudicial assassination of al-Awlaki — an American citizen — due to the danger he posed through his online sermons. The assassination was spearheaded by none other than Morten Storm, who had earlier travelled from Luton to AQAP’s base in the Yemeni desert, befriended al-Awlaki, and then given him a datastick with a tracking device on it. The extraordinary full story is beyond the scope of this report, but if you are interested, I recommend Storm’s autobiography, Agent Storm: My Life Inside al-Qaeda and the CIA.
Back in Luton, Iqbal and Ahmed, who had just had their homes raided, and seen news reports of the deaths of their online mentor al-Awlaki, should have known they were being monitored by police. Yet they did something jaw-dislocatingly stupid: they downloaded even more terrorist material.
Iqbal downloaded a publication written by al-Awlaki entitled “44 Ways to Support Jihad.” Ahmed downloaded a complete collection of Inspire.
The four men’s homes were raided again on 24 April 2012. This time, they were arrested. Latif told me that, shortly after the arrests, his barrister friend saw Alamgir at a cafe next door to Paddington Green Station, where the men were being questioned. This cafe is frequented by police and lawyers, and Alamgir had no reason to be there. When the barrister approached Alamgir, he quickly fled into a housing estate.
Whatever help he had tried to give the four, it appears to have been ineffectual. Ringleaders Iqbal and Ahmed would later be jailed for 16 years each, while Arshad and Hussain would be jailed for five and six, respectively.
An officer at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory confirmed that the Inspire instruction manual used by the four plotters could be used to make an operational bomb, but that the modifications planned by the four would have made the bomb a dud.
Ultimately, Iqbal and his three stooges were never a serious threat because they had not been able to train at camps abroad, and lacked the intelligence to carry out an effective terror operation using an instruction guide alone. They also lacked the will to carry out an attack — in the space of a year, their bomb plot never progressed beyond their vocal chords.
If, however, they had managed to attend foreign training camps, they could have become a serious threat. They could have learned the art of counterespionage, been given practical training in firearms and explosives, as well as the means to obtain them, and been indoctrinated with a creed that would have removed all their hesitations.
Clearly, the intelligence services should by now have seen a pattern; those jihadis who had attended jihad training camps — Barot, Khyam, Khan and to some extent al-Abdaly — were generally a far more serious threat than those who didn’t. So, surely, they should have clamped down harder on jihadis joining these camps.
Unfortunately, it seems the opposite became true.
XIX — COVENANT TWO?
Luton’s mass-radicalisation had begun with the Covenant of Security — the succour that was given to jihadis by the UK government in the eighties and nineties — which turned Britain into the hub of an international jihad network that sent British Muslims for indoctrination and terror training at camps in the East, thereby allowing a murderous ideology to take root in South Asian migrant communities across Britain.
After 9/11, British intelligence discovered that, though jihadis could be used to destabilise hostile countries, they’d soon return to destabilise one’s own.
But in 2011 Whitehall found itself in a very tempting situation. The Arab Spring was gaining momentum, and two of the UK government’s geopolitical enemies, Gaddafi and Assad, were facing uprisings. Among the mutineers were jihadis. And there were many UK jihadis who wanted to join the fight.
Toppling Gaddafi and Assad was considered by British intelligence to be in the West’s long-term interests. Assad was a financier of Hezbollah and ally of Iran, and also refused a proposal to host a gas pipeline from Qatar to Europe, meaning Europe was forced to rely on gas from another hostile power: Russia. Gaddafi, meanwhile, had been trying to undermine the US dollar by incentivising African nations to trade in alternative currencies. He was also a financier of terrorism, including the Lockerbie bombing — the UK’s deadliest ever terrorist attack.
So, what did the UK government do? Did it learn from the Luton experiment, and consequently prevent the radicalisation of its own citizens to fight enemy governments, knowing they’d eventually return to wreak havoc at home? Or did its geopolitical considerations once again trump its domestic ones?
On paper, Western powers were against using jihadis as destabilising agents. Declassified CIA files, for instance, show that as early as 1986, Western intelligence was wary of giving radical Islamist groups too much power in Syria, knowing they were not stable partners. Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, MP’s spoke of the risk of accidentally helping jihadis, and emphasised the need to support moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army.
Despite this, hundreds of British Muslims were able to leave for Libya and Syria to fight.
Raheem told me some of his acquaintances travelled to Syrian jihad camps through dubious Islamic charities, which appear to have operated similarly to companies like Benevolence International prior to 9/11.
These companies tended to be multinational, with one office in the UK and one in Syria or Turkey. They would periodically drive aid convoys through Turkey into Syria. Sometimes, their cargo would contain jihadis, and terminate at a terrorist training camp.
Charities alleged to have aided the transit of jihadis to Syria include Al-Fatiha Global, IERA, Aid Convoy, Muslim Aid, and Worldwide Ummah Aid. All of these companies received money from the UK government via its Gift Aid programme. The charity Interpal, which received £536,000 in Gift Aid from the UK government in 2012, is now banned by the US as a “specially designated global terrorist organisation”.
Recently, reporter Harald Doornbos claimed in a series of tweets that, in July 2013 in Turkey he met Basel Ghalyoun, accused in the 2004 Madrid bombings, and Donald Stewart-Whyte, accused in the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot. They had entered Turkey in an aid convoy via a UK charity called Syria Aid (which also received UK government money). Doornbos said jihadis travelling from the UK in this way were a common sight.
One former friend of Raheem’s who travelled to Syria using a charity was Crawley man Waheed Majeed. He had been Omar Bakri’s driver and secretary at the Luton meetings, as well as one of his most devoted followers. Naturally, he was well-known to British intelligence. But this didn’t stop him leaving the country in an aid convoy organised by the charity Children in Deen (yet another recipient of government money).
Majeed joined al-Nusra Front, and in February 2014 he became the first British suicide bomber in Syria, driving a truck filled with explosives into a prison to breach the walls and release his “brothers and sisters” (big, mostly unsuccessful explosion).
According to the pressure group Hope Not Hate, by 2013 approximately 250–300 individuals linked to al-Muhajiroun had travelled to fight in Syria. So it is fair to say that British security services would not have been able to track all of them, given the resource-hunger of 24-hour surveillance.
However, there is evidence some infamous jihadis left the UK with the security services’ knowledge.
Raheem told me that almost every member of Alamgir’s Luton gang was well-known to MI5, whose agents they had personally met many times, knowingly and unknowingly. Yet, when the Luton al-Muhajiroun wanted to leave the country, they didn’t stowaway in an aid convoy. They caught a plane from Luton Airport. Jihadis who travelled this way included Alamgir, Yousaf Bashir and Abu Rahin Aziz. At the airport they would be taken aside and quizzed by intelligence officials. They would tell the intelligence officers that they were leaving to carry out humanitarian work. Given the infamy of characters like Alamgir, who had been known to MI5 for over a decade, the intelligence officers could not have believed the men were leaving for any other reason than the propagation of jihad. Yet, they allowed them to board the planes and travel on to destinations like Lebanon (to visit Bakri) and Syria (to help Isis).
Travel to Libya also seemed to be fair game. A Middle Eastern Eye report suggests MI5 officers personally approved jihadis to leave the UK to fight Gaddafi. The news site’s journalists interviewed several British Muslims who had been MI5 surveillance targets. One such man, Belal Younis, said that as he returned from Libya in early 2011, he was stopped at the airport, and quizzed by MI5 agents. One of them asked: “Are you willing to go into battle?” While Younis struggled to find an answer, the agent told him the British government had no problem with people fighting against Gaddafi.
Then, in May 2011, as Younis prepared to return to Libya, he was approached by two MI5 agents who told him that if he was going to fight he would be committing a crime. Younis provided them with the details of the MI5 agent he had previously spoken to and, after a quick phone call, Younis was waved through. As he waited to board the plane, the MI5 officer called him to tell him that he had “sorted it out”.
Younis’ story is echoed by several others, most of whom belonged to the LIFG, the al-Qaeda affiliate led by Sami al-Saadi (who may have been Luton’s “Abu Munthir”), and allegedly funded in 1996 by MI6 in order to assassinate Gaddafi. As previously mentioned, MI6 illegally sent al-Saadi to Libya in 2004 to be tortured by Gaddafi’s men. But one member of al-Saadi’s group, who was allowed to travel back and forth to Libya many times, was Salman Abedi, who would later carry out the 2017 Manchester suicide bombing.
It wasn’t just jihadi training camps that UK radicals were able to attend. In November 2012, Anjem Choudary was allowed by MI5 to lead a congregation of al-Muhajiroun to Pakistan’s nightmarish Red Mosque, a powerful centre of Deobandi jihadist thought that has a library named after bin Laden, its own army of terrorists and stick-wielding “sisters”, and enough political clout to rebuff the Pakistani government’s efforts to close it down.
Choudary ostensibly visited the mosque to issue a fatwa against activist Malala Yousafzai, but in reality, no one at the mosque took his fatwa seriously, as he is not a religious scholar. The real reason for Choudary’s visit was likely to promote his new affiliate, Sharia4Pakistan, and meet with members of the mosque who were secretly sending funds and men to al-Nusra Front in Syria. It appears Choudary wanted to use the Red Mosque as an intermediary through which he could send his own funds and men from the UK to Syria. Spokesmen for the Red Mosque ostensibly distanced themselves from Choudary, but what went on behind closed doors is unknown.
Although Choudary was focused on high-profile foreign visits and media appearances, his organisation hadn’t forgotten about the streets of Britain. It continued to hold rallies up and down the country, condemning the West, raising awareness about Syria, and calling for a new caliphate. By now, Alamgir had perfected both his rhetoric and his delivery, becoming al-Muhajiroun’s most incendiary orator.
In May 2013, Choudary organised two major demonstrations in Central London to raise awareness about Syria. One was on Edgware Road in protest at its predominantly Shia population (Assad’s government is also predominantly Shia). Another demonstration, a few days later, was held on Oxford Street to relay the plight of Syrian Sunnis to as many people as possible. As usual, both demonstrations ended in violence, and the jihadis — including Alamgir and his closest friends — were arrested.
However, while on bail, several members of the group were somehow able to leave the UK. Mirza Tariq Ali, a rogue NHS surgeon who beat a man bloody with a placard pole at the Edgware Road rally, managed to travel to Pakistan and join the jihadi group Jamaat ul-Ahrar. He edited the group’s magazine and became best friends with notorious Malala-shooter Ehsanullah Ehsan.
Following Ali’s departure, three Luton members of the gang who were also on bail — Abu Rahin Aziz, Qadeer Ahmed and Yousaf Bashir — were able to leave the country for Syria. Aziz, a heart-on-sleeve father of four who loved poetry and stabbed a man in the eye at the Oxford Street rally, was well-known to MI5 due to his involvement in al-Muhajiroun propaganda and fundraising. In March 2014, while awaiting trial for the eye-stabbing, and under surveillance for suspected terror links, he caught a plane from Luton Airport to Amsterdam, then another to Turkey, crossing the border by foot into Syria.
While Ahmed and Bashir later returned to the UK (without being rearrested), Aziz stayed in Syria so that he could become an Isis bomb-maker, and is believed to have trained with Abdelhamid Abaaoud as the Belgian prepared for the November 2015 Paris attacks. Aziz also became good friends with Denis Cuspert (aka Deso Dogg), the German rapper-turned-jihadi who seduced his FBI investigator Daniela Greene so that she betrayed her country and ended up marrying him.
At this time, many other al-Muhajiroun members had fled the UK for Syria while on bail, subject to a control order, or under investigation: They included Reyaad Khan, the baby-faced bomb-maker involved in seven different UK terror plots; Junaid Hussain (aka TriCk), the jihadi computer hacker who doxed Tony Blair; Hussain’s wife Sally Jones, the ex-punk-rocker who led a battalion of European female terrorists; and Mohammed Emwazi, the former rapper who would later become the Isis executioner known as Jihadi John.
Throughout this time, the group’s leader Anjem Choudary continued to be allowed to travel abroad. On one occasion, Choudary boarded a flight to Indonesia with his right-hand man Abu Izzadeen to help create a new affiliate, Sharia4Indonesia. On his return to the UK, he even bragged about what he had done on social media.
These al-Muhajiroun figures I’ve mentioned who left the UK were all known to MI5 as serious threats before they fled. All of which leads one to wonder, why were UK security services so lax about letting them go? While in some cases there were few (if any) legal grounds to stop them, many had violated their bail conditions and/or control orders and thus were clearly breaking the law.
So, were the police and MI5 just ineffectual, or had the Covenant of Security really been re-established?
XX — RISE IN THE EAST, FALL IN THE WEST
After April 2013, there was a huge surge in the number of Western European jihadis entering Syria. They were flocking to a new cause.
The Islamic State of Iraq — the terror group of the ultra-violent Sheikh of the Slaughterers Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — had subsumed several Syrian jihadi groups and taken over large swathes of Iraq and Syria, forming a proto-caliphate that straddled both countries. It now called itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, but soon became known as Isis.
In accordance with the extreme takfiri brutality of al-Zarqawi, the group quickly conquered land through indiscriminate killing. Such was its disregard for life that even the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, declared it illegitimate.
Back in the UK, al-Muhajiroun faced a choice: to follow the lead of al-Qaeda, which had been its main partner for nearly two decades; or to take the side of this new upstart group, Isis, which was sweeping to victory in Iraq and Syria.
Toward the end of summer, the leaders of the UK branches of al-Muhajiroun attended several meetings in London, including some at Anjem Choudary’s base of operations, the Yummy Yummy sweet shop in Whitechapel.
These meetings were high-level — supreme leader Omar Bakri himself attended some via video-link from Lebanon. The purpose was to ascertain whether Isis was more worthy of al-Muhajiroun’s support than al-Qaeda.
The members had been taken aback by Isis’s vertiginous ascent. The audacity, the sensationalism, the outrageousness of Isis’s conquest eclipsed anything al-Qaeda had achieved since 9/11. It captured the imaginations of Bakri and his disciples. But Isis also held a deeper meaning for them.
Al-Muhajiroun: “the Emigrants”. Al-Ghurabaa: “the Strangers”. Bakri’s group was ultimately a band of vagrants, misfits who felt deracinated, exiles from an imagined Eden. Al-Qaeda, too, were always hiding or on the run. The Islamic State, on the other hand, that was not a band of wanderers. That was a home.
The utopia they had sought was no longer just a dream.
Raheem says that it was about this time that he started having doubts about the jihadi worldview. He had always considered terrorism as a necessary evil, to be used only when traditional methods of communication failed. But now he was hearing stories about Isis burying entire families alive for not believing exactly as they believed, and he saw that his al-Muhajiroun friends had no problem with it. He realised there was an irreconcilable gulf between himself and them, leading to his gradual withdrawal from the group.
On 1 October 2013, Bakri officially declared support for Isis. The UK leaders also declared support for the proto-caliphate, but only in private, likely because they didn’t want to antagonise their old al-Qaeda associates.
Despite Anjem Choudary’s unwillingness to openly endorse Isis, he and his organisation publicly hinted at where their allegiance lay. In April 2014 he organised a rally in London during which al-Muhajiroun members held placards with small-print that read “Islamic State Is Solution.” The initial letter of each word was darkened so that they formed the word “Isis”.
On June 16 2014, the UK government banned Isis, making any public show of support for it a crime.
But al-Muhajiroun was not fazed by this, as it had been skirting the law for nearly two decades. The deputy leader of the London branch, Mizanur Rahman, said:
“There is always cat and mouse going on with the media and the police. We know the law very well and know how to speak the truth while staying on the safe side of the line.”
On 29 June, the leader of Isis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, formally proclaimed his Islamic State a global caliphate, with authority over all Muslims.
Muslim leaders across the UK, including Latif in Luton, scoffed at the claim.
The Luton al-Muhajiroun, on the other hand, were eager to pledge their loyalty to the new caliphate. They asked Alamgir to answer Baghdadi’s proclamation with a formal oath of allegiance, but he didn’t feel he had the authority. He called Choudary and urged him to declare al-Muhajiroun’s support for Isis.
Alamgir’s request was soon echoed by Choudary’s other lieutenants, most notably Abu Rumaysah. Born Siddhartha Dhar, he was a Hindu convert to Islam who had disowned his own mother after she refused to become Muslim. By day he provided good deals on bouncy castles for parties. By night he prowled the streets as an ambassador of the apocalypse.
Rumaysah was desperate for al-Muhajiroun to declare support for the new caliphate. He sent Choudary a WhatsApp message, stating: “Sheikh, ur words would be gold on Twitter. A lot of Muslims saying all sorts.”
Choudary’s wife, Rubana Akhtar, soon joined in the requests for a response, stating in a Whatsapp message to her husband: “It’s haram [forbidden] to spend more than three nights without giving bayah [swearing allegiance] once it has been announced.”
Choudary was put in an awkward position: to declare his love for Isis, and risk prosecution; or remain silent and risk eternal hellfire.
On 3 July, Choudary called a meeting of senior al-Muhajiroun members in a London curry house, Hayfield Masala, where they discussed how to formally swear allegiance to the new caliphate without breaking the law.
They apparently decided that if they simply called Isis “Islamic State”, they could pretend that they were referring to a generic potential Islamic State rather than the banned jihadi terror group. At the end of the meeting, Choudary and his friends swore an informal oath of allegiance to Isis.
Four days later, on the ominous date of 7 July, an official oath of allegiance to Isis appeared on the jihadi website AlMustaqbal.net. It was signed with the kunyas (Arabic names) of Choudary and his deputy Mizanur Rahman. It was also signed by Abu Yahya (head of al-Muhajiroun’s Indonesian branch), and Omar Bakri.
Police now had grounds to charge Choudary with a crime: inviting support for a proscribed organisation. But they held off for a while, believing that doing so would allow them to build a stronger case for prosecution.
In August 2014, Junaid “TriCK” Hussain, the notorious jihadi computer hacker who had earlier fled the UK for Syria, began to head a team tasked with organising Isis’s online operations wing, known as “CyberCaliphate”. Now calling himself Abu Hussain al-Britani, he contacted his old al-Muhajiroun friends back in the UK and encouraged them to establish communications with Isis using the encrypted app Telegram.
On 12 September, al-Muhajiroun members attended an event in London organised by Choudary, in which he and his deputies publicly declared their support for an “Islamic State”, and encouraged others to do so.
Police had wanted to build a stronger case against Choudary, but finally decided they couldn’t continue to let the hate-preacher brainwash young Muslims. After several days of preparations, they launched raids on the homes of Choudary and his chief London associates, arresting them for inviting support for a proscribed organisation.
The arrests included some of the most senior members of al-Muhajiroun in London — Mizanur Rahman, Abu Izzadeen, and Abu Rumaysah — all of whom had attended Choudary’s curry house meeting.
A week after the arrests, Rumaysah, the former bouncy castle salesman, became the latest in a long line of jihadis to skip bail and flee the UK, taking a coach from Victoria Station along with his pregnant wife and four children. In 2015, he would replace the dead Mohammed Emwazi as Isis’s top executioner, earning the name “Jihadi Sid”.
Shortly after Rumaysah’s departure, another figure arrested in the police raids, Abu Izzadeen, also left the country, along with fellow al-Muhajiroun member Sulayman Keeler. They had both been on notification orders due to past convictions, but somehow managed to sneak abroad. Fortunately, they were stopped in Hungary while attempting to travel to Romania, presumably in an effort to get to Syria. When asked for ID, Izzadeen presented his Qur’an. The pair were deported back to the UK, and jailed for two years.
Unlike many of his associates, Choudary didn’t attempt to flee to Syria. Perhaps he believed he was too widely known to get far, or perhaps he believed Allah would save him. Whatever the case, he decided to spend his time at his home, working on his legal defence.
Meanwhile, in Luton, Alamgir was formulating a dastardly plan.
XXI — THE CHURCH OF ISIS
By a quirk of fate, Alamgir had missed the meeting at Hayfield Masala, and thus escaped the police crackdown on Choudary and his London lieutenants. He was now among al-Muhajiroun’s most senior UK figures. As 2015 dawned, he decided to take a more prominent role in the group’s leadership.
As per hacker Junaid Hussain’s instructions, Alamgir had tasked his close friend Moshiur Rahman with creating and administrating the local gang’s Telegram accounts so they could communicate with Isis. Rahman created several different accounts — some for plotting, some for propaganda. Hussain had convinced them that Telegram couldn’t be hacked, so they used it liberally, sharing brutal videos, hateful propaganda, and even plots.
Using the app, the Luton gang got in touch with their old friends who had fled the UK, like Mirza Tariq Ali, Abu Rumaysah and Abu Rahin Aziz.
Ali’s Taliban splinter group had declared allegiance to Isis, and began sending men, funds and arms from Pakistan to Syria. Ali distributed the group’s propaganda magazine, which he edited, to his UK friends, and encouraged them to join the caliphate. Shortly afterward he was killed in a drone strike.
Meanwhile, Aziz and Rumaysah, who were in Syria, began telling their UK friends inspiring stories about life under Isis, sharing photos that portrayed it as a place of perfect order and camaraderie. Rumaysah even wrote a travel guide for the Islamic State, intended to convince his UK friends to follow in his footsteps. Both Aziz and Rumaysah repeatedly urged Alamgir’s gang to come to Syria, and the gang began making preparations to do so.
Alamgir felt it his duty to encourage his fellow al-Muhajiroun members to join Isis, but he was wary of doing so openly, lest he be arrested like Choudary and his London lieutenants. Alamgir thus held several small meetings with close friends at their homes, and they finally decided to hold special gatherings in Luton, to which only trusted al-Muhajiroun members would be invited.
The gatherings took place during Ramadan in the summer of 2015. They were held at a marquee in the garden of Alamgir’s friend Zaiur Rahman, and at a hire-out Methodist church hall. The gatherings were advertised by word of mouth only, and attended by up to eighty people, including children.
Alamgir and his friends used the meetings to indoctrinate the children and inspire the adults. They gave speeches heralding the End Times, and encouraged attendees to support Isis in any way they could, whether it was by donating money or joining the Islamic State.
In one speech at the church, on June 29, Alamgir proclaimed:
“We know the Khilafah has been established, it’s going to be the last battle, the great battle, that’s going to take place between the believers and the Christians.”
He told them they must get ready to fight. An audience member asked if he meant fighting physically. Alamgir replied: “What do you think I’m talking about? Tickling?”
“I’m taking booty now. I’m at war with them, I’m going to take their wealth, I’m going to take their women, I’m going to take their children, I’m going to take everything off them.”
On July 4, Alamgir received a communication from an unknown female jihadi who told him his close friend Abu Rahin Aziz had “become a green bird”. This is an expression used by Isis to describe a warrior’s death, referring to a hadith about the souls of martyrs transforming into green birds that soar to paradise and nest in the chandeliers that hang from the heavens of heaven.
It soon emerged that Aziz had been “turned into a green bird” by a US drone. The following Monday, on the anniversary of the ninth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings, Alamgir organised another secret gathering, dedicated to Aziz’s memory. Tearfully, he told the audience that Aziz was now at Allah’s side and they should aspire to be like him. Many of the jihadis wept at Aziz’s passing as he had been loved for his perceived big heart and great passion.
Two men who were at this meeting were schizophrenic delivery driver Junead Khan and his conspiracy theorist uncle Shazib. They spent their free time cruising around Luton, discussing the Illuminati, secret Zionist cabals, and Islamic prophecy. Sometimes they would daub jihadi graffiti on walls.
Junead had been considering an attack on the UK for many months, and now decided to go ahead with it as revenge for his hero Aziz. He contacted Junaid Hussain in Syria, and they discussed an attack on a soldier similar to the murder of Lee Rigby.
Khan drove a lorry for a Luton pharmaceuticals firm, TRG Logistics, and he used his job to scout locations for an attack. He blamed Aziz’s death on the US air force, so decided to target RAF Mildenhall which housed US airmen. The plan was to stage a road accident outside the airbase, and then, when soldiers came to help, he would pounce with a combat knife, detonating a pressure-cooker bomb if he got overpowered. He intended to survive, however, and flee to Syria with Shazib.
Fortunately, police quickly became aware of the plot, because they were monitoring the Luton gang in two ways: through GCHQ’s hacking of the Whatsapp and Telegram conversations between Junead Khan and Junaid Hussain, and also through an undercover police officer known only as “Kamal”, who had been embedded with the group for over a year.
Police arrested Junead and Shazib before they could carry out their attack. In Syria, the men they had conspired with — Junaid Hussain and his associate Reyaad Khan — were killed in drone strikes.
A few months later, Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi — whose photos were on Junead’s phone — was also killed in a drone strike.
It was only now that Alamgir and his gang noticed something suspicious: their jihadi friends who had fled the UK while on bail or under investigation — Mirza Tariq Ali, Abu Rahin Aziz, Reyaad Khan, Junaid Hussain, Mohammed Emwazi — all had been located and hit by drone strikes after communicating with UK al-Muhajiroun members.
The Luton al-Muhajiroun began to suspect the real reason it had been so easy for them to flee the UK while on bail. It wasn’t just that British intelligence wanted Assad and Gaddafi deposed — it was that it wanted the jihadis themselves eliminated.
Last year, an al-Muhajiroun member told me what he and his friends believed: MI5 allowed certain jihadis to leave the UK for Syria to join Isis so that GCHQ could track their positions, movements, and Telegram communications and thereby find out who their associates were. MI6 could then arrange for the jihadis to be killed extrajudicially outside the sovereignty of the UK.
Such an operation would have been appealing to British intelligence; many UK jihadis cannot be prosecuted as the information identifying them has been obtained through covert means and is inadmissible in court, or would endanger human sources if disclosed.
A much easier solution would therefore have been to just let them leave the country, track their phones or laptops, and then pass this information to US or Pakistani operations teams, who could kill them without directly incriminating the UK government.
But if this mock Covenant of Security really had been a trap, it was, like the original, about to backfire. A day after Emwazi was killed, France suffered its deadliest ever terrorist attack.
This was a different kind of operation, one that the West was not prepared for. Rather than a simple bomb or knife attack, it was a military assault carried out by three teams of three men, well-trained and well-armed. What made such an attack possible was the ease of international travel for jihadis. Firstly, it allowed terrorists to travel to Syria to be trained in sophisticated high-impact attacks, before returning to Europe to put their learning into practice. Secondly, it allowed the jihadis to access the expertise and resources of jihadis in other European countries, such as the UK.
A few days after the atrocity, French police launched a series of raids in Belgium to kill or capture the chief plotter, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. He and two of his accomplices engaged the police in a firefight, and were riddled with bullets before being blown apart by grenades.
While Belgium was on lockdown, police stormed an Esso petrol station in Bierges, twenty miles south-east of the capital, which had been frequented by Abaaoud’s accomplice Salah Abdeslam. Nearby, they caught six British-Pakistani men who were hiding in three converted-ambulances.
The men were members of al-Muhajiroun.
Within days, MI5 found links between Abaaoud and Alamgir’s gang in Luton. It turned out that Alamgir, Rahin Aziz, and London man Asfor Ali left the UK at least once to help radical cleric Fouad Belkacem expand his al-Muhajiroun affiliate, Sharia4Belgium. Belkacem was a former burglar who was mentored by Anjem Choudary and later became mentor to Abaaoud.
Furthermore, when Aziz later travelled to Syria, he trained with Abaaoud.
Abaaoud and Aziz were now dead. But Alamgir — the man who was now effectively leading al-Muhajiroun in the south-east UK — was still freely preaching hatred in Luton.
After every atrocity, from 9/11 to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Alamgir had loudly proclaimed to locals and media how happy he was. But after the Paris attacks, he kept a low profile, possibly because he had personally known the individuals involved, and didn’t want to be implicated.
Except, by this time police had already built a case against him, due to the undercover operative Kamal, who had now been part of his gang for over 20 months, recording the hateful speeches he and his henchmen gave during their secret Isis-support gatherings.
In December 2015, British police launched a series of raids in Luton and arrested Alamgir and three of his accomplices: Ziaur Rahman, Yousaf Bashir, and Rajib Khan (brother of Junead). Their Maidenhead associate, Mohammed Choudary, was also arrested.
Dozens of others who had attended their secret gatherings were put on watch-lists, and the children who had undergone indoctrination were given special counselling sessions by social services.
In 2016, Choudary, Alamgir, and several of their acolytes were put on trial for supporting Isis. In September 2016, Choudary and his deputy Mizanur Rahman were each jailed for five years. In February 2017, Alamgir was jailed for six, while his henchmen were jailed for between two and five years.
Finally, after a long and arduous game of cat-and-mouse, the UK’s most dangerous hate-preachers were behind bars.
Some Muslims in Luton celebrated. But for many, including Latif, it seemed like too little, too late. The damage had already been done, in the two decades that Alamgir, Choudary and their associates had been allowed to radicalise hundreds of young Muslims in the UK and across the world. The vision they had championed was now solidified into an actual place, and its propaganda was spreading faster than it ever had before.
XXII — THE GHOSTS OF WESTMINSTER
In the four months since Alamgir was jailed, there have been three major terrorist attacks in the UK, two of which had links to Luton.
The first was carried out by Khalid Masood, who had lived for over three years in the town, constantly barraged by Alamgir’s rants.
Last month’s London Bridge attack also had connections to Luton. The ringleader of the terrorists, Khuram Butt, was an al-Muhajiroun member and regular visitor to Luton, often joining Alamgir’s gang during protests and meetings in the town.
These two attacks had something else in common: they were amateur attacks — what al-Muhajiroun call “freelance” — carried out with vehicles and knives.
Attacks like this are difficult to sniff out by security services; they epitomise Mustafa Nasar’s philosophy of leaderless resistance, with the whole conspiracy being contained to a small group (as in London Bridge) or ideally to a single person’s head (as in Westminster). Thus, there are few if any communications to intercept, and few links in the chain to break.
Fortunately, the simplicity of amateur terrorist cells also limits the damage they can do, at least relative to “professional” terrorists (those who are trained in jihad camps abroad and then orchestrate well-planned attacks using explosives or other sophisticated weaponry).
As we have seen, the UK’s four biggest terror plots were all hatched by professionals who were trained in foreign camps as part of international networks due to the ill-conceived Covenant of Security.
Dhiren Barot, who trained in Kashmir, Yemen and Afghanistan, oversaw the 2004 dirty bomb plot. Omar Khyam, who trained at Malakand and other camps in Pakistan, oversaw the fertiliser bomb plot. Mohammed Sidique Khan, who also trained at Malakand, led the 7/7 bombers. Abdulla Ahmed Ali, another veteran of Pakistani jihad camps, oversaw the 2006 transatlantic flight plot.
Further, the perpetrator of last month’s Manchester bombing, Salman Abedi, was repeatedly allowed to travel to and from jihad camps in Syria and Libya, despite being reported to police by several locals that he was a terror threat. He even travelled to Libya a month before his attack, buying parts for his nail bomb before building it on his return (if Belal Younis’ story is true, Abedi may have travelled with MI5’s consent).
So, how do we stop the next Manchester?
Firstly, the intelligence services should never again use UK jihadis to destabilise foreign governments. The current state of Luton as an extremist hotbed should be the only lesson needed to show that allowing one’s own citizens to be radicalised in order to foster insurgencies abroad will inevitably result in insurgencies at home.
It is probable that the intelligence services would have learned this by now. So, assuming they now want to stop suspected jihadis leaving or entering the country, do they have the legal power to do so?
The government does currently have laws to dissuade citizens from joining foreign terror camps. If someone is suspected of travelling abroad to engage in terrorism, police can seize passports for up to 30 days while the individual is investigated further. In addition, British citizens suspected of involvement in terrorism overseas can be banned from returning for at least two years.
These laws do get enforced; former foreign secretary Philip Hammond said that approximately 600 UK jihadis have been arrested for trying to join Isis and other terror groups in Syria. They include Abu Rumaysah’s sister-in-law, Zahera Tariq, who was arrested at Luton airport in 2015.
However, in order to deploy such powers, the police first need to be aware of the threat. In many cases, jihadis do not leave the country via the airport, but by stowing away on a convoy operating through dummy charities, completely unbeknownst to authorities.
There therefore needs to be a crackdown on these charities; ideally, new legislation forcing them to provide full transparency of their operations or risk being closed down. The police can start with the government-funded charities I have already named in this report.
Yet, even stopping jihadis from leaving the country is not enough. The UK is already home to thousands of young Muslims who trained at camps abroad. Approximately 850 UK jihadis travelled to Syria between 2011 and 2016 for indoctrination and training at terrorist camps. At least 350 of these have now returned. This is not to mention the thousands of other UK jihadis who were allowed to travel to and return from jihadi training camps in places like Kashmir, Afghanistan, Libya and Chechnya over the past twenty years.
To make matters worse, many more jihadis will try to return to the UK when Isis’s caliphate collapses, as it is eventually bound to do.
The solid is currently under great duress, and cracking. When it breaks it will bleed jihadis, many of them returning to their countries of origin. To effectively stem the flow of this “liquid”, security services will need to make full use of both manpower and legal power. Three strategies will be required: firstly, banning the most dangerous individuals from entering the country; secondly, ensuring the ban is enforced through effective policing of borders; and thirdly, ensuring proper surveillance of any individuals who can’t be legally banned from the country but are suspected of being a threat.
Now, while border control can stem the liquid form of Isis, and military might can break up the solid form, neither approach can help against the gaseous form — ideology — which is the essence of al-Muhajiroun.
Nothing we can do can prevent a UK citizen being exposed to jihadi ideas, and then using a car or kitchen knife as a weapon. Thus, since we cannot make all terrorists unable to carry out attacks, we must try to make them unwilling.
We should listen to the grievances of angry young Muslims, but also recognise that many of them will remain aggrieved for as long as there remains a single person who is not subjugated to Islamist totalitarianism. If we were to give all of Israel to Palestine, all of Kashmir to Pakistan, all of the North Caucasus to Chechnya, many young jihadis in Luton would still want to destroy us. (I once met a jihadi who was angry because of a local 2-for-1 sale on pork sausages.)
So what do we do? Do we try to dismantle the arguments of the jihadis rationally? I and many others have tried it, to little avail, because the ideology is built on faith and feeling, and therefore unamenable to logic. Reason may be useful against those who already have doubts, but against dyed-in-the-wool jihadis it would be as effective as against someone who has fallen in love.
The only option, then, is to fight the emotional pull of the ideology, by destroying the glamour of jihadism itself.
Bakri, Hamza, and Choudary were not particularly charismatic figures, but the media’s obsession with them legitimised them and turned them into loci around which die-hard cults could form.
On the streets of Luton, Alamgir was allowed to portray himself as God’s messenger, and to twist the truth unopposed for over a decade. He lied about the recession, about the wars in the Middle East, about Prevent, and about the police’s treatment of Muslim women — and no one really challenged him.
Figures like these are the foundation on which jihadism is built. Jailing them is necessary to stop them continuing to proselytise, but the UK’s legal structure means that hate-preachers, despite the danger they pose, can usually not be jailed for very long. Choudary will likely be released next year, and Alamgir in 2020.
But even if we could jail them forever — even if we could kill them — we still wouldn’t be able to fully neutralise them; Anwar al-Awlaki continues to radicalise thousands online, despite being dead for six years.
What would be far more damaging to these hate-preachers than jailing or killing them would be to destroy their charisma, by exposing them for the charlatans they are. Anjem Choudary warned of the apocalypse from a sweet shop called Yummy Yummy, Abu Rumaysah used to lease bouncy-castles for a living, Abu Hamza used to work in a strip club, Omar Bakri once begged social services not to take his welfare payments away, Alamgir — “The Sword of Islam” — screamed and ran when confronted by Latif’s friends on Biscot Road.
Facts like these, if emphasised enough, could help show angry young Muslims that the men they believe have all the answers are really just as confused and vulnerable as everyone else. A culture of mockery may lead to some being offended, but it has always been the best vaccine against totalitarianism.
So, is destroying the character of hate-preachers enough? No; disillusionment creates an ideological vacuum in the minds of the disillusioned. We would need to fill that vacuum with something that angry young Muslims can invest themselves in emotionally. The ideal would be for them to embrace a kind of civic nationalism along with the rest of us. But Bury Park’s young Muslims have a deep hatred toward the West due to its foreign policy. This hatred will not be easily washed away, even if we find a cure for religious fundamentalism (Raheem told me he is no longer particularly religious, but he will always hate the government for its crimes against Muslims).
The unfortunate truth is that Bury Park’s young Muslims do not trust the government, and probably never will. The most fruitful option, then, would be to allow deradicalisation projects to be led by those they can trust: quietist Salafi preachers like Latif. Sure, they may hold some views that the rest of us strongly disagree with, but the fact remains that their moderately anti-Western perspective can help them “break the ice” with budding jihadis, and through their theological understanding they can best light the path to a more peaceful field of Islam. If angry young Muslims can be encouraged by men like Latif to express their religion serenely, and their grievances politically, they might not feel the need to express them violently.
These are all short to mid-term goals. In the long-term, Islamist terrorism is doomed to diminishing returns, and finally, apathy.
During my last conversation with Raheem, he digresses from Western foreign policy to mention his son’s favourite computer game, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. He smiles as he confesses how much fun it is.
He is not the only one struggling to resist Western life; Luton’s al-Muhajiroun street stalls have been put out of business by a changing public mood, forcing the jihadis to focus on recruiting online. The town’s most senior surviving jihadi, Moshiur Rahman, now uses the online nom de guerre “Abdulrahman Muhajir”, under which he runs an encrypted Isis Telegram channel called the “Tawheed Network”. He also has an Instagram page from which he subtly spreads his ideology with photos of Bakri and snippets of scriptural vitriol. But, increasingly, he can’t resist contaminating his propaganda with joke memes and images of chocolate sundaes.
And this will be how jihadism finally dies. Not on the battlefield, or in the arena of debate, but on our electronic screens, drowned in a cacophony of memes, LOLs, targeted ads, and other weapons of mass distraction.
Or at least we can hope.