Muktar Said Ibrahim
Vulnerability of the suicide bomber
The trial of those who failed to detonate their bombs on 21st July has highlighted the cult of the British suicide bomber. But as Kurt Barling argues it also shows how easily it could happen again.
By the end of the 1998 Finsbury Park Mosque in North London had become a meeting place, refuge and training location for Muslim radicals.
It was a veritable institute of “learning” for Jihadis, with foreign students from across the world. Extremists with frontline experience in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya passed through and shared their message of Muslim solidarity with young men eager to listen.
Muktar Said Ibrahim was just one of many hundreds of young men attracted to the preaching of Abu Hamza al-Masri and his Supporters of Shariah group.
Muktar had first come to the attention to the authorities in an entirely different way. The dreadlocked youngster had provided the muscle in a gang which had gone on a street robbing spree in the summer of 1995. It was his responsibility to intimidate victims, often threatening them with a knife.
Much of the fruits of those muggings had gone on marijuana smoking and alcohol (alcopops in the case of Muktar) according to one of the gang members that knew Muktar well. It was a time of high excitement and the gang, says Gary Ruff, had a sense of invulnerability.
Coincidently the summer of 1995 also saw one of the deadliest bombing campaigns on the Paris Metro system which left eight dead and hundreds injured. Members of the Algerian GIA (Islamic Armed Group) had carried out a terror campaign to try and put pressure on the French government to stop supporting the Algerian government against whom they had been waging a bloody “holy war”.
The resulting clampdown by the security services in France sent hundreds of Algerian radicals into exile in London. One of the organisers of the bombings Rachid Ramda had set up base in Wembley the previous year. Many of these asylum seekers ended up at Finsbury Park mosque.
Muktar and his street gang’s luck ran out in late 1995 when they were all arrested. All five members of the gang were sentenced to long stays in young offenders’ institutions.
Muktar, who was the oldest and most intimidating in the gang, had received the longest sentence of five years because of his age and use of the knife.
Gary Ruff says this made Muktar particularly bitter when they entered prison together. Up until this point Muktar, who is of Somalian descent, had not taken his faith too seriously but that was to change very quickly in prison.
Drawn to other Muslims, Muktar began to take issues like the Iraq war and the broader troubles in the Middle East very seriously. Gary Ruff at the same time turned to his own faith, Christianity, and this, he says, became a source initially of jesting and then division between the two teenagers.
According to Ruff, Muktar gradually became more and more drawn into associating with other Muslim inmates many of whom were beginning to create an identity around their Muslim faith. Muktar would get criticised for remaining friends with Gary and their relationship cooled.
In late 1996 Abdul Ghani Qureshi was acting as the Imam at Feltham Young Offenders' Institute, it was there he gave koranic lessons to shoe-bomber Richard Reid.
Whether or not this Imam’s conduct led to him being removed from the prison chaplaincy it was becoming clear to the prison service that they had a problem of radicalisation emerging amongst younger prisoners.
By the time Muktar was released in 1998 he had become a changed man, now he had grown a beard and adopted Muslim dress.
Gabrielle Marranci is an anthropologist who has made studying Muslim communities his speciality. From his offices at Aberdeen University he has coordinated a four year long project into the problem of radicalisation in British prisons amongst young Muslim men.
He says Muktar’s prison experience is typical of what happens to many young men and their attachment to faith once they are sentenced.
Furthermore, since the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, the security climate has been such inside prison that much of the Islamic discourse has been driven “underground”. This security clampdown, says Marranci, has created a climate of mutual suspicion which has reinforced Muslim inmates’ sense of isolation and more dangerously fuelled a sense of mission amongst some to combat the injustices against Muslims.
When Gary Ruff met up with Muktar in London after release he was struck how most of his friends were now young Muslim men who all seemed to wear Muslim robes.
Although not clear to Ruff at the time, Muktar was also mixing with the Finsbury Park mosque set.
Ibrahim and Mohammed arrested in 2005
Muktar was, by this time, already staying with Yassin Omar, one of the other 21st July failed bombers. Omar’s flat at Curtis House in New Southgate was to become their base (and eventually bomb factory). Ruff visited the chaotic flat several times but says he never gained an inkling of what was being planned.
Talking to local people who knew the bombers what is surprising is how well liked the men were. Muktar is described as someone who would play football with neighbour’s children and certainly behave as a Good Samaritan to elderly residents on the council estate, running errands when necessary.
Whilst they were concocting chemical potions to blow one set of people up they were busily helping others.
This raises the question of whether these young men were really against the world or simply brainwashed into fulfilling their mission to protect their faith.
Marranci makes a persuasive case that acting as a suicide bomber is a declaration of identity. In the Jihadis’ worldview the ultimate proof that you are a “proper” Muslim is to sacrifice yourself in defence of your religion.
What to non-extremists seems contradictory seems to the bombers perfectly justifiable according to their interpretation of their faith. How else could Muktar and his friends see helping an old lady with her shopping and blowing her up (supposing she had been on the same bus as Muktar), as two examples of being a faithful Muslim?
Muktar was undoubtedly influenced by the attitudes and murderous rhetoric of Abu Hamza just like hundreds of other young men who listened to his hate filled sermons. Having listened to Hamza preaching on numerous occasions between 1999 and 2004 it was long clear to me that his message of hate was distorting the attitudes of the young men around him.
Of course few people at the time could have conceived that suicide bombers would be home-grown. Reda Hassaine was the exception and many people thought he was a scaremonger as a result.
Reda had been passing information to the security services about the goings on at Finsbury Park Mosque since the late 1990s when Algerian extremists first started turning up there.
He told me in 2001 that Abu Hamza had been brainwashing young men, in particular many who had come out of prison and were deeply alienated from society, to plan jihadi actions against the Khaffur (non-believers) wherever they may be found.
Reda firmly believed that part of the methodology of the Finsbury Park extremists was to create as many terror cells as possible. These cells of a few men would ultimately work in a “freelance” capacity to hurt the “enemies of Islam”.
No-one knows how many of these cells were inspired or still exist. We can only assume that when the head of the security services and the Commissioner of the Met Police talk about several hundred people under surveillance many of these are “graduates” of Finsbury Park.
We do now know that Muktar went to Pakistan for several months in December 2004. This was at the same time as Mohammed Siddique Khan who was believed to be the ringleader of the 7th July atrocities. Perhaps this was the last training session where Muktar was assigned his murderous task.
We can only speculate at what was going through Muktar’s mind when we recall the CCTV of him on a London bus with a deadly backpack on his back. Whatever he was thinking he was part of a pre-meditated conspiracy to blow up more Londoners and his journey to get there almost certainly started in prison.
Gabrielle Marranci believes that the prison service must tackle the isolation in the prison system by allowing more open debate amongst prisoners and in particular allow Imams to engage Muslim inmates.
But in order for this to happen something must be done about prison imams. Whilst the Home Office has actively recruited new Imams to join the prison chaplaincy, former inmates and insiders have told BBC London that whilst these men may be well-intentioned they are largely ignored.
We’ve been told that difference in age and cultural background between prisoners and the Imams means they are often not seen as credible.
Instead the prisoners “appoint” a spiritual leader from amongst their own; creating a secret society in prison which is fuelled by a resentment of British society and a pervasive sense of injustice against Muslims. Marranci believes this is a recipe for more suicide bombers.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that with more extremists being sent to prison, the prison service is going to have to work out some solutions. Whilst it wouldn’t be fair to say that all extremists are recruited from former prison inmates. Some have been schoolteachers, others come from well-to-do backgrounds, but it would be foolish to ignore Dr Marranci’s research.
Gary Ruff remembers his fellow gang member, Muktar Said Ibrahim, as not the brightest of the bunch. He believes he was gullible and vulnerable to being steered towards terrorism.
It would appear that on his release from prison in 1998 few people were on hand to guide him from this path. Of course no-one knew then that extremists would carry out a suicide bombing campaign against Londoners.
No-one can now say they haven’t had plenty of warning.
last updated: 01/05/2008 at 10:38
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