NB: THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A TRANSCRIPTION UNIT RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT: BECAUSE OF THE POSSIBILITY OF MIS-HEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY, IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS ACCURACY.
HOW I BECAME A MUSLIM EXTREMIST
RECORDED FROM TRANSMISSION: BBC ONE
JEREMY VINE: Good evening, I'm Jeremy Vine and this is Panorama. In June Glasgow airport was the scene of the latest attack on Britain. Tonight a friend of the men accused of the bombing tells us why he became an extremist.
SHIRAZ MAHER: Back then I wanted to see nightclubs like this shut down, alcohol made illegal and these women covered from head to toe.
VINE: That's a mindset the British Government is desperate to change.
HIZB UT-TAHRIR: [Promotional video] Are they British or are they Muslim?
SOBAAN: I was a bit swayed towards like reading into an extremist group because I was like.. well some of these ideas are right.
VINE: So what does he think needs to be done to win the hearts of Britain's angry young Muslims?
VINE: After 7/7 the government vowed to silence extremists. Two years on one of the radical groups it wanted to ban remains legal. It tells foreigners to make up their minds whether they are Muslim or British but its critics say it shares the goals, if not the methods, of Al-Qaeda. Shiraz Maher is one of a small number of radicals who've turned their back on the group and are encouraging others to do the same.
HOW I BECAME A MUSLIM EXTREMIST
Reporter: Shiraz Maher
SHIRAZ: My name is Shiraz Maher. I was born in Birmingham after my parents moved there during the 1960s, but grew up in Saudi Arabia. When I was young I lived for Birmingham City and Christmas presents, and by the time I was in my late teens the last things any of my friends would have called me was 'devout'.
On a night out with Shiraz you were about as likely to go for a curry as you were to go for fish and chips, and he was well involved in school life, he would come out and he would party with us, he would socialise with us and he was as involved in that kind of school social scene as anyone else was.
SHIRAZ: Forward to June 2006 and the bombing of Glasgow airport.
A deliberate attempt to drive a car into a packed British airport and blow it up.
SHIRAZ: Hearing about those attacks made me wonder how close I'd come to doing something similar myself, because for four years I used to be a member of the radical Islamic Group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and while in Cambridge University tried to recruit Kafeel Ahmed, the driver of the Glasgow jeep. I've now left the group and tonight I want to tell my story in the hope of persuading others to turn their backs on extremism. It's a message that many young Muslims don't want to hear from anyone connected to the British Government. But I've been there and just maybe they'll be willing to listen to me. My journey into extremism began at Leeds University in 2001, and is something my friend, Tom, saw first hand.
THOM: He seemed, for all intents and purposes to be having a thoroughly enjoyable normal university experience for the first year of his time in Leeds. But probably towards the end of the first year he spoke to me about a girl he'd been involved with in Manchester who had encouraged him to start going back to prayer.
SHIRAZ: I would not describe myself as a committed Muslim, but when I started seeing a Muslim girl, she encouraged me to attend Friday prayers. I didn't really expect it to interfere with my western lifestyle, but then everything changed.
This is the exact same room in which I was sat, the exact same seat. For me, when I was sat here watching the events on the actual day I was just really shocked. My gut reaction was that the United States had finally reaped what it had sown. I just remember being consumed by a number of different questions like 'how does this leave the role of Muslims in the West?' And so I thought I have to go and find answers to these questions.
THOM: 9/11 was, for Shiraz, I think the watershed ?? which he became more interested in as well, and more active and more engaged with it. When he would come down to visit he would ask that I took all my photographs of any women on the walls down.
SHIRAZ: During a visit to the mosque I met someone who invited me to a HT Study Circle. I checked out the group a few years before bit it hadn't interested me, now it did. I learnt that HT wanted to create a caliphate, and Islamic state. They despised democracy and believe that Sharia law must be imposed over the whole world, by force if necessary, something the group denies. Ed Husain also used to be in the group.
Former Hizb ut-Tahrir activist
I mean I was involved in the activists scene. I was attending all the secret cell structure meetings, I was going off to other events, I was supporting and leafleting... distributing leaflets and calling for jihad and all the rest of that, but they live in a bubble that's totally dominated by this extremist, separatist, utopian mindset that there's no escape.
SHIRAZ: As I started devoting more and more time to Hizb ut-Tahrir their views became my views.
THOM: The debates we had became narrower and he would often come up with answers which were basically focused around an Islamic ideology in particular with relation to Israel, Palestine, they became particularly extreme, particularly vehement.
INTERVIEWER: He wanted Jews killed?
THOM: He never expressed that view to me but one of the interesting things about his radicalisation was that he would refuse to condemn those who had killed Jews.
SHIRAZ: HT had strict rules about separating men and women, even within the extended family. It was causing problems at home, but at the time this was just another part of my struggle.
He would not attend any marriage parties because they were mixed. He wouldn't go to any social gatherings because they were mixed, and so he was getting isolated, and then the family people would ask us: "Where's Shiraz? "Where is Shiraz?" and we had to make excuses all the time because he thought that was un-Islamic for even the family women and that to sit together and chat and laugh and relax and all that.
It's a question of loyalties and....
SHIRAZ: Hizb ut-Tahrir's ideology is powerful and persuasive. At its core is the belief that Muslims should be loyal to their religion, not their country.
[Promotional video contd]
I think Muslims in this country need to take a long hard look at themselves and decide what is their identity. Are they British or are they Muslim?
24th August 2003
National Indoor Arena-UK
SHIRAZ: As this video, made for the National Conference in 2003 which I was involved in, made clear.
[Promotional video contd]
I am a Muslim. Where I live is irrelevant.
BRITISH OR MUSLIM?
Identity values vision
SHIRAZ: HT is a group that has different faces for different countries and different times. In Britain today separation or confrontation would be counterproductive, so it adopts a softer face. Take a look at their website now and it could be any mainstream political party with the benign language to match.
"Hizb ut-Tahrir works at all levels of society to bring the Muslims back to living an Islamic way of life under the shade of Khilafah State following an exclusively political method."
SHIRAZ: But a surf around the web quickly reveals another more sinister side to HT. This leaflet is really classic Hizb ut-Tahrir, it's got a dagger which is plunged into the map of the Middle East with blood spilling out and the word 'Israel is an illegal state' is written again in blood, with blood drops dripping off that. And in fact the name of the Israeli state is put in inverted commas. This leaflet was published by HT Australia and it's typical of the group's rhetoric outside of the UK. But in reality there's only one HT and one message. This summer I had the chance to experience it for myself at the biggest conference they've ever organised. The day before the conference I went to visit the location HT Indonesia hired for the event; football stadium that holds 100,000 people. Earlier in the week HT Britain attracted 2000 people to their local conference but could they really fill the Indonesian stadium?
[Footage of packed stadium]
SHIRAZ: [reporting from stadium] The crowd has just burst into a spontaneous chant now of Khilafah which is the Caliphate, the Islamic state. It's unbelievable just how emotive and whipped up the crowd has become.
A local representative started by reading out a speech from HT's world leader. He revealed the party's true face when speaking about Jews.
"A Khilafah which will uproot the Jewish entity to its roots and return the whole of Palestine to the Muslim family of nations without compromising and making peace with the Jews."
SHIRAZ: HT was formed in Palestine over 50 years ago, but recently Britain has become the engine room for HT worldwide, spreading its message into Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Denmark. I can also reveal that HT Indonesia was set up from London. Most of the UK delegation was turned away at the airport but Salim Atchia, a health worker from East Anglia, did get through.
National Executive Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain
If one Muslim is hurt we will be accountable for this. If one blood of our brothers and sisters is spilled we will be accountable for it. This is a chance for you to bring back the glory of Islam.
SHIRAZ: After more speakers from around the world the conference closed with a play showing Islam's confrontation with the West. It ended with the caliphate army's final triumph and the creation of an Islamic state over the world. I think unless we challenge this, we're sleepwalking into a very dangerous future. HT are not a terrorist organisation but they do want a revolution. They want to overthrow democratically elected governments and create a super Islamic state. James Brandon works at the centre for social cohesion and met the leaders of HT in Jordan.
Centre for Social Cohesion
The Al-Qaeda is just about inspiring individuals to take matters into their own hands. Hizb ut-Tahrir's methodology is to unite Muslims and then use them to fight collectively against the West and against all non-Muslim countries.
SHIRAZ: So in that respect do you think Hizb ut-Tahrir poses a threat to Britain?
JAMES: I guess in the long run, if their vision of unifying the Muslim world is successful, then yes. But the more immediate danger is they're inspiring people with so much hatred of everything which isn't Muslim.
SHIRAZ: That message finds a willing audience in universities, mosques and on the web that builds on legitimate anger of the actions of Britain, the US and Israel. HT Britain says they're non-violent but one leaflet I distributed in 2003 about Iraq went a step further.
"Your forefathers destroyed the first crusader campaigns. Should you not proceed like them and emulate those steps and thus destroy the new crusaders. Let the armies move to help the Muslims in Iraq for they seek your help."
JAMES: We take on people who are fairly moderate or na´ve in a group, you fill them with ideas about how the West is bad and should be destroyed, and then instead of offering them anything to do you just say well just be patient and wait till the caliphate takes over. And having primed people with so much anger inevitably you get some of them who want to go on and actually start doing things.
[Footage of demonstrations]
SHIRAZ: During the demonstrations against the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, Omar Khayam showed the potential for action when he dressed as a suicide bomber. A well placed source has told Panorama that Khayam was a HT supporter from Bedford. But anger doesn't always stop at imitation.
In April 2003 a bar in Tel Aviv was blown up. Three people were killed in the attack. The assailants were Britain's first real suicide bombers. Omar Sharif and Asif Hanif who was proud about what he was going to do.
ASIF HANIF: [Video] It's a great honour to kill all of these people.
SHIRAZ: Omar's path to radicalisation began just like mine. Zaheer Khan was a friend of Omar's at King's College University.
Britain's First Suicide Bombers
Friend of Omar Sharif
Omar's very first connection with any sort of Islamic activity was through Hizb ut-Tahrir and in a manner which they sort of put forward the Islamic teaching.
SHIRAZ: But while Omar Sharif was praying and talking ideology with HT, he was developing a different side to himself.
ZAHEER: He had another social circle as well, and that really manifested itself with a lot of heavy physical training where he would often go and do kick boxing and other physical activities.
SHIRAZ: It's not know exactly what this other social circle was, but 6 months later Omar was in Kosovo training for Jihad. Ideologically Omar didn't have a big transition to make. Sir Andrew Green, formally involved in counterterrorism at the Foreign Office agrees.
Sir ANDREW GREEN
Foreign Office counter-terrorism
We mustn't be na´ve about these groups. They are there to peddle hatred, hatred of our own society, hatred of non-Muslims, and in practice, as we've seen, it's only quite a small step from someone filled with hatred, to someone who turns to violence. Yeah, they are a gateway, yes.
SHIRAZ: By 2003, the year that Omar Sharif became Britain's first suicide bomber I was moving through the ranks of HT. The previous year I'd become a cell leader with my own recruits. Now I was responsible for the North East of England and had been approached about being on the National Executive. Ideologically the message I was spreading was one of revolution. Back then I wanted to see nightclubs like this shut down, alcohol made illegal and these women covered from head to toe.
I remember one time going round to Shiraz's house and him sat there with his old mobile phone and he systematically deleted the numbers of all the women he'd known off the phone, before telling me that he was signing up to get a new phone and a new phone number, so none of his previous friends could get in touch with him.
SHIRAZ: My focus never strayed from the party. In 2004 I began a PhD at Cambridge and initially I carried on spreading the party's message, and it was there that I met Kafil Ahmed, the driver of the jeep that exploded at Glasgow airport. It looks like an ordinary house but this is where my friend, Kafil Ahmed used to live. It's known as the Islamic Academy here in Cambridge, and upstairs the rooms used to be let out. Kafil was in one of the rooms and my cell leader for Hizb ut-Tahrir was in the adjacent room. Downstairs is just like a big prayer hall and that's where we used to spend a lot of our time usually discussing things like Iraq, the War on Terror and the return of the Caliphate which is something that we all wanted to establish.
I never did recruit Kafil into HT but I did notice he was becoming more and more devout, and it was through Kafil that I also got to know Bilal Abdullah, the other man allegedly involved in the Glasgow plot. We two became friends and in November 2004 I travelled to London with Bilal on what Muslims consider to be the most holy night of the year. Bilal stayed inside the mosque praying while I joined the noisy crowd outside.
It was the 27th night of Ramadan which Muslims believe is the night the Koran was revealed. It's known within Islam as the night of power and it's a very, very spiritual and emotionally charged night.
[Street preacher] Brothers, we need to rise this sword and we need to have their heads rolling.
SHIRAZ: It was also given added significance because in 2004 it was also the night that American troops went into Fallujah to tackle the Iraqi insurgency there.
[Street Preacher] Tell me, who will give you more severe punishment, British Kufa, his police, Tony Blair or the Allah Subhanah Watallah in the hereafter?
SHIRAZ: There was one question that I wasn't able to put to my father myself.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think it's a possibility that Shiraz could have done the same thing as Kafil Ahmed at Glasgow?
I wouldn't have put it past him. At that stage he had gone to such an extent that I was seriously thinking whether I would let him back into this house again, the association had gone so deep and so extreme that it could have been a possibility. It could have been a possibility.
SHIRAZ: But it was in Cambridge that my doubts first surfaced. It was only when I was able to examine Islamic thought independently that I realised I wasn't being told the full story.
Islamist groups prey on the naivety of young people by just opening the Koran at random points and hitting them with selective quotes such as this one for example which says: "When you meet those who disbelieve, in a battlefield never turn your backs to them." And the reality is they're taking that message directly on the streets to young Muslims and telling them: "Because British troops are in Basra, Britain has become a battlefield."
It's exactly the kind of thing I would have told people when I gave talks or wrote pieces for HT. But it was another visit to my parents and from the same seat and the same room where I watched 9/11 unfold that I found the courage to leave.
It began soon after 9 o'clock this morning. Thousands of commuters poured out of underground stations.
SHIRAZ: I suppose my biggest fear on 7/7 as I was watching events unfold was the suggestion that it could have been British Muslims who were behind the attack, and although I worried about that, it didn't surprise me when it turned out that they were of course British citizens, because I'd served in Hizb ut-Tahrir by this stage for nearly 3-4 years so I knew the kind of divisive message that groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir were spreading in the Muslim community, telling young people not to feel British, not to feel any allegiance to this country, not to feel loyal towards it or part of its fabric.
That night I sent an email to the leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir resigning from the organisation. Within a week Tony Blair started inviting community representatives into Downing Street to discuss what could be done, and a week after that Blair said he would ban HT.
TONY BLAIR: We will prescribe Hizb ut-Tahrir and the successor organisation of Al-Muhajiroun.
SHIRAZ: Two years ago it was announced that Hizb ut-Tahrir would be banned, and yet the government has not had the courage of its convictions to do that.
Community Cohesion Minister
As Abhorrent as I find Hizb ut-Tahrir's views, at the same time what a propaganda coup it would be if we tried banning them but there was a judicial review or in the courts we lost. That would provide the biggest propaganda success for the same people that we're trying to tackle here.
SHIRAZ: But what about the other recommendations set up by the government's 7/7 taskforce. We were supposed to get more English speaking imams trained here. Life will get tougher for clerics preaching hate and young Muslims would be steered away from extremism. I went to Bradford to find out if that message was hitting home.
You can't pick and choose whether you're going to be Muslim, you can't switch it on when someone's attacking you. When someone's attacking Islam, that's it we'll switch it on and Muslim. In my opinion, I'm a Muslim all the time.
SHIRAZ: I wouldn't say that any of the teenagers I met were at all extremist but one or two were open to their ideas.
I mean do you guys feel like the people in Iraq are your brothers and sisters?
ALL: Yeah, they are. Yeah.
SHIRAZ: So what if Sidique Khan, the guy who did the tube bombings, what if he went to Iraq and killed British troops there?
SOBAAN: I'd agree with that because they're in direct conflict with the... that's his enemy then, innit.
SHIRAZ: So his Muslim identity in that scenario should take precedent over his British identity?
SHIRAZ: It's okay to kill fellow Britons?
BOY: Yeah, but then if we didn't take that side and we took the British side, is it okay to kill fellow Muslims?
SHIRAZ: Clearly they've never had to think their way through this before. It doesn't take someone a lot to move from saying well if I can do it in Iraq, why can't I do it here? If I'm not feeling British, if I shouldn't say that I'm proud to be British then it doesn't matter if I kill these people. It becomes a smaller and smaller step for people to take.
SOBAAN: Islam isn't spread by the sword.
BOY: It's spread by the prophet's among us.
SOBAAN: Yeah, exactly, that's the point. You don't have to fight to make a point, do you.
SHIRAZ: I'd like this discussion to take place in every classroom. Sobaan is a clever guy but young minds are easily moulded.
SOBAAN: This is the first time I've come across a person that's actually been part of an extremist group, and half way through that conversation we were having I was a bit swayed towards like reading into an extremist group because I was like well some of these ideas are right. But when we started picking out the details and the way they do what they do, I felt that's not right, and then that kind of pulled me back to where I was again, where I wouldn't support groups like that.
SHIRAZ: Everything I've read about what the government is trying to do says that this strategy focuses around reaching people like them and equipping them with a basic understanding of Islam so they can resist extremist ideas, and here, on the streets of Bradford, a few hundred metres from where I used to live once, nothing has really changed. I asked the minister whether the government is really reaching people like Sobaan.
PARMJIT: I won't pretend that we have penetrated every single community but we do accept that we have a big job here in terms of winning hearts and minds.
SHIRAZ: Isn't government's position essentially an impossible one on this issue because on the one hand you've got to reach out to young Muslims and prevent them from embracing extremist ideas, and on the other hand, anything that's got the government's hand within it is inherently treated with suspicion?
PARMJIT: What we've got to do is work with people like yourself and others to ensure that that level of resilience is there right the way across our communities, across the land to make sure that that landscape is changing across the board and that's what we're committed to doing through these six million pound path-finders, a further 70 million pounds worth of investment beyond that, but this isn't just about money, this isn't just about what government can do, it's about what we do together.
SHIRAZ: The government has lots of ideas but are they the right ones? I think young Muslims must be encouraged to speak out against extremism. The contribution of British Muslims to society needs to be made clear and the government should ban Hizb ut-Tahrir and then there's the pace of change. Panorama contacted ten local councils who have been given money to combat extremism. The reality is, two years after 7/7 many of their projects are still in the planning phase.
Former Hizb ut-Tahrir activist
I think the government would be the first to admit they still fully don't understand this, and I say this after meeting MPs and ministers in recent months who are involved with this because you're talking about people who are mostly middle class who had a sheltered upbringing in certain parts of the world, suddenly find themselves with this real problem which is loaded with race, gender, religion, confrontation, politics; that's a lethal cocktail. They feel like they're treading on eggshells here.
SHIRAZ: When you're an Islamist you're lost inside a network that looks after you. Coming out is a lonely business. Intellectually you can reject Islamism, but emotionally it's harder. I knew I'd lose my friends and this group which was my life. But the real grief comes when you decide to start criticising HT.
ED HUSAIN: I was called all sorts of horrible names, sent all sorts of horrible emails. One member of Hizb ut-Tahrir made a death threat against me. Others from other institutions in London have also sort of made threats, phoned me up and said: "Don't come to this part of London."
SHIRAZ: It will come as no surprise that I've been subject to a smear campaign too. This has included posting my parents address, home telephone number and my mobile phone number on the internet. It's been confirmed to me that this smear campaign was organised by HT members, but HT disputes this. In a statement to Panorama they say: "We reject the allegations that our organisation or its members have engaged in smearing former members, publishing their home addresses or phone numbers or making death threats."
SHIRAZ: On the issue that HT promotes violence they say: "The commitment of Hizb ut-Tahrir not to be involved in any violent or militant activity at any stage is based on its faith and understanding of the revelation of God which makes its involvement in any terrorist or violent impossible, either in theory or practice."
[To read the full Hizb ut-Tahrir statement visit bbc.co.uk/panorama]
SHIRAZ: I realised there's no contradiction between feeling British while remaining Muslim. I still think the war in Iraq is wrong and I'd like to see an end to dictatorships in places like Egypt. Change is happening. There are now more people leaving Islamist networks and challenging the extremists head on, and the government is engaging in the problem. But what's bothering me is that they're not moving with any sense of urgency.
JEREMY VINE: Shiraz Maher who signed up to radical Islam on 9/11 and decided to leave on 7/7. Can he persuade others to follow him? Next week in Sub Prime Suspect why are some people getting mortgages worth twenty times their salary and will misselling here cause the same crisis it did in America?