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13 November 2014

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You are in: London > TV > Television > TV Features > Walthamstow's deluded Men of Terror

Tanvir Hussain, Abdulla Ahmed Ali and Assad Sarwar

Hussain, Ali & Sarwar (l-r)

Walthamstow's deluded Men of Terror

Following the convictions of three men of a terrorist conspiracy to murder, BBC London's Kurt Barling looks at the wider effects that the home-grown terror threat has had on the Muslim community in East London.

By Kurt Barling, Special Correspondent

They were sons of Walthamstow raised in a tolerant multi-racial community.

But by August 2006 three men had embarked upon a course which planned to take the lives of innocent fellow Britons, and which has left the Muslim community in a living nightmare.

Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain have been found guilty of a massive terrorist conspiracy to murder involving home-made bombs, following a huge terrorism inquiry, which led to sweeping airport restrictions.

However, the jury did not find any of the defendants guilty of conspiring to target aircraft. Of the eight men on trial, Mohammad Gulzar was cleared and the jury was unable to reach a verdict on the remaining men. The Crown Prosecution Service will now seek a retrial for seven of the men.

Abdullah Ahmed Ali

Abdullah Ahmed Ali

The police swoop

On 9th August 2006 Abdullah Ahmed Ali and Assad Sarwar were meeting in the vicinity of the town hall in Waltham Forest. 

It is unclear how far they had come on their conspiratorial journey, but the intelligence services believed it was too close to a catastrophic ending to allow it to continue. 

In a police swoop which would end in dozens of arrests, the two men were apprehended as they talked over details of their plot.

Unbeknownst to them, they had been under surveillance for much of 2006.

Community insider

Someone with intimate knowledge of the local community had passed intelligence to the police of what they believed was suspicious behaviour. 

C49 is the so-called code name of the individual that seemingly gave the police and security services a massive breakthrough on this case.

Less than six months after the terror atrocities of 7 July 2005, fears of fresh acts of terrorism made terror cells especially vulnerable to community inquisitiveness.

School friends

Six of the men charged in the so-called Heathrow bomb plot were friends and associates from Walthamstow. 

Some had even been to school together and five of them were raised in that community in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen Peroxide in Sarwar's garage

The prosecution had alleged that Ali helped to encourage others in Walthamstow to become suicide bombers in a course of action that, had it been successful, would have dwarfed the global impact of the 9/11 attacks on New York.

'A selfless character'

Hanif Qadir of the Active Change Foundation (ACF) in Walthamstow knew Ali from a young age.

He describes him as being a selfless character intent on trying to help other people as he was growing up, but also intent on making his voice heard as he grew older.  

Ali used to attend the gym where many young Muslim men in Walthamstow still go to work out. Mr Qadir says it is one of the venues where many still come to get off the streets. 

What Mr Qadir is engaged in is old fashioned youth work. He says his task at ACF is to redirect young people's energies into productive activities which stop them being seduced by fantasies of paradise.

With his brother, Imitiaz Hanif runs a youth club under the ACF umbrella. 

It is part of a set of initiatives from within the Waltham Forest Muslim community to "deradicalise" vulnerable young people.

The brothers have interesting credentials. Both were actively recruited by radicals themselves.

Hanif's awakening

In 2002, Mr Hanif was recruited by a Jihadist recruiter believed to be Syrian operating in London.  

In late 2002 he bought a one way ticket for Pakistan with the intention of going to fight in Afghanistan against the US and allied forces that overthrew the Taleban.

It was a journey that was to give him a harsh reality check when he discovered the human cost of the conflict, particularly amongst the Jihadists.  

This rude awakening led to a change of heart and the setting up of the gym in 2004 as a means of halting the recruitment of young Muslims.  

Unfortunately others had already recruited Ali who attended the gym. But Mr Hanif has a unique insight into the process of recruitment.

Training the government

He has produced a film called Blood for Blood, which is being used to train government officers in the simple but persistent methods used by those seeking out angry young men.      
It makes pretty shocking viewing.  Above all it shows the depth of antipathy, even hatred amongst Jihadists, to the Western world's way of doing things.  

It touches on the raw nerve of the British Muslim community's anger at British Foreign policy in the Muslim world.

Blaming foreign policy

Sabir Khan is the chair of the mosque committee at the Waltham Forest Mosque.

He draws a direct link between the flaws of foreign policy and the anger felt by young men which makes them vulnerable to the conceptions of Jihad promoted by extremists. 

Whilst not excusing the actions of the Walthamstow terror cell he says the government must recognise it as an explanation.

The tragedy is there is now a deep fear in the Muslim community.  

There is a fear of expressing these views openly and a fear of the consequences of being labelled a terrorist stooge.

Paranoia in the community

Mr Khan recounted an anecdote which sums up a very real sense of paranoia in Muslim communities brought about by a sense of isolation in the current climate. 

He believes whilst he shares the fears of his non-Muslim neighbours over future terrorist attacks, he is now the object of their fear simply because he is a Muslim.

"Mr Khan worries that there may come a time when Muslims are no longer welcome in this country"

Kurt Barling

Mr Khan worries that there may come a time when Muslims are no longer welcome in this country.

He is not sure where he and his family would be able to grow and it is impossible to tell how many people feel like this. 

There can be little doubt though that this is a recipe for deep insecurity and some young people this justifies their claim to be victims.

Angry young men

Talking to a group of young Walthamstow men at the ACF youth club it is clear some of them too have a sense, that as Muslims, they are targets of the authorities and neighbours suspicions. 

They all complain of too much stop and search, rude police officers and allege occasional brutish behaviour. 

I was also a little alarmed to hear them repeat what Mr Khan had told me that their parents fear for their safety and they may only have a 50/50 chance of remaining peacefully in Britain.  

One of the young men showed me an application form for the Metropolitan Police. He was aiming to join to help the police understand that most Muslims were not terrorist sympathisers.

The Muslim Contact Group

Bob Lambert helped set up the Muslim Contact Group at the Metropolitan police's intelligence gathering arm in the wake of 9/11. 

He now believes that there is too much emphasis on anti-terrorism in dealing with the Muslim community. The danger of this is conflating terror and Muslim communities into one. 

This sends the wrong signal to the coal face of policing. This creates a vicious circle which we could just as easily stumble into as much as avoid. That is down to a more informed political debate and choices made by decision makers.

Some of this has a familiar ring to it. Back in the late 1970s a similar perception of injustice pervaded the black communities across the capital.  

Ultimately that breakdown in trust led to civil unrest and it subsequently took over a decade to repair the relationship between that minority community and the police.

Conspiracy and cynicism

In Walthamstow, there is also a deep level of cynicism towards the trial process. The streets are awash with conspiracy theories on why those found guilty have been wronged. 

Some of this is due to those who remain in abject denial of any terror link to Walthamstow.  

Many are choosing to believe the conspiracy would never have concluded with blowing up planes.

Yet others refuse to accept that the police can get raids like Forest Gate - in which a man was shot - so dramatically wrong and the Heathrow bomb plot so dramatically right.

The police's balancing act

This all presents the police with a difficult balancing act. 

They need to help the security services gather the intelligence to prevent further acts of terror at the same time as maintaining cordial community relations.

They have to do all this in a climate where there is genuine fear in Muslims communities like the large one in Waltham Forest.

Muslims in Walthamstow

In this story of twists and turns Mr Qadir says that the Muslim community in Walthamstow has learned to assert itself since the arrests in 2006. 

But he believes there is a danger that non-Muslims will see this as special pleading.  

They have made it clear that they should not be defined by Walthamstow's deluded men of terror, even if it has made them a "suspect community."

A number of Muslim organisations I spoke to say this is not helped by local council officials playing down the radical connections in Waltham Forest. 

By doing this Mr Qadir says the authorities are preventing resources being made available to support simple projects targeting Muslim youth.  

He believes diverting other young people away from the seductive simplicity of al-Qaeda needs a change of perception and sustained support for individuals.

A problem for all the community

The three plotters aren't necessarily evil he argues. They are often intelligent individuals, who aspire to self-sacrifice. They want to use the ultimate sacrifice to make a point.  

It may be a warped and deluded sense of duty, but it is this that Mr Hanif believes lies at the root of British born terrorism. 

Both Qadir brothers argue the problem of radicalisation is a problem for the whole community.

But if the burden to tackle it falls disproportionately on Muslims, then Islamic institutions must get adequate financial support from the authorities to keep young people in tune with a British way of doing things.

last updated: 10/09/2008 at 17:05
created: 08/09/2008

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