The joker who wanted to be a bomber

Irfan Naseer at school Always the joker: Irfan Naseer at school

Three men have been found guilty of preparing acts of terrorism including what could have been a massive bombing campaign against targets in the UK.

Irfan Naseer, Irfan Khalid and Ashik Ali, all from Birmingham, face life sentences for their plan to become suicide bombers. This is the story of how a school joker became one of the most dangerous men in Britain.

Irfan Naseer wanted to be the next big thing.

Start Quote

He just couldn't comprehend everybody moving on and he was struggling to move on from school days. He wanted to prove something”

End Quote Anas Zein Al-Abdeen, former school friend

For most of his adult life, he had struggled to find his place in the world, but by 2010, he had stopped struggling.

He didn't seem to care that his mates called him Big Irfan, Chubbs or Chubby.

Because in his own world, he had become a different kind of big man.

He was going to be a bomber.

And he was going to show the world a thing or two, even if pressing the trigger on a homemade detonator would be the last thing he would ever do.

He and Irfan Khalid, described in court as his right-hand man, left their Birmingham homes twice to join training camps linked to al-Qaeda deep within the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan - the second trip ending in the summer of 2011.

Khalid and Naseer at Birmingham Airport Training trips: Khalid and Naseer at Birmingham Airport

Their plan was simple. The men joined the camps to receive broad training in bomb-making, weapons and poisons from al-Qaeda contacts.

Armed with this knowledge, they would then bring it back to the UK and spread it to other recruits. It was up to the men themselves to decide what to do with the skills, rather than wait for commands from the other side of the world.

On their return, they began seeking recruits for a bombing campaign. They already had Ashik Ali in the team. Naseer organised a Pakistan training camp trip for four other men from Birmingham - and identified others he wanted to be part of his plan.

None of the men realised they were already being monitored by MI5 and the police. In fact, they were being watched so closely that investigators knew that the four recruits had been sent overseas.

And so during the summer of 2011, the security services sat quietly listening and assessing Naseer's plans. Over the course of three months at Woolwich Crown Court, the jury were told that "Big Irfan" and the others were full of big talk - and bigger plans.

Raising cash

In one bugged conversation, the men criticised the 2005 London bombers, saying they had forgotten to add nails to their devices to make them more lethal.

Naseer talked about martyrdom and the merits of various forms of attack, from using rifles on the streets to time bombs. Khalid joked about them being "suicide bombers driving around ready to take on England".

Another conversation revolved around whether they could fit blades to a car and cut people down in the street.

None of this yet amounted to a specific attack plan and so investigators sat tight and continued to listen.

What was clear was that Naseer and the others were considering plans and timetables. They had begun raising cash and were looking for somewhere safe to operate away from prying eyes.

Naseer talked about opening an Islamic shop to provide a cover story for recruitment and plotting in its back rooms. Khalid agreed, saying in one monitored conversation that it would provide "beautiful cover". But in the end, they settled on a small flat provided by Ashik Ali.

Naseer and others collecting cash Charity collecting: Naseer, Khalid and money man Rahin Ahmed under surveillance

As for the cash, Naseer and his recruits went onto the streets of Birmingham during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, rattling collection buckets and wearing high-visibility tabards.

They sought donations for a local madrassah project and a legitimate international development British charity, Muslim Aid.

But the real plan was to con ordinary people. They collected some £13,000 from Muslims who regard it as a religious and moral duty to give to charity during Ramadan.

Rahin Ahmed, another member of the cell, said he could make more money by investing it in online currency trading - he lost £9,000. Ahmed has separately pleaded guilty to fund-raising for terrorism.

Undeterred with the disastrous bungling of his associate, Naseer maintained his resolve. He warned the others to be on their guard for Satan, who could enter their dreams and make them doubt the righteousness of their path.

He said that if they allowed doubts to enter their mind, then "you're not gonna do it, bro, you're not going to press the button".

'The real deal'

Investigators were increasingly concerned by this kind of talk and their suspicions were reinforced when Naseer and Khalid revealed they had recorded martyrdom videos while being trained in Pakistan.


  • March 2009: Naseer and Khalid fly to Pakistan for first training camp
  • December 2010: Second Pakistan training camp
  • July-Aug 2011: Charity collections over 23 days
  • August 2011: Naseer sends four other men to camps
  • September 2011: Experimenting at Ashik Ali's flat
  • September 2011: Plotters arrested and charged

"We realised they were the real deal, committed and passionate in what they were doing," said Det Insp Adam Gough, who led the West Midlands Police inquiry.

"It was very chilling to listen to some of it in terms of 9/11 and 7/7. They revered those sorts of things and wanted to create another incident that people would remember and celebrate in the years to come."

A burnt note found in Ashik Ali's flat Burnt note: Bomb instructions found at the safe house

Inside Ashik Ali's safe house in September 2011, Naseer began explaining to Ali how to make homemade bombs.

His knowledge, the jury heard, came from a combination of the training camps he had attended and his university degree in pharmacy.

The jury at the trial were taken through long recordings in which Naseer went to great lengths to explain the finer technical details of explosives.

Ashik Ali doubted whether the men could carry 20kg rucksacks and Naseer said that it would be easier to carry bombs of half that size. He suggested that if they used timers, they could build more devices.

"Seven or eight of them in different places," said Naseer. "With timers on… probably to go boom, boom, boom everywhere."

Investigators had already heard the men talking about being dead by the middle of 2012. Now that the conversations had turned to how to construct devices and how to use them, they moved in to stop the plot progressing.

Time had run out for Irfan Naseer. He, Khalid and Ali were arrested along with nine others. Six men have already pleaded guilty to terrorism offences.

The men had never got to the point of fixing on a target. But in his police interview, Ashik Ali told detectives that Naseer had proposed making suicide bomb vests, acquiring guns and targeting British soldiers.

During the trial, Irfan Naseer denied that he was a terrorist, but he wove a tale of internal Pakistani-community politics in Birmingham with him as the victim of malicious rumours. His barrister told the jury that Naseer was a fantasist who would have made a "rubbish terrorist".

Joker to threat

Anas Zein Al-Abdeen was at school with Irfan Naseer. He told the BBC's Inside Out West Midlands programme that his former friend became increasingly extreme as he entered adulthood, holding views a world away from the man he had known as "Chubby", the school joker.

Irfan Naseer at school Popular at school: Irfan Naseer

"I'm sad that this guy could have been serving the community by being a pharmacist, by maybe doing charity work that will really make a difference, instead he's harmed the community," Mr Al-Abdeen said.

"The guys [at school] stuck around with him because he was funny, lively, always had a lot to say, quite outspoken.

"[But] he couldn't adapt to working life. This, I think, is the start of his downfall. He started looking at achieving something else apart from his career or his profession."

Naseer was angry about international politics, expressing frustrations about injustices in the Muslim world.

Mr Al-Abdeen and others in Birmingham have told the BBC that the local Muslim community was increasingly worried about what he was up to. During the trial, the jury heard that one influential local man had confronted Naseer, as rumours spread that he had sent four recruits to a training camp.

He added: "The way he used to dress up, a lot of people found him intimidating. I know for a fact when he used to go to the mosques that a lot of people used to look at him with disdain.

"He does have extreme views. I mean there's no doubt about this. You'd be excused if you thought the film Four Lions was based on this guy Chubby because his friends never really took what he said seriously."

"I believe him when he said he wanted to be the big man," he told the BBC. "He just couldn't comprehend everybody moving on and he was struggling to move on from school days. He wanted to prove something."

Inside Out West Midlands will be investigating the men at the heart of the terror trial on Monday 25 February on BBC1 at 19.30 GMT. If you don't live in the BBC West Midlands transmission area it will be available here on the BBC iPlayer.

Dominic Casciani Article written by Dominic Casciani Dominic Casciani Home affairs correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    If every word of this article is well researched and true then this is terrible news and publicity for (Birmingham) city where multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism is at it's best. I hope the adverse publicity is short lived.

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Naseer and the others were fantasists who never came near to being a real threat, they had no bombs or explosives and no targets. The threat they posed is hypothetical but is being exaggerated out all proportion in order to justify the 'war on terror' which is so useful to the British Establisment now that there is no 'cold war' to justify vast expenditure and offical secrecy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    @Krismais, Actually, if you read the Old Testament, it is full of verses talking about genocide. In fact, Professor Philip Jenkins, a Cambridge graduate and former winner of Mastermind, has documented that The Bible is more violent than The Quran. So maybe the reason the moderators removed your comments was due to the fact that you were simply spreading lies that only Islam "allows" killing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    This country has given these people free schools, free libraries, free healthcare, freedom of expression, human rights, protection from crime, the right to a fair trial, democracy, the freedom to travel, a free press, and a fair justice system, and all they can think to do in return is plot to kill the innocent people whose taxes have paid for it all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    15. iHateIgnorance And yet Pakistan still receives tax payers money in aid despite covert links between the Pakistan secret service and the Taliban, allowing Bin Laden sanctuary (don't tell me that they did not know he was there) and seems to be the number one stop off for UK thug Jihadists. Not one Penny should go to this Terrorist country especially when we have the old suffering in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    "both my posts now removed for saying Islam is a cult not a religion and that it is the only religion/cult in the world which says killing in the name of God is acceptable!!"

    Maybe it's because you are acting like an extremely ignorant and hateful bigot? If you really feel so strongly about religions other than your own, perhaps you shouldn't live in a multi-cultural country such as this one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Out of nearly 2 billion Muslims only about 0.000001% are violent which is similar to any religion or race. Wish 0.000001% of my Muslims brothers understand no matter how many injustices western countries commit, killing innocent civilians is not allowed in Islam. Islam only permits defending yourself and your family when attacked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    @1, "Why has Mr Cameron given billions in aid to [Pakistan]"

    But he hasn't. "Billions" implies that Cameron has given at least 2 billion to Pakistan. British aid to Pakistan is at around 250 million pounds. Considering the Tories have been in power for less than three years, the maximum that Cameron has give in less than 750 million pounds. So your figures are out by AT LEAST 1.25 billion.

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Excellent journalistic piece, Dominic. Thanks for looking behind the sensationalist and divisive headlines and at the people behind them and their motivations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Bring back penal labour and sentence him to a whole life term. No cushy tax-payer funded coddling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I have often tried to understand what makes some people (not just jihadists) revel in the idea of maiming/killing scores of random people. I've come to the conclusion that they are insecure and have absolutely no respect for themselves, hence not for anyone else. Any being with the tiniest spark of self-respect would never even contemplate anything like this. Put them away forever!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    so everyone that is saying that this report is what Islam is about needs to do some research and realize that this isn't what the religion is about and it is actually a peaceful religion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Great article. It's not making excuses for terrorists but is trying to explain what the process of getting involved with extremists can be like. This was just an average young boy with dreams and ambitions who felt failed by society and sadly an evil organisations reached out to him - the same happens to a lot of white British people too.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    "He said that if they allowed doubts to enter their mind, then "you're not gonna do it, bro, you're not going to press the button"."

    Sums it up really, as soon as you think logically, none of it makes sense and can be justify violence. The same can be said of religion as a whole in my opinion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Throw away the key. Or better still, put them on a plane. Absolute scum.


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