What turned Mohammad Sidique Khan, a softly spoken youth worker, into the mastermind of 7/7?by Shiv Malik / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
The suburbs of Leeds, unlike those of other British metropolises, have not been cowed by the centre. The centre of Leeds is actually quite small, so the suburbs are not just points on the spokes of a giant wheel, but are integral to the city. Horsforth, Adel, Belle Isle, Harehills: these are distinct small towns, each with its own character. Headingley is famous for its cricket ground, Kirkstall for its medieval abbey, and so on.
One of the most isolated and undistinguished suburbs of Leeds is Beeston. It is situated on a hill overlooking the city, and although it is only a 25-minute walk into town, few people do walk because the M621 separates Beeston from the rest of Leeds like a trench. Before the events of 7th July 2005—with which Beeston will forever be associated—outsiders had few reasons to have heard of it. Nor is it a desirable place to live. It is one of the poorest places in England, and partly for that reason it has always attracted immigrants—formerly the Irish, more recently Pakistanis. But while the centre of Leeds has developed rapidly, Beeston has remained a ghetto of relative deprivation.
Nonetheless, people who have lived in Beeston for years say that until the drug dealers moved in five to ten years ago, the appeal of the area was its strong sense of community. But after hard drugs arrived, neighbourliness was abandoned as people scurried home past the crack dens and wrecked houses. Heroin and crack helped to sustain a certain level of racial segregation too—it’s hard to be nice to strangers when you’re living in a drugs warren.
I had come to Beeston in September 2005 on assignment with the BBC. Jim Booth, a producer with the Manchester news and current affairs department, had asked if I would like to help a research team and a scriptwriter put together a factual drama based on the lives of the four 7/7 bombers—three of whom came from Beeston—that the BBC was planning to air on the first anniversary of the bombings. I had lived in Leeds for many years, and so I was familiar with Beeston’s shabbiness. Many journalists who landed there after 7/7 saw its poverty and assumed that there must be a direct link to the bombings. But the more we learned about Beeston and its bombers, the more this hypothesis turned out to be a red herring. Although poverty and exclusion are themes that wound their way through the lives of the Beeston bombers, it is the internal frictions within a traditional Pakistani community in Britain that best explain the radicalisation that led to the deaths of 56 people.
Suicide bombing is not just a religious phenomenon. It is employed by many secular organisations, including the Kurdish PKK and the Marxist Tamil Tigers. In fact, until 2000, the Tamil Tigers had carried out more suicide attacks than all other groups put together. Over the years, the profiles of individual bombers have also varied, from young boys to, more recently, women. Ariel Merari, a Tel Aviv University psychologist, has profiled 50 suicide bombers and found that there were hardly any common factors. None were deranged or schizophrenic. Few had problems like depression. Merari concluded that the only factor linking all forms of suicide terrorism was the way bombers were recruited and trained. It is the psychology of the group, not the individual, that is key.
This was something that the French sociologist Émile Durkheim identified nearly 100 years ago in Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Durkheim contrasted “egotistical” suicide—caused by a person feeling disconnected from society—with “altruistic” suicide, which occurs when “integration is too strong.”
For my BBC research team, our first month in Leeds was a write-off because no one would talk. This silence was the first sign that Beeston’s Pakistani community might harbour the kind of cohesive group in which an “altruistic” mentality could flourish. We had only the basic facts. We knew that the 7/7 ringleader, Mohammad Sidique Khan, 30 at the time of his death, had been married with one child and had worked as a youth worker and learning mentor. The other two Beeston bombers, Shehzad Tanweer and Hasib Hussain, had known Khan through his youth work. Tanweer, 22, was said to be working in his father’s fish and chip shop after having completed a two-year further education course in sports science at Leeds Metropolitan University. Hussain, just 18, was awaiting results for a series of NVQs that he had taken at a local college.
But nobody in Beeston wanted to add to those facts. At first it seemed that the community was just fed up with journalists asking dumb questions. But eventually, we realised that it wasn’t just irritation keeping people silent; it was intimidation.
We discovered this after our first important source agreed to give us an off-the-record interview. Ali—I’ve changed his name—was a switched-on, well-meaning wide boy. He wasn’t part of the bombers’ circle of friends, but he was the same age, and a solid member of the Pakistani community. After a couple of weeks of negotiation, and for a little cash, he agreed to meet us in a Thai restaurant in town. He started with the drugs problem: “To be honest with you, the downfall was a few years back. There were a lot of drug addicts in the area, which dragged everything down… I wouldn’t say that we’re stuck-up people, but you move to an area and spend money on your property. You want to live there, and if somebody’s gonna come up and throw syringes in your garden and put a brick through your window, you want to fight the battle. At the end of the day it’s your pride more than anything else.”
Ali told me that the older generation didn’t know how to deal with the drug problem. They were largely illiterate and didn’t know the system, so they would sooner move out than try to fight the dealers. The only people who seemed to do anything about the drug-taking were a group of second-generation Pakistanis called the “Mullah boys.” This was a fluid group of 15 to 20 members that formed in the mid-1990s, initially as a response to the drugs issue. Mohammad Sidique Khan was a leading member. Ali told me that on several occasions, the group kidnapped young Pakistani drug addicts and, with the consent of their families, held them in a flat near the Wahhabi-inclined mosque on Stratford Street—and forcibly cleansed them of their drug habits.
What we learned from Ali was later corroborated by an ex-drug user called Asim Suleman. He had been cold-turkeyed by the Mullah boys in 1996, and Sidique Khan, Khan’s friend Naveed Fiaz and Tafazal Mohammed, Khan’s line manager in his youth worker job, had asked Suleman back to help with another round in 2001. Following 9/11, the Mullah boys had become increasingly religious. Initially, this new-found godliness was welcomed by the older generation in Beeston—until the group began marrying people of their choice.
In Beeston Hill, the dilapidated heart of Beeston, Pakistanis make up 20 per cent of the population. They are a minority, but large enough to have been able to form their own partially ghettoised and cohesive community. Almost every family is ultimately from a rural part of Pakistani Kashmir called Mirpur, where the rules of tradition are strict and unforgiving. In Mirpur, as in many poor parts of the world, the basic structures of life—justice, security and social support—are organised by the local tribe and not by a central state. One consequence is that people can’t just marry whom they want. If they did, then over time tribal lands would be broken up by the rules of inheritance, and the economic base of the tribe, or baraderi (brotherhood), would be destroyed. This is one reason children in rural Pakistan are often treated as the property of their elders and encouraged, or forced, to marry within the baraderi.
Families that allow children to marry for love are considered to have lost their izzat, or honour. In most circumstances, the only way for the family to regain it is to kill the offending boy or girl. Pakistan has the highest number of honour killings in the world.
When the first generation of Mirpuri immigrants moved to Britain in the 1960s, the baraderi system should in theory have faded away, as social services were supplied by the state. But traditions have their uses for preserving solidarity in a migrant community, and the mechanism still flourishes. Explaining his parents’ attitudes, Ali said they would “rather you marry someone from your own caste, your own community, your own relations.”
So when the Mullah boys started conducting marriages from the premises of Iqra, the local Islamic bookshop on Bude road, it caused a stir. Ali says that when Sidique Khan’s friend Naveed Fiaz and his brother married white girls, and a Bangladeshi girl married an Afro-Caribbean guy, the community elders became very worried.
But the Mullah boys were armed with faith. As long as the marriages were between Muslims, they didn’t care about tribal tradition. And since the outsiders all converted to Islam before the marriages, the older generation’s insistence that their young marry their cousins was simply ignored.
Connected by ideas and isolated from the community as pariahs, the Mullah boys seemed to be the kind of group that Merari and Durkheim had identified. I asked Ali if he could set up an interview for me with someone from the group. He agreed to help, but the next day he rang back, apologising—he couldn’t help any more. People had found out that he had been talking to journalists, and they were going to make life difficult for him if he carried on. Before I could ask any more questions, he hung up.
No one seemed prepared to answer any more questions, and Jim Booth and I were now getting worried that our drama would never be finished. The scriptwriter had little more than a pile of notes on Islamic theology and some studies on the psychology of suicide bombing. We needed a bit of luck, and it turned up in the shape of Sidique’s brother.
The breakthrough came when I struck up a conversation about 7/7 with a loquacious Leeds cabbie. “You know Khan had a brother. He’s a taxi driver. Works for City Cabs like me,” he said. Until that moment, no one had ever mentioned Khan’s siblings, let alone a cab-driving brother working in Leeds. The cabbie, a Pakistani, went on: “It’s a blue cab, his. He looks just like his brother. Last week I picked up these white lads and they saw him and said, ‘Doesn’t he look like the bomber?’ and I said, ‘Oh yeah, you think all Pakis look the same don’t you?’ I had to keep ‘em quiet otherwise you don’t know what’ll happen. They could’ve killed him what with tempers running high. Yeah, Gultasab his name is. Does the railway station. Night shift.” And then he gave me Gultasab’s cab number.
Leeds railway station taxi rank is just outside the station entrance. After a few wasted nights passing the time with drunken clubbers, I resolved to stick it out past midnight. Finally, at 1.50am, a hackney carriage with a blue advert for medical insurance and the right licence number arrived at the front of the rank, and I got in. In order to win Gultasab’s trust, I had decided to start a normal conversation before revealing my real purpose, but nerves got the better of me and I opened with the most inappropriate line in the book: “Haven’t I seen you before?”
Like his brother, Gultasab had soft, hazel-coloured eyes, and like most cab drivers in their thirties he had a paunch, which sat well enough on his largish frame. Unlike most cabbies, however, Gultasab was very private. He later told me that it stemmed from what he saw as his traditional Pakistani mentality, which discourages talking about one’s personal life.
Gultasab’s voice was slow and quiet. When he replied to my questions, I had to strain to catch what he was saying. After I’d asked him to drive me to Bradford—a 20-minute journey—I said that I was sure I had been in his cab before. I feigned trying to recall his name: Gultasab, was it? He said that it was, but sorry, he couldn’t remember having met me.
While his voice was quiet, his diction was clear and he didn’t have the usual clipped and stumbling Yorkshire-Pakistani (or “Yorkshirestani”) accent of many Leeds cab drivers. Having lived all of his life in Yorkshire, Gultasab, like his brother, spoke with a gentle Yorkshire lilt. But when I asked him where he was from, his immediate reply was Rawalpindi, one of Pakistan’s major cities. This meant the Khans were Punjabi, not Mirpuri. In a Pakistani city, this wouldn’t have meant much, but in Britain, where migration had accentuated small differences, it meant the Khans would have been at one remove from Beeston’s community of first-generation migrants.
I asked him how big his family was. He paused, blanked the question, then asked me what I did. Since I hadn’t been given permission from the BBC to go undercover, everything I said had to be technically true, so I told him I was researching the Leeds drugs problem for the BBC. He told me that the problem in Beeston, where he lived, was bad, but that it was a lot better than four or five years ago, when people would just deny the whole issue. It wasn’t until we got to Bradford and I asked him to pull into a petrol station forecourt that I said: “Look, I can’t tell a lie.”
Saying nothing, he began writing a receipt while I searched my pockets for the £15.60 charge. Only when he had handed me my change did he turn to face me and say, “So, you can’t tell a lie?” I replied: “Yeah, I know who you are. You’re Sid’s brother.”
A look of resignation came over his face as if he had been waiting for this moment to arrive. He said that he had seen me hanging around at the station and figured that I had been waiting to get into his cab. I told him that I would leave if he wanted, but he replied: “You’re just doing your job.”
I explained that the BBC wanted to make a drama about his brother and 7/7 and, to begin with, we just wanted to talk to him, off camera and off the record. I apologised for having jumped him in his cab, but I thought that he would have slammed the door on me if I had followed him and turned up at his house.
Suddenly his tone became hostile: “If you had come to my house I wouldn’t have answered at all. I would have just said ‘no comment.’” Over the next seven months, this would be the only moment when he would raise his voice in my company.
When the BBC team visited the parents of the 7/7 bombers, they found they had little inkling of what had happened to their sons. Most of them felt a confused mixture of sorrow and shame; some had been driven into depression or denial. As Gultasab and I sat parked in the petrol station, it became clear that he, too, was suffering. Once he had confirmed that he wasn’t being recorded—I emptied my bag and showed him my dictaphone—he told me that the death of his brother had been very hard for the family, and that it was too soon for him to talk about it. He looked away and seemed to be holding back tears. He then looked back at me and said that he found the events of 7th July impossible to understand, and that his family were as confused as everybody else. “You probably know more than me,” he said. As well as the pain of the event, there was a criminal investigation and so he was apprehensive about getting involved. He said he had to keep his head down.
He gave me a lift back to Leeds and by the time he dropped me off at my house it was 2.35am. As I left, I gave him my phone number and asked him if I could get in his cab again sometime soon. “I won’t bite your head off,” he replied, and then he drove away.
Mohammad Sidique Khan was born at St James’s hospital in Leeds on 20th October 1974 to Tika Khan and his first wife, Mamida Begum. He was the youngest of four children, three boys and a girl. Tika was a foundry worker, already in his fifties, and one of the first Pakistanis to settle in Yorkshire. Soon after Sidique was born, the Khans moved to Tempest Road in Beeston. Sidique’s first school was mainly white and he seemed to integrate well—he was called Sid. Later he attended Matthew Murray high school, which was more Pakistani, but he still had many white friends. One of them, Robert Cardiss, remembers Sidique as a young teenager in the late 1980s. “Sid wasn’t in your face or outspoken, but… he wasn’t completely strait-laced either. He was friends with the in-crowd. He had white mates as well as Asian, and he would quite often be round the back of the gym at breaktime smoking a fag with the rest of us. He didn’t have any girlfriends that I know of, but he’d talk to girls. He was friendly.”
But Sidique was on a collision course with his family and background. One important reason for this was religion. At some point in the mid-1990s, when he first got involved with the Mullah boys, he became interested in Wahhabi fundamentalism; this pitted him against his family’s traditional approach to Islam.
Gultasab told me that the first time he noticed his brother had become a Wahhabi was when he started praying differently—Wahhabis add extra hand gestures between prostrations. Sidique had attended Friday prayers from a young age, and the three brothers, Hanif, Gultasab and Sidique, would fast together during Ramadan. But it was during one particular Ramadan, when Sidique was in his late teens, that he began to take a greater interest in religion. “As young men of a certain age do,” said Gultasab.
Gultasab told me that his brother had found that the traditional, community-run mosque on Hardy Street had nothing to offer him. The people who ran the mosque had no idea how to connect with the second generation, said Gultasab. They spoke and wrote in Urdu, and the only time they interacted with the younger Muslims was when they taught them to recite the Koran by rote—in Arabic.
The Wahhabis did things differently. They delivered sermons and printed publications in English. Sidique’s Urdu was poor, so the only things on Islam he could read were Wahhabi-approved publications. Gultasab said that Sidique’s progression to Wahhabism was reinforced by the fact that some of his friends, and future Mullah boys, were converting too.
(The government’s official account of Sidique’s radicalisation runs to a few paragraphs, and states: “after an incident in a nightclub, [Sidique] said that he turned to religion and it changed his life.” Gultasab said that this was “bullshit.” It was, he told me, a “gradual change,” which happened over years.)
A second source of friction between Sidique and his family was his determination to marry for love. During the years of his conversion to Wahhabism, Sidique fell in love with his future wife, Hasina Patel. The pair met at Leeds Metropolitan University in 1997; Sidique was taking a one-year course to convert a business diploma from a local college into a degree, while Hasina was studying for a three-year sociology degree. Her family was from India, and she was a Deobandi Muslim—a South Asian Wahhabi-linked movement directly opposed to the Khan family’s traditionalist Barelvi convictions.
In 1999, it seems that Sidique began to consider the step from Wahhabi fundamentalism to a form of jihadism actively committed to violence. By this time his life had become intensely narrow: the mosques where he prayed, the buildings where he helped to run Pakistani youth groups, the Iqra bookshop where he gave talks, his brother’s house—every place in his life was within a quarter of a mile of the centre of Beeston Hill’s Pakistani community.
So it was strange to learn that Khan’s earliest known attempt at recruiting for jihad took place in Manchester, 45 miles away. The discovery was made in 2006 by two journalists, Jonathan Hacker and Claudio Franco. The pair found that in summer 2001, Sidique had been working with Omar Sharif and Asif Hanif—the two Britons who travelled to Israel in 2003 to commit suicide attacks—to recruit youngsters for training in Afghanistan.
Kursheed Fiaz, a Manchester businessman, knew Hanif’s family because they had migrated to Britain from the same village in Pakistan. Fiaz explained to Hacker and Franco that in the months before 9/11, Hanif, Khan and Sharif, along with others, made a total of four visits to Fiaz’s office to preach to his teenage nephews. As a traditionalist Sunni, Fiaz said he was sceptical about what Khan would say but he was willing to let him have the pulpit anyway.
“We are taught from day one that Islam is something traditional. The rules, laws and regulations are set,” said Fiaz. “We are told how to pray, how to communicate with people, how to show respect for humankind. No one can come up today and say there’s a new way. But my lads thought, ‘We’ll have a chat with them. See what they’re made of.’”
The first few meetings were casual and Sidique Khan talked about the importance of religious duties. Only at the fourth meeting did he get to the point. To reinvigorate the youngsters with pure Islamic ways, Khan would have to take them to Pakistan, Syria or Afghanistan. “That’s when I got a bit wary,” said Fiaz. “When I asked Sidique what this was about, he said, ‘Nothing, just to visit shrines and mosques.’” Fiaz asked Khan and his friends not to return.
The recent Bluewater shopping centre bomb plot trial revealed that in 2003 Sidique was associating with Mohammed Quayyum Khan, a suspected al Qaeda contact. In July 2003, Quayyum would send Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, one of the other Beeston bombers, to receive training in bomb-making in Pakistan. However, Fiaz’s testimony reveals that Khan was plugged into a wider Islamist network well before the Iraq war, and even before 9/11.
Sidique’s recruitment techniques may not have worked well in Manchester, where no one trusted these strangers, but in Beeston he had a very different standing. For several years before his conversion to violent jihadism, Sidique had built a solid reputation as a youth worker among local young Pakistanis. It was while studying at Leeds Metropolitan University in 1997 that he had first volunteered for community youth mentoring. At this time, youth provision in Beeston was managed by Maz Ashgar, who explained to me that his junior, Tafazal Mohammed, and the people beneath Mohammed, like Sidique, represented one of the few modernising influences within Beeston’s Pakistani community.
“These guys were doing good work on drugs, racial issues and education aspiration issues. They had a different outlook on things, as they were either born here or had been here from a very young age,” said Asghar. “They’d absorbed the wider culture.”
Asghar told me that the group understood that if the Mirpuri community wanted to lever itself out of poverty, it needed to branch out from standard employment roles—taxi drivers and restaurant work. Youth mentoring was a part of this.
Nick Prica, who later took over from Asghar, explained that Khan would spend three hours a night as a “detached worker… going out and talking to kids and gaining their trust so you can help them through various problems. Like a mentor.”
Prica said that Khan was a “sharp, switched-on professional.” When Khan took on a £17,000-a-year role as a learning mentor at the racially mixed local primary school, Hillside Primary, in March 2001, Prica said that he had gained an enviable combination of experiences: community; young people; children. “He looked like a tower of strength within the community.” (Sarah Balfour, ex-headmistress of Hillside, which has now closed, is married to the Labour MP for Hemsworth, Jon Trickett, who invited Sidique to the House of Commons a year before 7/7.)
However, there were difficulties. Prica told me that a few of the Beeston youth workers had problems with rules. And by late 2004 some youth workers began taking unregistered leave to Pakistan—among them Sidique and Khalid Khaliq, who was arrested in early May in connection with 7/7 and recently charged with owning an al Qaeda training manual.
Of the four bombers, it is the association between Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, the Aldgate bomber, that was the closest. They are thought to have known each other since childhood. And when, in 2001, Khan, Naveed Fiaz and Tafazal Mohammad got into dispute with the board of the Hardy Street mosque over the mosque’s basement space—which they had been using as a gym and a youth meeting place—they resettled in an empty loft above Tanweer’s father’s fish and chip shop on Tempest Road. This is also the time that Tanweer, according to his brother Nikki, stopped attending university.
The brother of the 18-year-old Hasib Hussain, the bus bomber, played cricket with Tanweer when they were children. It is not known how Hussain met Khan, but from 2001 onwards Hussain was involved in local youth work projects. By late 2004, Khan was a regular visitor to the family home.
A source close to Jermaine Lindsay, the one 7/7 bomber not from Beeston, told the BBC that it was very likely that Lindsay (who was born in Jamaica and brought up in Huddersfield) was introduced to Khan through his associations with the radical preacher Abdullah Al-Faisal, who twice preached in Beeston before being jailed in 2003 for inciting racial hatred. Lindsay, who was 19 when he blew himself up, was in regular contact with Khan from late 2004.
Little is known about the final countdown to 7/7. It is not even clear whether all four bombers had met together before that day. Khan and Tanweer made a final long trip to Pakistan in November 2004, and in June 2005 they went on a reconnaissance trip to London, where they met Lindsay. According to some sources, Khan’s al Qaeda contacts were waiting on the outcome of the May 2005 British election before making a final decision to proceed.
It seems that Khan had been able to develop his plans relatively unhindered. He was a big fish in a small pond—”a tower of strength in the community.” Beeston’s village-like atmosphere ensured that those whom Khan recruited would remain always in his sight. But even before Khan began talking directly about the evils of western policy in Iraq and recipes for explosives, young recruits—including Khan himself—were being shaped in Beeston and similar places by an acute crisis of identity.
Among those who study British race relations, there’s an informal theory that states that 30 years after the establishment of any sizeable ethnic minority community, there will be riots. After Jewish migration into Britain in the 1900s, there were riots in the Jewish communities of east London during the 1930s. After the 1950s migration from the Caribbean, there were riots in 1981 in the Afro-Caribbean areas of Toxteth, Chapeltown and Brixton. And after the 1970s Pakistani immigration into northern England, in the summer of 2001, like clockwork, serious unrest kicked off in Oldham, then spread to Leeds, Burnley and Bradford.
One explanation is that it takes about 30 years for a sizeable second generation to establish itself and then become frustrated with its status, both within its own community and the wider society. This frustration arises in part from a question of identity. Whose culture and values do you affiliate with? Those of your parents or of your friends? Those of your community or of your country?
Hassan Butt, a former recruiter for the British jihadi network (the term violent Islamic extremists in Britain use to describe themselves), who twice met Sidique Khan, says that the reason radical Islamic movements in Britain have been able to recruit thousands of young Muslims is that they have managed to exploit this identity problem.
Butt—who was interviewed in the August 2005 issue of Prospect, just after 7/7—left the jihadi network in February 2006. (His route out, documented in a recent interview on the US current affairs programme 60 Minutes, has been slow and painful, and earlier this year he was attacked near his home in Manchester for his betrayal.) After he left the network, Butt told me that as a recruiter, his most important job was to discover what his potential recruit identified with, and then to pick holes in it. For example, if the potential recruit felt Pakistani, then Butt would focus upon the difficulty of being both British and Pakistani. Butt and many other recruiters find this easy because they know what it is like. Having lived in Britain all his life within a strongly Pakistani household, Butt felt neither British nor Pakistani. “When I went to Pakistan,” he said, “I was rejected. And when I came back to Britain, I never felt like I fitted in to the wider white British community. And you’ve got to remember that a lot of our parents didn’t want us to fit into the British community.”
Religion—in this case a purified and politicised version of Islam, far from the traditional “folk” religion of the first generation—was a natural way of transcending this cultural dislocation. “Here come the Islamists and they give you an identity… you don’t need Pakistan or Britain. You can be anywhere in the world and this identity will stick with you and give you a sense of belonging.”
Butt also explained that traditional communities often inadvertently push their young into the arms of the radicals. Attitudes to jobs, dress, schooling and socialising all play their part in driving youngsters away from their parents’ generation. But one of the biggest factors that has helped the growth of British Islamic radicalism is marriage.
Islamism’s most important tenet is that Muslims should not be divided by race or nationalism—that all Muslims are one. It therefore can offer an Islamic route out of having to marry your cousin. Butt knows this because it happened to him. When, instead of marrying his cousin, Butt tried to marry his sweetheart, he found himself deploying the arguments of his Islamist recruiter against his own father—that compulsion in marriage is un-Islamic and that forced marriages were a cultural import from Hindu India. And when the forces of traditionalism refused to give consent, Butt, like many of his friends, ended up a pariah within his own community.
“When you’re cut off from your family,” Butt explained, “the jihadi network then becomes your family. It becomes your backbone and support.” He added that when you join it becomes impossible to leave because there is nowhere else to go. The network starts operating like a cult.
According to Butt, the other big factor that has helped Islamist recruiters is the fact that in many communities, Islamists are winning what some have termed a “civil war” within Islam. For simplicity’s sake, contemporary Islam can be divided into four schools: traditionalists, fundamentalists, modernists and Islamists. Unlike the split between Christian fundamentalists and other Christians, both Islamic traditionalists and fundamentalists lean towards scriptural literalism. The main difference between the groups is how they regard the 1,400 years of theological innovation since Muhammad’s death.
While traditionalists will not hesitate to draw upon centuries of scholarly argument, evolution in Sharia law and changes in accepted Islamic practice, fundamentalist movements—of which the Saudi-backed Wahhabis are the most important—reject all theological innovation since the life of Muhammad and his closest companions. Muslims, they say, should pay attention only to the holy book and the collected sayings and doings of Muhammad. This is why, over the last 50 years, Wahhabi authorities in Saudi Arabia have demolished more than 300 historical structures in the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. They want to create a timeless Islam.
The third and smallest group are the theological modernisers—two figures well known in Britain are Tariq Ramadan and Ziauddin Sardar—who say that Muslims should look beyond the literalism of the Koran and seek out the meaning behind the words. What counts in the modern world is not the actions of Muhammad in 7th-century Arabia, but the principles that inspired those actions. Most liberal Muslims belong to this group, but they are a small minority, both within Muslim societies and in Europe.
The fourth school, Islamism, is a relatively recent offshoot of fundamentalism. It emerged in response to the final demise of Islamic authority with the fall of the Ottoman empire after the first world war, but harks back to the early days of the caliphate, when the Koran was the basis for law-making. It sees Islam not just as a religion, but as a socioeconomic system. The Koran is God’s version of Das Kapital. Islamists pick and choose teachings from across the ages, and while they read script literally and share a religious zeal with the fundamentalists, they are more akin to an ideological movement than a religious one. Their style of work is often compared with the student far left of the 1960s and 1970s.
Butt says that the war between these schools, which has been playing out across the Muslim world for decades, has ripped into Britain’s generation gap—and that the Islamists are winning.
In ten years of recruiting, Butt says that he always wanted a theological clash, but it never came. “The traditionalists and the modernisers just wanted to run their own study circles without interference.” On the other hand, if the jihadi network see someone with strong Islamic tendencies, “the moment he leaves his house in the morning, they’re there until he returns to his house in the evening.” Butt also says that unlike the traditionalists, the network won’t judge a potential recruit on his actions. “If the network see a drug dealer or someone from a gang, they will not condemn him like the traditionalists and say ‘oh brother haram, haram [forbidden].’ What they’ll try to do is to utilise his energy.”
There is also an economic dimension to the outflanking of the traditionalists. Since most of traditional Sunni Islam is devoid of an organised establishment, the money for running a mosque normally comes directly from the local Muslim community. In Britain, this means that in order to maintain community harmony, the teachings remain bland and the imam will avoid theological controversy. It also means that once there is enough money to run the mosque, there is no incentive to find new believers.
On the other side, British fundamentalists and Islamists are centrally funded. It is estimated that over the last two decades, Saudi Arabia has set aside $2-3bn a year to promote Wahhabism in other countries. It is not known how much of that money has come to Wahhabi groups in Britain, but one major recipient has been the Leeds Grand Mosque.
Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir are also centrally funded. They gather money from members, pass it to a central administration which then hands it back out again. These groups’ lack of local community focus means that they have to compete harder for “market share,” which has made them hungrier and more efficient.
So while traditionalist mosques carry on recruiting imams from back home, keep their sermons in Urdu and other Asian languages and neglect to publish material to engage new members, the Wahhabis and the Islamists give their sermons in English and take their recruitment on to the streets of Pakistani or Bangladeshi ghettos such as Beeston Hill. They have also encouraged the schooling of British-born imams, have learned to use the internet and have generally come to understand what makes the second generation tick. The Wahhabis and Islamists win new members by contrasting their galvanising message of world Islamic justice with the inactivity and irrationality of the first-generation traditionalists. (Among those who turn to violence, such as Khan, their beliefs are often a mix of fundamentalism and Islamism.) And by arguing that the traditionalists—with their saint worship, mysticism and forced marriages—have been corrupted by weakness and Hinduism, they provide useful arguments to those Pakistani and Bangladeshi youths who want to cling on to Islam but throw off their parents’ constraints.
For all these reasons, many British Muslim youths who had drifted towards fundamentalist or Islamist organisations were susceptible to the violent global jihadism that emerged in the mid-1990s. This is plain from the anti-traditionalist rhetoric of Sidique Khan’s al Qaeda-produced video suicide note. The video is 27 minutes and 29 seconds long. Most of it is filled up by a speech from senior al Qaeda member Ayman al-Zawahiri, but the central feature is Khan’s address, which runs to six minutes and 11 seconds. It has two parts, but it is only the first—about British foreign policy—that ever gets played in the mainstream media. Part two, which makes up three quarters of Khan’s speech, is addressed to Muslims in Britain. Here is an excerpt:
“Our so-called scholars today are content with their Toyotas and semi-detached houses. They seem to think that their responsibilities lie in pleasing the kufr instead of Allah. So they tell us ludicrous things, like you must obey the law of the land. Praise be God! How did we ever conquer lands in the past if we were to obey this law?… By Allah these scholars will be brought to account, and if they fear the British government more than they fear Allah then they must desist in giving talks, lectures and passing fatwas, and they need to sit at home and leave the job to the real men, the true inheritors of the prophets.”
The first time Hassan Butt met Khan was at a jihadi safe house in Pakistan in 2002. Butt said they were introduced through a mutual friend, Mohammad Junaid Babar, a junior al Qaeda fixer who has been in US custody since 2004 and has since turned supergrass. Khan introduced himself as Mohammad, but other jihadis called him Mo, which he didn’t like. Butt says that although there were plenty of “joker types” in the movement, Khan wasn’t one to mess around. He was a thinker—intelligent and polite.
Looking back at the second time he met Khan, Butt believes it may shed light on the extent to which the security services were aware of Khan’s activities. The pair met at Khan’s house in Batley near Leeds, where Khan had moved with his wife in 2002. Butt was dropping off Babar, the al Qaeda fixer, when he was recognised by Khan, who invited him in. For 20 minutes they talked about Iraq and Afghanistan and how Allah had protected Mullah Omar and Bin Laden from capture, and then Butt left Babar at Khan’s house. Butt says that this meeting demonstrates that Babar—who identified Khan to the US authorities after 7/7—must have known that Khan was planning an operation, otherwise jihadi security protocol would have prevented them from meeting. Butt therefore questions why the authorities were unable to catch Khan, given that Babar became a supergrass for the US more than a year before 7/7.
After the recent conclusion of the Bluewater bomb plot trial, Khan’s moves after 2003 have become clearer. We know MI5 tailed him back to his house in February 2004 after he met with central figures in that plot. We also know that the security services and West Yorkshire police made a number of enquiries into his activities during late 2004 and early 2005. The official explanation for the failure to catch Khan is that when MI5 monitored conversations between him and the Bluewater plotters, it appeared he was only interested in raising funds for the jihadi network. He seemed no more than a “petty fraudster.” Since dozens of people had appeared on the peripheries of the Bluewater plot, targets had to be prioritised and the security services took the decision not to bracket Khan with other more urgent threats.
When I had first met Butt in mid-November 2005 for a detailed briefing on Sidique Khan, he was still a true believer who fully supported Khan’s actions. But he also said that Khan was “selfish” because, being one of the jihadi network’s thinkers, he should have stayed and helped to recruit others, rather than opt for the “quick route.” To seek further clues as to what had hurried Khan to the “quick route,” a few days after my meeting with Butt I decided to visit Gultasab at the place he had instructed me to stay away from—his house.
Gultasab Khan lives in a three-bedroom house at the nice end of a nice street, at the bottom of Beeston Hill. For a family home, it is sparsely decorated and unnervingly clean—being inside felt like sitting in a car whose owner has decided to keep the plastic covers on the seats. I turned up at 10.15pm, and when Gultasab came to the door he was angry. He reminded me that he had told me not to visit him here. When I said I had something important to tell him, he paused and then invited me inside.
I waited in the hallway while Gultasab went into the kitchen to talk to his wife. While they talked, I caught a glimpse of her. She was tall and dressed in a brightly coloured shalwar kameez, her head uncovered. After Gultasab emerged from the kitchen and showed me into the front room, I never saw her again. Even when the tea was brought into the living room, she stood behind the door until Gultasab collected it. The only thing Gultasab told me about his wife was that she was also his cousin.
The front room had been turned into a guest room, furnished in the traditional Pakistani style. Apart from a rug, a coffee table and a green leather sofa, with a matching single-seater at right angles to it, the room was empty. It was designed for the purposes of sitting and talking only. But Gultasab was in no mood to shoot the breeze, and when he had hurried through the ritual of serving tea, I told him everything that I had learnt from Butt about Sidique’s jihadist connections.
Gultasab remained quiet through the retelling, but every so often would pipe up with comments that would parade his scepticism about what Butt had said. When it came to the information about Khan rejecting his arranged marriage, which I had first heard from Butt, Gultasab tried to deny it (although some weeks later he did, finally, confirm it). I pressed Gultasab on the importance of revealing what had happened to his brother. After all, Mohammad Sidique Khan was now an icon for other British jihadis, so if Gultasab wanted to stop further attacks then it was important to know how his brother had become radicalised. Gultasab agreed that it was important to put a stop to any more bombings, but said it was still too soon to talk.
The next I heard, the authorities had released Khan’s body parts and so Gultasab had left for Pakistan to attend his brother’s funeral. He didn’t show up again at the taxi rank until late January, two months later. During my next few visits to his house, Gultasab remained cagey, even when I asked him uncontroversial questions—like what his brother was like as a kid. I often confronted him on why he was refusing to talk. He usually repeated his line about not wanting to get embroiled in matters that were being dealt with by the police. But on one occasion, in early June 2006, I got a different answer. I was sitting in his house for what would be the last time and we were going through the BBC script when Gultasab told me that he himself had become more religious over the last three years. For some reason, I translated my usual question of whether he thought what his brother had done was “good” or “bad”—he had said that it was a terrible thing several times—and instead asked him whether he thought 7/7 was halal (permitted) or haram (forbidden) in Islam. Only when a look of stunned surprise come over Gultasab’s face did I realise that I must have been asking him an entirely different question. After a brief pause, he replied. “No comment.”
Here, it seemed, was the perfect example of the division between two worldviews—secular ethics and an embattled Islamic faith. How long had Gultasab managed to function with these two conflicting positions fighting within him? Everyday morality told him that his brother had committed a cold-blooded act of terror, while his own Islamic theology told him that there was no clear answer and maybe, in some parallel universe, his brother was a kind of hero. How many thousands of young British Muslims are similarly conflicted?
This is a question that Peter Clarke, the head of Scotland Yard’s counterterrorism unit, is still trying to answer. After three further suspects from the Beeston area were charged this April with being involved in helping to plot 7/7, Clarke held a press conference in which he accused some West Yorkshire Muslims of keeping information from the police. “I firmly believe that there are other people who have knowledge of what lay behind the attacks,” said Clarke. “Knowledge that they have not shared with us. In fact, I don’t only believe it. I know it for a fact.”
Clarke continued: “Some of you will have real concerns about the consequences of telling us what you know. I also know that some of you have been dissuaded from speaking to us. Surely this must stop. The victims of the attacks, and those who will become victims of terrorism in the future, deserve your co-operation and support.” A month after this press conference, Sidique’s wife Hasina, her brother Arshad and her 22-year-old cousin Imran Motala were arrested in connection with 7/7—though all were subsequently released without charge.
It was the Khan family preacher who eventually revealed the secret behind Beeston’s silence. The Khan family, and, it seems, at least a couple of dozen others, had known that Sidique was a potentially violent radical for at least six years before 7/7. In many ways, his transition from a westernised and Islamically indifferent teenager to fully-fledged jihadi followed a conventional pattern. The family’s typical traditionalist efforts to stop him just made things worse.
For example, when in 1999 it became clear that unlike his older brothers, Hanif and Gultasab, Sidique wasn’t going to play ball, marry his cousin and revert to being a Barelvi, his father sent him to the family’s long-time spiritualist priest to sort him out. The priest, or pir, Sultan Fiaz ul-Hassan—who is a rather showy figure with his fancy cars and sizeable entourage—explained to me that when Khan was sent to him, he was no longer the boy who used to look up to him. Khan told the pir that he had changed his views on Islam, and said that he wanted to go for jihad training in Afghanistan.
Then, in 2001, in a last desperate attempt to get his youngest son to obey his wishes, Tika Khan decided to move to Nottingham with Hanif, his daughter Nafiza and his second wife, also called Mamida Begum. (Tika’s first wife, the mother to his four children, had died a few years before; it is not known how badly Sidique had been affected.) Tika was hoping that the 26-year-old Sidique would follow his family to Nottingham, away from his Wahhabi friends and Deobandi girlfriend. If the strategy failed—which it did—then at least Tika wouldn’t have to associate with his son any more. And after Sidique got married, on 22nd October 2001, the links between father and son were cut. No longer rooted to his family, Sidique’s immersion into Britain’s network of jihadists was complete.
So given Sidique’s widely known desire to train for jihad, why didn’t anybody act to stop him? Shiraz Maher, a Leeds recruiter for Hizb ut-Tahrir who has now left the organisation, told me that it was well known that there were jihadis in Beeston: “It’s just that no one expected them to actually do anything.”
When I asked Gultasab why he didn’t try to prevent his kid brother from going down the path of jihad, he gave a similar answer. No one had expected him to become a suicide bomber. Why would Sidique kill himself barely a year after his wife had given birth to a baby girl—on whom he apparently doted? This question was never really answered, but most people in Beeston were pleased that the kids were becoming more religious. “Better them being Wahhabi than on drugs,” said Gultasab. “People appreciated the kids running a bookshop because they were peers to the younger generation—who were no longer listening to the elders.” The elders thought that the kids would come back to their roots. As Gultasab told me, when marriages took place without family consent, people thought that eventually everything would just be reconciled, as things usually are between children and their parents. And why would Sidique, the moderniser of his community—and “the kindest member of our family”—end up committing such a barbaric act?
In the end, the BBC drama was never made. The script was finished in good time, but the commissioners decided it wouldn’t work as a drama. But as we approach the second anniversary of 7/7, Beeston’s story deserves to be told.
Khan may have felt indignant about western foreign policy, as many anti-war campaigners do, but that wasn’t the reason he led a cell of young men to kill themselves and 52 London commuters. At the heart of this tragedy is a conflict between the first and subsequent generations of British Pakistanis—with many young people using Islamism as a kind of liberation theology to assert their right to choose how to live. It is a conflict between tradition and individuality, culture and religion, tribalism and universalism, passivity and action.
When it is stated like this, the problem of Islamic extremism looks depressingly intractable. The government’s first reaction following 7/7 was to consult with a wide range of Muslim opinion, including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and similar bodies. The government now argues that the MCB and some of its affiliates are as much part of the problem as of the solution, and the new initiatives to tackle radicalism stress the promotion of British values at a grassroots level and working more closely with the few liberal modernisers in Britain’s Muslim community. But maybe all that we can do now is remain vigilant and wait for the tide in the battle for Islam’s soul to turn in the west’s favour.
According to the official account of 7/7, at around 8.30am at King’s Cross station on the day of the bombings, “four men fitting their descriptions are seen hugging. They appear happy, even euphoric.”
This euphoria is a well-documented phenomenon of suicide bombing. In the closing scenes of the BBC drama that never was, Jermaine Lindsay turns to Khan and says, “I want my children to be proud of me.” Khan replies, “They will be.” And as the four bombers move through King’s Cross, Khan suddenly stops, turns to the rest of the group and says: “There are no goodbyes, only a lapse of time. We will see our families soon.” The four then embrace and everyone moves off. As Khan sits on the train, the sounds of the underground fade away into silence, except for the rise and fall of a child’s breath, his own child’s breath, in his ear. He realises that this is a final test of his faith, and then, just before he blows the carriage apart, he sighs and smiles.