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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 July 2007, 13:51 GMT 14:51 UK
Students who descended into extremism
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs

Mohammed Irfan Raja
Mohammed Irfan Raja: Join the caravan, said a text he studied

Five young British Muslim men have been jailed for downloaded and sharing masses of extremist material. During their trial they argued that they were not terrorists but intellectually curious. But what evidence convinced the jury they had gone too far?

When Mohammed Irfan Raja quietly walked out of his family home in Ilford, east London, on 24 February 2006, he had dreams of becoming known for something more than the 18-year-old schoolboy he then was.

But today, as the 19-year-old and four men from Bradford University begin jail sentences, his name becomes just another associated with the jihadi extremism of radicalised young British Muslim men.

In one of the first trials of its kind Raja, Awaab Iqbal, 20, Aitzaz Zafar, 20, Usman Malik, 21, and Akbar Butt, 20 have been jailed for downloading and sharing extremist terrorism-related material.

Raja and his co-accused had watched videos of men blowing themselves up in Iraq and elsewhere - films where the suicide bomber often appears ecstatic in his final moments, edited to rousing music before being posted online.

They had dipped into the classic jihadi texts passed around on the internet, including an infamous call to arms urging men to "Join the Caravan" and become mujihadeen warriors for Afghanistan.

And Raja's intention, according to the prosecution, was clear in the letter he left his parents.

Clockwise from top left: Aitzaz Zafar, Akbar Mohammed Butt, Usman Malik and Awaab Iqbal
Clockwise from top left: Aitzaz Zafar, Akbar Mohammed Butt, Usman Malik and Awaab Iqbal
"If not in this [world] we will meet in the [highest reaches of heaven]," he wrote in English and Arabic. "When death befalls you maybe then you will appreciate why I have gone now. At such news there are parents in the world that would phone their families and friends and rejoice at the decision of their son.

And below a dotted line he added: "PS just in case you think I am going to do something in this country, you can rest easy that I am not - the conventional method of warfare is safer.

"PPS if you want to keep my letter then cut from the dotted line, as these people (of UK) use everything against you."

These people included his parents. Decent hardworking people, they called the police, fearing their son had been brainwashed by terrorists.

Raja, meanwhile, was already hundreds of miles away. His personal journey on the road of radicalisation had brought him into contact with the four students via a like-minded American "brother" called Ali, whom they all knew via the net.

Political change

When Raja decided he wanted to move beyond being sympathetic to jihadism, "Brother" Ali in New Jersey had pointed him in the direction of the Bradford four. They were planning to go to Pakistan to train to fight in Afghanistan, he was to learn.

Dear mother I need your prayer, tie a coffin on my head
Track in Urdu recovered from Irfan Raja's computer

Raja arrived in Bradford carrying three CDs entitled "Philosophy" full of extremist material. But in the words of his counsel James Sturman QC the teenager quickly changed his mind. "He crossed the Rubicon but having set foot on the other bank, he turned back immediately - his guilt was very short-lived," he told the court.

Back home questions were being asked about how Irfan Raja had got involved in this ideology. Irfan, the court heard, had been depressed and lonely.

The family were not the source of the ideology: Irfan's grandfather had proudly served in the British India police force. His medal, pinned personally on his chest by Lord Mountbatten in 1944, is a family heirloom.

On returning home, Raja, supported by his family, decided to tell the police everything. In one interview he spoke openly and frankly about why he thought it was right to go and fight for Muslim causes abroad.

Online radicalisation

After police arrested the others, their probing of computers revealed mountains of extremist material - chatroom transcripts, jihadi songs and rhetorical texts.

Aitzaz Zafar
Police found a computer montage of Zafar and the 9/11 hijackers
The five had all spent hours online in their respective bedrooms, or at college, talking to other radicalised youngsters in areas of the internet completely unbeknown to their parents.

While none of the men had plans to be bombers in the UK, some of them had downloaded technical information on bombs and portions of what the police described as an Al Qaeda training manual. The four students did however have plans to go to Pakistan.

Their key contact was another British man called Imran. In one online chat, Imran explained how they could come to his home in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province unnoticed. He also advised them on how to shake off any surveillance.

"Have a cover story," he tells them. "Get a wedding card made up, and photos of your cousins."

These men had entered a closed environment in which to be a member of this elite circle of believers in the cause was enough to convince yourself that your choices were right.

The prosecution said the men were sufficiently far down the road to be a real danger.

Counsel for the defence argued that the plans were, at best, incoherent and amateurish.

Awaab Iqbal and Aitzaz Zafar on a computer-created image showing a gun and jihadi paramilitary symbolism
Montage: Iqbal and Zafar in computer-created image

David Gottlieb QC, for Usman Malik, asked whether Judge Peter Beaumont, the Recorder of London, would serve the public interest by "making martyrs".

But sentencing the five men to a total of 13 years, Judge Beaumont said jail was appropriate.

"In my judgement, you were intoxicated by the extremist nature of the material each of you had collected, shared and discussed," he said.

"Each of these sentences is designed to send a message - but also intended not to crush you," he said.

An elderly female relative in the public gallery quietly wept and held her hands skywards, gently in prayer. A male relative put a hand across his chest in the traditional way that a Muslim offers friendship and love. He nodded to the five men, who at times looked no more than boys, as they were taken down.

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