Once glibly described as the "Tottenham Ayatollah" and often portrayed as a figure of fun, the radical Islamist preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed has an increasingly strong claim to the title of the godfather of British terrorism.
It is becoming clear that al-Muhajiroun (ALM), the group formed by Bakri in London less than a decade ago, has played a pivotal role in radicalising young Britons who have gone on to wreak terror in Britain and across the world.
The Sunday Times has identified more than a dozen members of ALM who have taken part in suicide bombings or have become close to Al-Qaeda and its support network. It has also established that:
At least one of the bombers who killed himself and six other people in the Edgware Road Underground blast two weeks ago associated with ALM acolytes in Britain and Pakistan.
British-born ALM recruits have travelled abroad to commit suicide bombings and other terrorist acts in Pakistan and Israel.
ALM money raised in Britain supported military training camps in Pakistan and Kashmir.
British-based ALM members have been responsible for assaults on police and an attack on an army base in Britain.
Like other British radicals, Bakri has long been regarded as little more than a loudmouth by parts of the British media and the intelligence services. With his sidekicks Anjem Choudhury, leader of ALM, and Hassan Butt, Bakri has been seen more as an irritant than a threat.
The authorities may have been lulled into a false sense of security because Bakri, who acts as ALM's spiritual leader, insisted that his followers obey a "covenant of security" which, while encouraging terror abroad, forbade them from carrying out attacks in Britain.
Seven days after the September 11 attacks Bakri issued a fatwa (religious ruling) containing a death threat against President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. Last week, in an address to the nation about the London bombings, Musharraf referred to it with indignation.
"There are extremist organisations in the United Kingdom — Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun — who operate with full impunity," he said. "They had the audacity to pass an edict against my life . . . I know that they also give sermons of hate, anger and violence. Therefore I would like to say that there is a lot to be done by Pakistan and may I suggest that there is a lot to be done in England also."
M J Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Institute agrees. "Al-Muhajiroun is involved in the softening up process, preparing and indoctrinating people so that they are susceptible when the Al-Qaeda recruiter comes along," he said.
Last November Bakri announced that ALM was disbanding. Three months later he said the "covenant of security" was no longer in force. Experts note that the London bombings followed four months later.
A Sunday Times investigation shows that long before the bombings ALM supporters had built a reputation for violence and religious intolerance. Among its members are:
Abdul Rahman Saleem, known as Abu Yahya, who admitted undergoing military training in Afghanistan and to recruiting Britons to be trained abroad.
Sulayman Keeler, who was imprisoned for 28 days for assaulting a police officer at a demonstration outside Downing Street.
Amer Mirza, who was sentenced to six months for petrol bombing a Territorial Army base in west London.
More worrying is the number of ALM members associated with violence abroad. One journalist who visited an ALM safe house in Lahore before the authorities closed it said that recruits from Britain referred to Indians as "subhumans" and were violently opposed to homosexuals and Jews.
The house was run by Sajeel Shahid, known as Abu Ibrahim, who holds a computer science degree from Manchester. In January he was freed after three months in jail and expelled from Pakistan for his alleged support of Al-Qaeda.
Back in London, Shahid told an Arabic newspaper that he was a close friend of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, a computer expert now in a Pakistani prison, who planned to launch a bombing campaign in London. The plot was foiled when the London cell was arrested last year.
One of those who passed through the house is Bilal Mohammed from Birmingham, who in 2001 blew himself up in an attack on an Indian barracks in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Others in Pakistan with close links to ALM include Zeeshan Siddiqui, from Hounslow, west London, who is thought to have been in contact with the London suicide bombers. He was arrested in Pakistan in May. Siddiqui was also a close friend of Asif Hanif, one of two British-born suicide bombers who attacked Mike's Place in Tel Aviv in 2003, killing three and injuring 60. Hanif, too, was an ALM member.
MIM:This Muslim News item about a documentary on the activities of Omar Bakri Mohammed was written in 1997 and attests that Al Muhajioun has been carrying on their activities with impunity for nearly a decade in the UK. Makbool Javaid a lawyer an head of the Muslim Lawyers Association is himself a member of Al Muhajiroun.
‘Tottenham Ayatollah' was the title of the Channel 4 documentary about a year in the life of Omar Bakri Mohammed, leader of the Islamist group, Al-Muhajiroun. The documentary was shown on Tuesday, 8 April, and so reports of the programme on or before that date are in fact, previews. Omar Bakri Mohammed had news of the previews of the programme and had contacted the press to protest about the content of the documentary, as well as the way in which the research was carried out and had made his views know on the Internet (see BMMS for September 1996; February and March 1997). Asian Age (09.04.97) reported that, even before the broadcast, Omar Bakri Mohammed had threatened to sue Channel 4 and in a letter to the producers, dated 7 April, his supporters state: "The programme is nothing more than a vicious attack on Islam and Muslims in general and Sheikh Omar in particular. It is part of the Islamophobia trend we have witnessed in recent years". On 10 April the Asian Times quoted Makbool Javaid, chair of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, who tried unsuccessfully to prevent the programme being shown: "The general thrust of the programme was the demonisation of Omar Bakri, and not the representation of his Islamic principles and ideology, as he was led to believe". The article continues: "Sheikh Bakri, whose views on women, homosexuals and western society, have already caused public controversy in the past, said: ‘This film only serves to incite more controversy and animosity between Muslims and Jews, and even among Muslims themselves. I have no alternative but to sue'". The broadsheets (Times, 09.04.97, Scotsman, 09.04.97, Daily Telegraph,09.04.97, Independent, 09.04.97, Scotland on Sunday, 13.04.97, Observer, 13.04.97) tend to review the programme and Sheikh Omar's reactions to it as part of their usual television reviews and so praise the entertainment value of the documentary. Tabloids and most local papers, however, report on what they see as political and historical facts revealed by the programme. Papers local to Crawley, such as the Crawley Observer (16.04.97) and Crawley News (09.04.97), report that the local council have cancelled the lease of a hut rented out to al-Muhajiroun, because the television programme alleged that it was being used as a training-camp "to mould militants into Islamic warriors" (Crawley Observer, 16.04.97). Sheikh Omar Bakri told the Crawley News (09.04.97): "We hire out a hut for two hours every week. It is just a youth club". The Tablet (19.04.97) included in its review of the programme, a concise account of the cancellation of the Rally for Revival (see BMMS for August and September 1996. They write: "His [Omar Bakri Mohammed's] supporters fly-posted by night...and 28 London boroughs complained. Omar appeared on television to defend his rally; Egypt threatened to break off diplomat relations if the gathering were to go ahead; the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, told the House that he could not stop the rally unless the law was broken. The managers of the venue thought otherwise. They demanded vast sums for security, more than Omar could provide. The rally was cancelled, his deposit returned. That was a blessing in disguise. Only 3,000 (of 14,000) seats had been sold; the video messages from Islamic leaders worldwide had not turned up; so certain financial disaster had been averted". The Guardian published a letter signed by Dr Richard Stone, of the Maimonides Foundation for Jewish-Muslim Action; Imam Dr Abduljalil Sajid, Sussex Muslim Society; Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Institute of Public Policy Research; and Dr Philip Lewis, Interfaith Adviser to the Bishop of Bradford, which concludes: "Presenting only the tiny extremist voice of any community does endless damage to the hard, slow work of dialogue and co-operation between the diversity of people who make up Britain today". [BMMS April 1997 Vol. V, No. 4, p. 3/4]