Terror in the UK - Hizb ut-Tahrir sells itself as a community group. Its members become part of a viral network spreading word of a holy struggle. Shiv Malik talks to one of its recruiters
While the growth and operation of terrorist cells in the UK remain largely unknown, the growth of extreme Islamist organisations in Britain has been obvious. After the bombings in London on 7 July, the New Statesman made contact with a former member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Walid - not his real name: he did not want to be identified - recently quit the party. During the past five years, he has worked as a recruiter across the north of England, including work in the Leeds area. Like many recruits to Hizb ut-Tahrir (Hizb for short), he is highly educated. Recruited while still at university, he soon began running workshops and distributing leaflets. Walid says that on a number of occasions he leafleted the Leeds Grand Mosque, the same mosque where it is likely that one of the London bombers would have prayed. "The manner in which recruitment is done is pretty aggressive," he says. Hizb has also begun using new methods in its push to recruit the young. "There is a kind of reinvigoration of the idea that it's the youth who really need to be targeted."
Hizb is banned in countries throughout the world including Germany and Holland, but in Britain, where the group's world communications hub is located, it operates with impunity. Officially Hizb denounces violence, and there is no evidence to suggest this stance would ever change. Walid says that if you approached the group saying you wanted to carry out a suicide bombing "they would dissuade you". However, there is reason to believe that Hizb acts as a conveyor belt for terrorism: in other words, members of Hizb take their intellectual indoctrination with them and graduate to other, even more extreme UK groups that do condone violence, such as al-Muhajiroun, which was supposedly dissolved last September, but is still active.
Walid says that the UK contains "enough radical preachers who offer a violent vision", and makes the point that the British would-be bomber Omar Sharif, the 27-year-old from Derby who tried to help blow up a pub in Tel Aviv in 2003, graduated from reading Hizb literature to joining al-Muhajiroun, and then attempted his suicide mission. Hizb is the largest extreme Islamist group in Britain, but exact numbers have been hard to obtain. Walid says that, as far as he is aware, the organisation has between 2,000 and 3,000 members in the UK.
Hizb's actions and recruitment methods give a telling insight into how the four most recent British-born suicide bombers might have also come to be recruited. There is no typical recruit to Hizb, says Walid. The profiling of those who commit terrorist acts as middle class and well educated does not match up to his experience as a recruiter in the north. That is just a "media red herring". "The majority of members in Leeds and Bradford, for example, were not professional: it was mainly guys who were either unemployed or never received a university education, and who probably hadn't even done A-levels," he says.
Walid finds it "shocking and scary" that the London bombers lived in the Pakistani community in Britain. So why do young British Muslims join such groups? The former recruitment man cites a number of factors. First is the way in which Muslim clerics in this country, who are mostly foreign-born, fail to engage with British Muslims. These imams are, as he put it, "disconnected from the challenges of growing up in modern British society". "They were brought up to parrot-learn the Koran. And they discuss things like the correct manner to perfect your prayer. It doesn't resonate with the youth."
Radical Islamist parties are far more in touch with the issues that affect second- and third-generation British Muslims. It's an open goal, one into which radical groups have been scoring time and time again. They don't enforce "orthodoxy", such as dress codes, long beards and prayer five times a day. "They can talk to you on your own terms and in your own lingo," Walid says. "It offers an alternative to the mosques, which are, as I say, disconnected." Such groups also generally have a women's wing, which also adds to their image of being modern and inclusive.
He says the solution that they offer - a return to a wider political Islamic state known as the caliphate - is another attraction, holding promise and acting as a "tangible goal", which members are always made to believe is "on the horizon". They also play upon the idea that the worldwide Muslim community or Umma is a whole; thus, by joining Hizb, members will be directly helping to solve the problems of the Muslim world.
"Groups like Hizb have really cultivated this idea of the Muslims being one body, this idea of the Umma. I think that dynamic is very, very, important. It feeds the groups by allowing them to make you feel as though you are taking active, individual involvement . . . to alleviate the suffering of Muslims.
"The rhetoric of these groups is loaded and is very militant sometimes . . . They will say, 'Work for the caliphate. The caliphate is the one that will restore honour to your mothers and your sisters.' Or 'it's the caliphate that will bring the criminals' - as in Bush and Blair - 'to account'," Walid says.
But radical Islamist parties don't recruit in a bubble. Hizb holds recruitment meetings and reading circles around the country, from Essex to Edinburgh. Their methods at meetings are very personal and direct. "If you came to the meeting I'd try to win you over," Walid explains. "Say for example that you're having a marriage breakdown. I'll use that: 'Your wife is leaving you because of problems that stem from the fact that Islam isn't present in the world today.'"
Hizb has also started to employ new tactics in order to raise the group's profile. For example, Walid says that recently the Muslim community in Stoke was worried about a shop selling pornographic material opening up in the area. He says that Hizb members pushed themselves to the front of the protest campaign. The idea is to gain status in the community. Walid says members of the local group use this increased prestige "as a springboard to win new recruits". Even if this does not happen, members will at least win "active support for its ideas".
Hizb has begun to use other novel methods in its push to recruit the young. Walid described how the party has set up Muslim football tournaments, the aim of which is to preserve religious identity and make the young more susceptible to the message.
"It shows Muslim youth that you can follow Islam right - so you can pray five times a day, but at the same time you can play football and lead a normal life. When you play football you do so within kind of Islamic etiquette - so you don't swear, for example. And you do so in a kind of atmosphere of mutual brotherhood. But of course all of this is designed to turn these guys into future members."
In its attempt to avoid watchful council authorities and the ban by the National Union of Students on Hizb activities in universities, the group books rooms under mild-sounding aliases such as "youth forum". Once it has got permission, it goes ahead with a full-scale event.
And that is the problem. Hizb is a group of intelligent manipulators who are used to competing for recruits against other radical Islamist organisations. It is not easy for ordinary Muslims to combat them, but are they doing anything at all? The New Statesman can also reveal that al-Muhajiroun, an Islamist group that condones violence and advocates the overthrow of western governments, is still operating openly in Derby despite having been officially disbanded eight months ago. Abdullah, a member of al-Muhajiroun, told me: "Yeah, we still meet and I have a stall on Normanton Road on Saturdays."
Abdullah knew Omar Sharif as a fellow member based in Derby. Was there any communal involvement in what he tried to do? "There's some support in Derby. I think when people commit martyrdom operations to attack the enemy, this is the only method they have." I asked him, as we stood outside the city's main mosque, what he thought of the London bombings.
"When you enter a country, you enter into a covenant with the country. You have to abide by the law of the land," Abdullah said. "But someone could also have come from outside this country. If someone came from Iraq - what then?
"This country has been asking for it. Like George Galloway says, if you go and attack people indiscriminately, you're going to pay the price for it. I don't care who you are."
As I leave in my car Abdullah waves me off. And he stays on the pavement, chatting to a group of teenagers.
This article first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current and cultural affairs subscribe to the New Statesman print edition.
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