August 07, 2005
Focus: Undercover in the academy of hatred
By the Insight team
While London reeled under attack, the teachers of extremism were celebrating — and a Sunday Times reporter was recording every word
On a Friday evening late in July a small group of young Asian men gathered secretly in the grounds of a Victorian manor house on the edge of Epping Forest, east of London, to listen to their master.
Debden House, a property run as a bed-and-breakfast and campsite by Newham borough council, was chosen because they were running scared.
Earlier that day police had arrested the remaining three suspects for the failed 21/7 London bombing. While millions of Britons watched the dramatic final siege on television, members of the Saviour Sect had come to hear a different interpretation of the day’s events.
Among them was an undercover reporter from The Sunday Times. He joined a football kickabout as they waited for their leader. Others practised kick-boxing.
As they chatted the reporter was asked if he would be willing to wear a “strap” — slang for a suicide bomb belt. He laughed the suggestion off nervously and was relieved when everyone smiled.
At 8pm a bulky figure with a long beard and flowing white robe picked his way across the open field in the twilight with the aid of a walking stick. Two hours late, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed had finally arrived.
A Syrian with seven children who has lived on benefits for 18 years, this extremist cleric has been investigated by police for using inflammatory language but he has never been prosecuted.
Now, sitting cross-legged and picking at a bag of fried chicken and chips donated by one of the group, Bakri addressed his followers. He was perturbed by the day’s events.
Rather than express relief that the bomb suspects were in custody, he was disgusted that two of the men, arrested in Notting Hill in west London, had been made to strip down to their underwear.
There was, however, some consolation. Referring to the capture of the first bomb suspect in Birmingham two days earlier, he suggested the freak tornado in the city that followed was divine retribution for the police action. “It was so close to the area of arrest,” he said with a flicker of glee.
The meeting then took a more serious — and revealing — turn.
Referring to the speed with which police issued closed-circuit television pictures of the suspects in the London attacks, Bakri suggested that they should have covered their faces to conceal their identity from prying CCTV cameras. This sparked a discussion with his right-hand man, Anjem Choudhury, which was taped by our reporter.
Choudhury: “It’s CCTV, sheikh; that’s the killer. You can’t go anywhere without them monitoring you now: down the street; out the station.”
Bakri: “There is million of pictures on CCTV. None of them said this man or this man . . . but when somebody speak, saying my son is this, my son is that, they will take picture of son and they will look at CCTV.”
Choudhury: “Oh yeah, when somebody gives them a picture, then they can follow them around . . .”
Bakri: “People got big mouths. That’s why the link to the family is not going to help. These people should be completely rootless. That’s why Sheikh Osama (Bin Laden), he build all people young. He train the youth.”
Bakri suggested that people were pointing the finger of blame for the attacks at his group.
Choudhury replied: “Sheikh, they’re looking for the planners and the eggers-on. We fall into the later (sic) category. We’re not planning anything.”
DURING a two-month undercover investigation The Sunday Times has amassed hours of taped evidence and pages of transcripts which show how Bakri and his acolytes promote hatred of “non-believers” and “egg” their followers on to commit acts of violence, including suicide bombings.
The evidence details how his group, the Saviour Sect, preaches a racist creed of Muslim supremacy which, in the words of Bakri, aims at one day “flying the Islamic flag over Downing Street”.
In his two months with the sect, our reporter witnessed a gang of Bakri’s followers brutally beating up a Muslim who challenged their views. He listened as a succession of “religious leaders” ridiculed moderate Muslims and repeatedly justified war against the “kuffar” — non-Muslims.
He discovered that the core of the group consisted of about 40 young men guided by a handful of spiritual mentors. Many are of Bangladeshi origin, jobless and living in council flats in east London. They use aliases, taking the names of the prophet Muhammad’s companions.
At their meetings — which often included school-age teenagers — they were fed a constant diet of propaganda warning that the kuffar are out to destroy them.
Integration with British society is scorned, as is any form of democratic process. Followers are encouraged to exploit the benefits system. They avoid jobs which could bring them into contact with western women or might lead them to contribute to the economy of a nation they are taught to despise.
In regular lectures and sermons it is instilled into them that Islam is a religion of violence. While publicly they did not defend the London attacks, they speak differently in private.
Bakri, who faces possible deportation with the introduction of new terror laws announced by Tony Blair on Friday, was taped saying that he had been “very happy” since the July 7 London bombings, which killed 52 people. After the second attacks, he described the bombers as the “fantastic four”.
The undercover reporter, who has a Muslim background, first approached the group as a potential convert in June, three weeks before the first London attack. Posing as a university graduate who was disaffected because he could not find a job, he introduced himself to members of the Saviour Sect who ran a stall handing out leaflets on the Whitechapel Road, east London.
The sect and its interchangeable sister organisation, Al-Ghuraaba, were created after Bakri claimed to have closed down his militant extremist group Al-Muhajiroun last October.
The activities of Al-Muhajiroun, which notoriously praised the September 11, 2001 hijackers as the “Magnificent 19”, had been extensively investigated by anti-terrorist police. However, as The Sunday Times discovered, the Saviour Sect and Al-Ghuraaba were Al-Muhajiroun in all but name.
The sect came to prominence during the general election in April when it launched an intimidatory campaign against fellow Muslims to stop them voting. They were captured on film yelling and attacking members at a meeting of the mainstream Muslim Council of Britain.
George Galloway, the Respect party MP for Bethnal Green, east London, claimed that they made death threats against him when they disrupted one of his election campaign meetings, shouting him down as a “false prophet”.
At the time Bakri denied any connection to the sect and he has continued — publicly at least — to keep his distance from it. But members openly talked of him as their spiritual leader when our reporter first approached them.
They invited the reporter to attend one of their meetings that evening. It was to be the first of many lectures and sermons that he attended.
As he entered the entrance hall of the red-brick YMCA building in Beckton he was met initially with suspicion. Abdul Muhid, one of the sect’s leaders, questioned him closely. Within minutes Muhid, 22, was explaining that most new recruits were former heroin addicts who had found salvation.
Another man, Nasser, in his early twenties with a wispy henna-speckled beard, implored our reporter to “unlearn” the brand of Islam that he had been taught as a child and to adopt a new approach.
It was important to be unemployed, Nasser said, as taking a job would contribute to the kuffar system. He said he was receiving a jobseeker’s allowance and justified this by saying the prophet Muhammad also lived off the state and attacked it at the same time. “All money belongs to Allah anyway,” he said.
There were other ways to opt out. “All the brothers drive without insurance,” Nasser said proudly.
Bakri was the star attraction that night. Under bright fluorescent lights, he preached to the 50-strong audience about the need for a violent struggle to defend Muslims who, he claimed, were under constant attack.
With a new member in the audience, he added carefully that he was not actually “inciting anyone to violence in the UK”. But the violence was not far away. The following afternoon the reporter witnessed an Asian man being beaten by members of the Saviour Sect for “insulting” their version of Islam.
The victim had struck up an argument with one of the group at the market stall. When he threw a leaflet to the ground he was punched in the face and a fight started. Up to seven members of the sect jumped on the man and began kicking him as he lay on the floor. A late intervention by one of the other stallholders gave him the opportunity to escape — his face swollen and bleeding.
Unabashed, one of group, dressed in an Arabic shawl, shouted out to onlookers: “You should not feel sorry for him. He is a kuffar and deserves it.” Aged between 20 and 30, the members of the sect mostly wore traditional Islamic clothing, although some were in jeans.
Later that day it emerged that the man who had been assaulted had been a member of the moderate Young Muslim Organisation and was also a supporter of Galloway’s Respect party.
One of the sect told the reporter that “the brothers” needed to calm down and stop attracting attention to themselves in public. “They should have taken him round the corner and beaten him there,” he said.
On July 3, Sheikh Omar Brooks of Al-Ghuraaba addressed the group at its Saturday night lecture.
The 30-year-old, who comes from a Caribbean background and used to work as an electrician, converted to Islam after coming under Bakri’s spell. He claimed that he had had “military training” in Pakistan. His speech that night at Oxford House, a Victorian hall in a side street off Bethnal Green, was intended to stir passions. He said that it was imperative for Muslims to “instil terror into the hearts of the kuffar”.
Occasionally sipping a can of Fanta and gesticulating wildly, he declared: “I am a terrorist. As a Muslim, of course I am a terrorist.”
It was not just our reporter’s group who were present. Schoolchildren in T-shirts bearing the words “mujaheddin” and “warriors of Allah” listened intently as Brooks said he did not wish to die “like an old woman” in bed.
“I want to be blown into pieces,” he declared, “with my hands in one place and my feet in another.”
Brooks — who caused an outcry last week when he told BBC2’s Newsnight that he would not condemn suicide bombers — called on a group of burqa-clad women in the audience to help the fight by making weapons.
He told the audience that it was a Muslim’s duty to stay apart from the rest of society: “Never mix with them. Never let your children play with their children.”
He added: “This hall is like our fortress against the kuffar and the so-called Muslims like the McB (the Muslim Council of Britain).”
Warming to his theme, he said: “They will build bridges and we will break them; they will build tall buildings and we will bring them down.” The audience rippled with laughter at the obvious reference to September 11, 2001.
Nasser’s brother, “Mr Islam” — believed to be Islam Uddin — had started the speeches that evening with his own fiery rhetoric.
He told the audience that Islam was a religion of violence and that Muhammad was the “prophet of slaughter, not peace”. He said Muslims must not be defeatist as “even now the brothers in Iraq are sending British, American and Iraqi colluders back in body bags”.
As his three-year-old son played at his side, he launched into a bitter racist attack. The Jews, he said, were “the most disgusting and greedy people on earth”.
Four days after this meeting, on July 7, London was hit by the first wave of suicide bombings. Immediately the spotlight was thrown onto extremist Muslim groups and, in particular, those linked to Bakri.
The sheikh avoided difficult questions about the attacks by refusing to answer his telephone. He advised all his followers to do the same in the case they incriminated themselves. The sect closed down its meetings and stopped leaflet campaigns, fearing reprisals.
While he was saying nothing publicly, Bakri did, however, address a private meeting held for prayers at the Selby Centre in Wood Green, north London.
Before the prayers started, our reporter joined a small group of men sitting on the floor of the dilapidated 1960s hall in a circle with Bakri.
Bakri sighed. “So, London under attack,” he said. Then, leaning forward, he added: “Between us, for the past 48 hours I’m very happy.”
He drew an analogy for his followers: “The mosquito makes the lion suffer and makes him kill himself. If the mosquito goes up a lion’s nose then he will make him go mad. So don’t underestimate the power of the mosquito.”
In his sermon during the prayer meeting he said that the July 7 attacks would make people “stand up and listen”. He blamed the bombs on the West because they had “raped and killed” innocent Muslims abroad.
Turning to concerns that “poor” people had been attacked in the bus bomb, he argued that this was permissible because the British Army was drawn from lower-income groups.
The congregation was instructed to avoid expressing disapproval of the attacks. “If you cannot support what has happened, then at least don’t condemn it,” Bakri said. If anyone were to ask what they felt about it, they should answer that as Muslims they have no “feelings”, “ideas” or “personal judgment”.
He said that it was better instead to pray for the mujaheddin and to welcome the “beautiful” news from Iraq that the insurgency there had increased.
A member of the congregation who had brought along his two children told the reporter after the sermon that the British could now feel the fear experienced every day by Muslims. Another said that the bombs were “a good start” and asked Allah to “bless those involved”.
The extent of the indoctrination of the members of the Saviour Sect became even clearer during the two weeks in July which saw the failed second attempt to bomb the London transport system.
During the twice-weekly lectures and Friday prayers, men who had struggled to find jobs and, in some cases, had drifted into drug abuse, were told that as true believers they were better than non-Muslims.
“The toe of the Muslim brothers is better than all the kuffar on the earth,“ Bakri said in one sermon. “Islam is superior, nothing supersedes it and the Muslim is superior.”
Other regular speakers claimed that Islam was constantly under attack in Britain — and that the best form of defence was attack.
One, who called himself Zachariah, claimed that the kuffar were trying to “wipe out (Muslims) from the face of the earth”. He implored the group “to cover the land with our blood through martyrdom, martyrdom, martyrdom”.
Zachariah preached that the non-believers were dispensable: “They’re kuffar. They’re not people who are innocent. The people who are innocent are the people who are with us or those who are living under the Islamic state.”
Another preacher, Abu Yahya, who is also reported to go by the name of Abdul Rahman Saleem, argued that Muslims were constantly being subjected to derogatory names by non-believers in an effort to demotivate them. The solution was aggression.
He said: “It says in the Koran that we must try as much as we can to terrorise the enemy . . . we terrorise those people who terrorise us.” His message to Britain was: “Because you’re a genuine democracy, all of you are liable.”
The influence on the younger members of the sect was obvious. Nasser told our reporter not to worry about those who died in the London attacks. They were, he said, “collateral damage” and they were kuffar anyway.
This is not, of course, something that they would say in public. When Bakri finally commented publicly on the bomb attacks, he condemned the deaths of “innocents”. But this was not quite the remorse it seemed.
At Friday prayers, on the day after the second bomb attacks, there was a buzz in the air as Bakri walked into the Selby hall in his brilliant white shalwar kameez.
In the preamble to the sermon he referred to the bombers as the “fantastic four”. He explained that his lament for the “innocent” applied only to Muslims. It was a linguistic sleight of hand which he summarised as: “Yes I condemn killing any innocent people, but not any kuffar.”
In the wake of the bombings, politicians and police have become increasingly concerned that groups such as the Saviour Sect are radicalising disaffected young men into potential terrorists.
On Friday the prime minister said that the successor groups of Al-Muhajiroun, including the Saviour Sect, could be banned under new anti-terrorist proposals.
At a hastily arranged press conference in Chingford, Essex, in response to the proposals, Bakri said the Al-Muhajiroun group had never supported terror attacks in the UK.
After Friday prayers, five cars full of sect members — including our reporter — drove to Chingford to support him during his press conference. When they arrived, however, they were greeted by Abu Yahya and told to leave quickly without being seen.
One of the group later told our reporter that Bakri had not wanted it to appear as if he were the leader of an organisation. He was still unwilling for it to be known that he was the leader of the Saviour Sect.
Behind the scenes the rhetoric of the sect was not blunted by Blair’s crackdown. Zachariah weighed in with a new bloodcurdling sermon at Friday prayers at the Selby Centre.
“The message of Muhammad,” he told his young congregation, “is how to fight the enemies of Allah; how to execute the enemies of Allah . . . how to return them back to the Allah. Not just through da’wah (invitation); not just through being kind to them; but with the sword.”
He added: “Tony Blair is a Christian. He went to the Pope to praise him . . . and he went to Iraq for only one reason. Because of his ancestors who worked so hard to destroy Islam from the face of the earth.
“To dismantle Islam. To divide and rule . . . him and his ancestors worked hard from the crusaders in the beginning and then their empire building, installing their proxy leaders.”
If the words were just as fiery, the sect was immediately becoming more cautious about its public activities. When our reporter asked for more leaflets and videos, Nasser told him that they had been hidden away.
It appeared that the sect was covering its tracks and preparing to go underground.
Insight team: Ali Hussain and Jonathan Calvert
ABHORRENT BUT LEGAL: THE DIFFICULTIES IN PROSECUTING THOSE WHO PREACH HATE
Lawyers suggested yesterday that it would be difficult to prosecute Bakri and his fellow preachers under existing legislation, although many of their remarks would probably breach new laws proposed by the government to stamp out the glorification and endorsement of terrorism.
Geoffrey Bindman, a leading human rights solicitor, argued that Brooks’s apparent support for suicide bombings and his call for Muslims to “instil terror into the hearts” of non-believers might not be “specific” enough to warrant criminal proceedings.
“If he had said, ‘You must go out and blow yourself up on crowded Tube trains’, then you could say that he’s telling these people to go out and commit murder,” Bindman said. “An incitement in a general rhetorical statement would be difficult to prove as a crime.”
Duncan Lamont, a partner at the Charles Russell law firm, said: “These are intelligent people who are careful about what they say and do. Until now they have been able to cock a snook. Under existing legislation their comments are abhorrent but not illegal.”
However, Bakri’s description of the Tube bombers as “the fantastic four” and Brooks’s comments about the destruction of tall buildings would most likely fall foul of a new offence of indirect incitement or glorifying terrorist acts. “If you could satisfy a jury that he meant 9/11, then under what is proposed you have him bang to rights,” Lamont said.