As my associations with radical Islamists expanded, I was often surprised by who among them crossed the Rubicon from talk to terror. They were rarely the obvious ones. But it was clear even in 1999 that London and especially the mosque at Finsbury Park was becoming the clearing-house for dozens of militants’ intent on acts of terrorism.
An image grab taken from a video released by the Islamic State (IS) and identified by private terrorism monitor SITE Intelligence Group on September 13, 2014 purportedly shows British aid worker David Haines dressed in orange on his knees in a desert landscape speaking to the camera before being beheaded by a masked militant (R). This would be the third such execution in recent weeks, after two US journalists taken hostage in Syria were shown murdered. Pic/AFP
And they often had similar backgrounds: with difficult or violent childhoods, little education and few prospects; unemployed, unmarried and seething with resentment. Aware of the militants rhetoric emerging from places like the Finsbury Park mosque, the British security services were beginning to pay more attention to London’s jihadist scene.
An image grab taken from a video released by the Islamic State (IS) and identified by private terrorism monitor SITE Intelligence Group shows a masked militant (R) threatening to execute British hostage Alan Henning dressed in orange and on his knees in a desert landscape as his next victim just after beheading 44-year-old British aid worker David Haines. Pic/AFP
But like many Western agencies they seemed to be playing catch-up, trying to grasp the extent of the problem, find out more about the leading lights, travel and funding, the rivalries among radical circles. Brixton and Finsbury Park became the battlegrounds for Londonistan, pitching the pro-Saudi Salafis like old Tayyib against a generation of angry jihadis that wanted to bring down the Saudi royal family, fight the Russians in Chechnya and purify the Muslim world of Western influences.
For my own part, books, lectures and conversations late into the night all helped prod me towards support for jihad, for taking up arms to defend the faith. I could not understand why the imams of most London mosques, including Abdul Baker at Brixton, studiously avoided mention of jihad let alone issue fatwas, commands to actions. In Dammaj the duty of jihad as part of our religion had been our daily fare.
An image grab taken from a video released by the Islamic State (IS) and identified by private terrorism monitor SITE Intelligence Group on September 13, 2014 purportedly shows a masked militant holding a knife and gesturing as he speaks to the camera in a desert landscape before beheading British aid worker David Haines. Pic/AFP
In the dying days of 1999, I went to a lecture in Luton, a town north of London, by Shaikh Yahya al-Hajuri, one of the teachers at Dammaj. He was surprised to see me. 'What are you doing here?' he asked me as I greeted him afterwards. ‘You are supposed to be back in Yemen.’ I was taken aback by his tone. Had I abandoned the true path? Was my faith being adulterated in Europe? I went home and prayed for guidance, for a sign from Allah that I should return to what in many ways was the cradle of my devotion.
It came on a Friday morning just weeks later. I had dropped into the basement kitchen at the Regent’s Park mosque for a cheap meal. A dark-skinned woman approached me, looking anxious. ‘Brother, please can you come to help my husband.
He wants to pray but can’t walk from the car.’ I went upstairs with her. The couple was from Mauritius. Her elderly husband looked so fragile that I thought to move him might break him. He was sitting in the driver’s seat of an ancient Mercedes.
‘I’m all right, brother,’ he said. ‘I just need to rest and get my breath back.’ I picked up my inhaler from the floor of the car. But he only became paler; it was almost as if he were vanishing before my eyes. His breathing became laboured, a quiet heaving scarcely audible amid the rush of traffic. His eyes closed and he fell back in the seat.
There was a faint gurgling in his throat and his eyes reopened, staring vacantly through the front window. I thought for a moment that he had recovered from some sort of spasm but soon found myself muttering in Arabic ‘There is no God but Allah’ to aid his passage to paradise. He coughed weakly and was gone.
As his wife screamed hysterically, I lifted the man out of the car and was struck for an instant by how surreal the scene must seem: a large Viking carrying a sliver of an African across lanes of London traffic. A park warden ran over to tell me that he had radioed for an ambulance. But it was too late.
It shook me. How we all hang by a thread. I helped prepare the man’s corpse for burial at the Wembley mosque in keeping with Islamic practice. As I washed the grey skin I thought about how I had seen him leave this world — and how fortunate he had been that a fellow Muslim had been on hand to pray for him as he passed.
It was a sign. I could not die here among the kuffar. I had to be surrounded by people of my faith. If you died among disbelievers it was a sin. In the words of one hadith: ‘Whoever settles among the disbelievers, celebrates their feasts and joins in their revelry and dies in their midst will likewise be raised to stand with them on the Day of Resurrection.’
The world was divided into believers and non-believers, and the worst Muslim is better than the best Christian. But to return to the Muslim world would require a passport. Mine had been ruined during my travels. I went to the Danish embassy in London to try to get a replacement. But they had other business with me — an outstanding criminal conviction.
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Back in 1996, I had been involved in a scrap in a bar over a spilt drink. I had head-butted one of my assailants and then punched another. I was arrested on the way home and later sentenced to a six-month term, to be served in typically Danish fashion when cell space became available.
Before it did, I had left Denmark, and under the date-palms in Dammaj I had forgotten the whole episode. Now the sentence was overdue — and I would only get a new passport if I returned to Denmark to face the music. I would spend the first months of the new millennium behind bars.