The South Asia Channel

The British trail to the Afghan jihad

The successful conviction in Manchester, Northern England,of Munir Farooqi, Matthew Newton and Israr Malik, highlighted once again (as ifmore proof was needed) the existence of the dark connection between Britainand the war in Afghanistan. A former Taliban fighter who had returned toManchester after being picked up on the battlefield not long after the U.S.invasion by ...

CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images
CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images

The successful conviction in Manchester, Northern England,of Munir Farooqi, Matthew Newton and Israr Malik, highlighted once again (as ifmore proof was needed) the existence of the dark connection between Britainand the war in Afghanistan. A former Taliban fighter who had returned toManchester after being picked up on the battlefield not long after the U.S.invasion by Northern Alliance forces, Farooqi ran a recruitment network inNorthern England that fed an unknown number of fighters to the fight alongsidethe Taliban in Afghanistan. What was most striking about the case, however, wasthe way it exposed the method by which recruitment cells operate in the UnitedKingdom, following a model that is likely emulated elsewhere in the west.

MunirFarooqi first came to the United Kingdom when he was about five years old.Born in Pakistan, he is part of the community of migrants from Pakistan whocame to the West during the first large-scale migrations in the 1960s fromtheir homes in South Asia. Brought up largely in the United Kingdom, he speakswith a pronounced regional British accent and is married with three children. Astrong part of him, however, remained attached to his community in South Asia,and following the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 heimmediately headed back to join the Taliban. His experience on the battlefieldwas short lived, and by November he had been captured as part of a NorthernAlliance operation in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Held in one ofGeneral Rashid Dostum’s prisons, he was fortunate enough to be moved to aPakistani jail, from where his British wife was able to come and fetch him fora fee in May 2002.

Once back in Britain he maintained his passion for the causein Afghanistan, and travelled back and forth to Pakistan. In 2003, borderagents stopped him as he returned from Pakistan and searching his luggage foundpicturesof him posing alongside armed men in the Swat Valley. Using such images andhis own personal experience as a former Taliban fighter with injuries to showfor it, Farooqi was able to conjure up the joy of jihad to disenfranchisedyoung men he would encounter amongst Manchester’s Muslim community. Ashe put it when asked by an undercover officer whether he would want tofight again, "you know when you’ve tasted the honey….then you only wantmore…until Allah takes you from this earth."

He used two bases of operations to draw young men to hiscause. In public, he ran dawah(propagation) stalls in Manchester and nearby Longsight city centers. Herehe would welcome individuals in and try to share with them information on hisview of the world — and it was at both of these that on separate occasions inNovember 2008 and January 2009 two undercover officers (who were unaware ofeach other) approached the stalls to make contact with the group. ApproachingFarooqi at the Longsight location, undercover officer "Ray" made contact onNovember 26, 2008. Over the space of the next couple of months, "Ray" convertedto Islam, and then on January 4, 2009, undercover officer "Simon" also madecontact with the cell approaching a stall being run in central Manchester byFarooqi and co-defendent MatthewNetwon, a convert who came across Farooqi in 2008 soon after he became aMuslim. Claiming to be a recovering alcoholic seeking meaning, "Simon" alsoconverted to Islam with the group, and slowly gained their confidence.

In bringing the men gradually into his web, Farooqi wouldtake them to his home from where he ran a massive operation churning outradical videos and books — he was caught with some 50,000 items of literatureand 5,000 DVDs. Here he would weave them tales about jihad, drawing on his ownexperiences to gradually persuade them of the glory of fighting in Afghanistan.A charismatic figure, he was able to quickly persuade individuals to come tohis views, as characterized by Newton, who was rapidly drawn to Farooqi’s wayof thinking after the two met. Newton, like Farooqi, was convicted of of "preparingterror acts, soliciting to murder and disseminating terrorist literature"and was sentenced to six years in jail.

Having drawn people in, Farooqi ensured that they stayedwithin his orbit, telling them which mosques to go to and following up withthem when they got into trouble. When another co-defendant, Israr Malik, wasincarcerated on unrelated charges, Farooqi made a point of visiting him in jailwhere he passed him radical material to share amongst fellow prisoners. A lost soulwho had become involved in criminal activity after breaking up with his girlfriend,Malik was drawn to one of Farooqi’s stalls in 2008, only to become another inthe production line of radicals he was helping develop, with the intention ofpersuading them to go and fight in Afghanistan. He was also incarcerated fortwo counts of soliciting murder and preparing for acts of terrorism.

This model of recruitment was one that has been seen beforein the United Kingdom: Mohammed Hamid, the self-proclaimed "Osama bin London"who helped take over hook-handed radical imam Abu Hamza’s mosque after he wasincarcerated, used to run dawah stalls in London, where he would make contactwith dispossessed young men and, eventually, another undercover officer. Areformed drug addict himself, Hamid ran discussion groups out of his home, hadbeen to Pakistani training camps, and offered connections for aspiring fighterswho wanted to go abroad. Most prominently, Hamid ran training camps in theU.K.’s Lake District that a number of the July 21, 2005 attempted bombersattended. He is currently finishing up a sentence in prison alongside a networkof young men he recruited, including some who were attempting to go to Somaliato fight and others who did in fact go.

It remains unclear exactly how many people Farooqi was ableto persuade to go and fight in Afghanistan. Oneestimate published in the local press said some 20 people had been sentover, A figure that seems quite low for an operation that could have been goingon for as long as eight years. However, this small number likely reflects thereality of how large the actual number of British citizens being persuaded togo and fight really is. As author and journalist JasonBurke put it recently, quoting British intelligence officials, "the yearsfrom 2004 to 2007 saw the highpoint of the flow of volunteers from the UK to[Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA]. Never more than afew score in any one year, their number has now been reduced to a handful." Butgiven recent stories of Britishmartyrs being praised in jihadi videos, former British prisoners turning up assuicide bombers in Kabul, and a small number of former Taliban fighterscontinuing to live in the United Kingdom, it seems likely that this trickle maycontinue for some time.

Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) andthe author of the forthcoming WeLove Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain's Suburban Terrorists. Twitter: @raffpantucci

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola