Criminal Gangs in London use Islam to intimidate victims - force members to convert at gunpoint
July 7, 2005
Hoodlums in south London are calling themselves Muslim Boys to pretend they have links with global terrorismRosie Cowan, crime correspondent
Monday March 7, 2005
GuardianTeenage criminal gangs in south London are calling themselves the Muslim Boys and claiming to espouse Islam in an attempt to gain street credibility and trade on false perceptions about links to terrorists.
The gangs, who specialise in robbing local drug dealers, are alleged to have forced some members to convert at gunpoint and to pray before going out to commit crimes.
Community leaders are worried about escalating violence and the number of young with access to high-calibre guns.
But Metropolitan police chiefs and Muslim leaders say the youths have no genuine Islamic affiliations, nor any associations with al-Qaida linked groups.
Police chiefs say most belong to existing gangs inspired by black American ghetto culture and are using the Muslim tag because they think it is a new way to strike fear in the community. They also believe it will get them better treatment and nicer food in prison.
Many gang members have access to automatic and semi-automatic weapons and Detective Chief Superintendent John Coles, who heads Operation Trident, the Scotland Yard unit that targets gun crime in the black community, thinks they are responsible for several murders, attempted murders, and a series of robberies in the past few months.
Tarique Ghaffur, the assistant commissioner in charge of the Met's serious crime division, said the issue was causing community tension and Muslims were concerned about intimidation if it was not tackled swiftly.
"My priority is to sort out these thugs and reassure people that we will take a collective approach to ensuring no community is stigmatised," he said.
"I would love to give these thugs an Islamic knowledge test. I doubt many would pass."
Muslim Boys is the name used by between 50 and 100 members of several gangs in neighbourhoods around Brixton, Peckham, Lambeth, and Streatham, in south London. Most are in their late teens or early 20s and belong to gangs such as Peelden, the Stockwell Crew, the SMS (South Man Syndicate) and PDC (Poverty Driven Children).
They talk in slang, much of it derived from black American rap music, place great store on having guns, and live by a code, where showing disrespect to a fellow gang member could be enough to get your head blown off.
The gang leaders are usually childhood friends, brought up in some of London's poorest areas. Some move from house to house on an almost nightly basis, making it hard to keep tabs on them.
Police say the youths are far from organised criminal masterminds. But their shootings and thefts can spark off violent feuds, wreaking havoc in their communities.
"They began using the name Muslim Boys as a macho thing," said Mr Coles. "One or two might have converted to Islam. But it's nothing to do with religion, or terrorism. As far as I'm concerned they're the same thugs, engaged in the same crimes, whatever they can do to make money.
The Trident chief said at least 20 "hardcore" gang members had been jailed, but another 20 or so were still on the streets, plus an indefinite number of hangers-on.
Intelligence leads have improved so much in the past few years that his team had a fair idea who was behind a murder within 24 hours. It was still a "struggle" to get local people to testify, such was their fear of reprisals. But more were now coming forward.
Gun murders in the black community and overall gun crime in London is falling. But another Trident detective said it was a miracle more people hadn't been killed as some gang members were inept at handling powerful guns.
"They have all kinds of weapons, machine guns, 9mm, real and converted replicas," said the detective, who did not want his name published.
"A lot are deactivated guns shipped in from the Balkans and then reactivated here. But a lot of [gang members] can't shoot, they don't know what they're doing.
"One guy let off a machine gun, riddling a car with bullets. One bullet went right through the door and roof of another passing car, narrowly missing the driver. In a lot of incidents, it's amazing nobody died."
Toaha Qureshi, who chairs the Lambeth Muslim Forum and runs a multicultural youth project in Stockwell, south London, was aware of local gangs "camouflaging themselves in the banner of Islam" and feared they would try to infiltrate mosques to corrupt young Muslims. He said people wishing to convert to Islam should be questioned about their motivation and undergo rigorous tests. Criminals should not be tolerated.
"Since 9/11 Muslims are under tremendous pressure. Young people are disaffected and it is up to the statutory agencies and community leaders to divert them into worthwhile employment and projects," he said.