Looking for Paradise: Musa Ahmet's story
This is the original Sunday Times article, before editing. The link to the ST and discussion of the article is in the shorter post below this one
Ever since I was caught up in the London bombings of 7 July 2005, I have tried to learn more about terrorism. To understand is not to condone, nor to forgive. But I believe that by studying the roots of radicalization, we have a better chance of preventing atrocities in future.
Last year, I read about Hassan Butt, an ex-jihadi who has renounced extremism and is now engaged in de-radicalisation work. A fortnight ago I participated in a Newsnight discussion about whether Butt, who was co-authoring a book with journalist Shiv Malik about his journey, until police seized the manuscript and notes, should be prosecuted for his past fundraising for terrorism and radicalizing British youths. I argued that if Butt’s outreach work could stop potential suicide bombers, he was more useful to us outside jail.
April 22 sees the launch of Quilliam, a new counter-extremism think-tank, created by former activists of radical Islamist organisations, who are familiar with the mindset and methods of extremist groups. Another hopeful sign. But sometimes I still want to weep.
On Thursday I sat in Kingston Crown court with some of the families bereaved by the London bombings, watching the trial of three men alleged to have conspired to cause explosions on 7/7. The court was shown CCTV footage of the 7/7 bombers’ journey from Beeston to Kings Cross underground network. We saw footage of two of the explosions and pictures of the devastated carriages and bus. We saw a home video of lead bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan kissing his baby daughter, telling her ‘I have to do this thing for our futures’ as he prepared to head off for martyrdom. It was shattering to watch.
Researching extremism led me to blogger and independent film maker Dave Bones, who has spent five years filming the men who used to gather outside Finsbury Park Mosque listening to Abu Hamza preach. A few weeks ago, Dave introduced me to Musa Ahmet, who spent nine months in Belmarsh with some of the UK’s most notorious terrorists and terror suspects before being found innocent and released in May 2007. Musa’s younger brother Atilla is still inside Belmarsh. Formerly the bodyguard of radical cleric Abu Hamza, he is serving 6 years 11 months after pleading guilty to incitement to murder. After Abu Hamza was jailed in February 2006, Atilla led Friday prayers in the streets outside the Mosque. He was dubbed ‘Hate Preacher Atilla the Scum’ by the media. In an infamous interview with CNN in August 2006, Atilla said Bush, Blair, the army, police and banks which charged interest were ‘targets’ and that 9/11 was a ‘deserved punch in the nose for America’.
Musa tells me how his brother has changed inside Belmarsh, stepping in to protect a guard from another prisoner, studying the Qur’an properly for the first time. Atilla says he now understands that the words of the Prophet should not be used to justify violence against innocents. He is being kept in the hospital wing for his own safety. Later, I manage to speak to Atilla on the phone in prison, and he confirms to me that he wants to ‘say sorry to the British and American people for what he said’.
I ask the engagingly friendly Musa, who is smartly dressed in a suit with a shaved head and neatly-trimmed goatee, why his brother said such incendiary things to the cameras.
‘He likes the limelight’ explains Musa, who loves his younger brother, but is of the opinion that his previous business partner and ‘closest person in the world’ ‘lost it’ when he became part of a radical group.
Settling down on my sofa, Musa tells me his family’s story.
Born in Islington in 1959 to ‘strict’ Turkish Cypriot parents who moved to the UK in the 1950’s, Musa was the second of five brothers, with two sisters. Atilla is the youngest brother, (‘he looks older because of his big beard’), and closest to Musa. Their father worked hard to support the family, taking a job as a chef at the Savoy, then working for British Rail, before becoming a textile designer. Musa enjoyed primary school, but his eldest brother had a bad reputation. Aged 11, Musa had his first experience of getting into serious trouble because of one of his brothers when he was falsely accused by the primary school headmistress of letting down her car tyres. His father gave him ‘a right good hiding’.
'I couldn’t believe it. I begged. It was a shame, when you’re a kid and you’re telling the truth and your parents don’t believe you – it hurts. It’s sort of a double smack. But there was nothing I could do, so I had to take it’. But the unfairness rankled, and he began to play truant from school. Aged 13, he and his best friend managed to get work loading scrap metal onto ships at Greenwich Docks, passing themselves off as 18 year olds. Musa gave most of the money he earned to his Mum. ‘I loved it. I preferred working to going to school. I was earning three or four times my father’s wages’. The job ended abruptly when the school found out and threatened to sue the company if the boys did not return to school.
Musa got into gang fights in his teens, and aged 14, spent two years in a young offenders institute. He worked in his father’s textile factory on his release, but another fight aged 17 saw him put into Borstal. Released at 19, he decided he had ‘learned his lesson’. He and his brothers – including Atilla – lived for the weekend, when they would ‘get done up all nice, go clubbing… rock and roll. I loved Elvis and all that, I grew up doing the bop, and I used to pull a big crowd when I danced'
Unlike many of his school friends, he had always avoided hard drugs, and although he considered himself a Muslim, he knew little about Islam. ‘I classed myself as a Brit, doing what everyone else was doing’. Lacking qualifications, Musa and his brothers found themselves unable to get steady jobs. They began working as minders for a Turkish gangster family. Violence, drinking, late nights and girlfriends were a way of life. ‘Me and my brothers, we were well-known to the police’. Then Atilla’s older brother was shot through both legs in the early nineties. Did that feel like a message? ‘Yes’
Both men settled down with women they loved. Atilla married and had four children; Musa's first son was born when he was twenty-three, and he went on to have four more children with his partner.
One day an old clubbing mate came to the café the brothers ran in London’s Old Kent Rd and urged them to join him in embracing Islam. Atilla ‘loved it. He grabbed it straight away. He changed within weeks’. Musa felt that he could not be a ‘strong Muslim’ as he sold alcohol in his club. Meanwhile, Atilla, who had begun praying five times a day and had given up drinking, smoking, swearing and ‘naughty stuff’ was upset that the police seemed to have not noticed his new sincerity. ‘Now Atilla’s become a good guy, but he still wasn’t accepted. That’s why he said in one of his speeches ‘I owe this country nothing. What has this country done for me apart from mixing me with drug dealers, killers…? They’re trying to protect young impressionable Muslims from me… but where was my protection from the likes of the extremists?’
Soon after, Atilla was asked by his new friends to manage security for Abu Hamza at Finsbury Park Mosque. Musa had by now embraced Islam himself, but was not part of the radical group.
Journalists, police officers, spooks and crowds of young men would hang around the mosque watching Abu Hamza talk. The controversial cleric’s speeches were headline news, and soon Atilla began to notice the cameras were trained on him too. ‘Him getting into the papers gave him a buzz. It gave him a big head, because he would run out and get all the papers. He loved the limelight.’
Encouraged by Abu Hamza, Atilla began to give impromptu sermons of his own He copied Abu Hamza’s style of fiery rhetoric, mixed with conspiracy theories and angry condemnations of British and US foreign policy. Musa thinks it unfair that his brother was thrust into such a high profile position, although he admits that his brother did not keep his mouth shut when journalists encouraged him to deliver the controversial quotes that make good copy.
‘There was people behind it, they put him up front…he said at first ‘I can’t do it’. He wasn’t an expert on the Qur’an. He was under a lot of pressure to get a Friday speech together… I know there was a few knowledgeable people behind him, that wouldn’t go up front, wrote for him, said, look, speak on this subject. … Where are these people now? Where were they when my brother was arrested?’
After Abu Hamza was jailed, Atilla became even more outspoken. Musa was horrified when he saw Atilla boast to journalists of his ‘thousands’ of followers and being the 'Number One Al Qaeda in Europe'.
‘He lied. He put himself right in it. Because he didn’t have followers. He didn’t have anything. He said some really stupid things’. Musa tried to get his brother away from the cameras. ‘Me and my friend Kem asked Atilla, what did you go and say that for? And Atilla said ‘I’ve had enough.’ He was giving it up anyway. You know, that was his last media thing.’
Musa maintains that pressure from Hamid, who could be charming but who also 'wound people up', combined with the volatile environment of the group, the increasing media interest and the paranoid fears about police surveillance and infiltration was causing Atilla to become unstable. In August 2006 Musa decided to take his brother to Cyprus, away from the group, to start a new quieter life. But time had run out.
On September 1st, 2006, Atilla asked Musa to accompany him to a Chinese restaurant where he was meeting ‘some of the brothers’. But Musa was decorating his house and had his family with him. Finally Atilla tempted him with the £5 Buffet Menu. It was to be the costliest meal of Musa’s life.
Musa and Atilla were swept up in a huge police and security services operation to smash an Al-Qaeda-inspired UK recruitment network meeting at the restaurant. The group attended Friday ‘Islamic chat nights’ at the Hackney home of a 50-year old man nicknamed ‘Osama Bin London’ - Mohammed Hamid. Hamid also ran paint-balling and para-military training sessions in the English countryside, which were attended by young men - including 4 men later convicted for trying to bomb the London transport network a fortnight after 7/7. The group had been infiltrated by an undercover police officer, and the Friday meetings bugged. Last month, Hamid and some of the men received sentences of between five and seven years for terrorism offences.
Atilla never went on the training weekends, though he did attend nineteen of the Friday night meetings over two years. Although the prosecution maintained that Atilla was the ‘amir’ – commander- of the group, Musa disagrees. ‘You can’t be the amir in somebody else’s house’.
Musa describes the police raid on the restaurant. ‘All of a sudden, there was vans, cars, coppers, you name it, all running in. The place was filled. ’ Musa watched, ignoring a warning to move on. ‘I thought, well, I haven’t done anything, and this is exciting to me.’
Several police officers then arrested a startled Musa, punching and kicking him to the pavement ‘I’ve been in some rows, but this really scared me. They sat on my neck’.
He was taken to Paddington Green station, hoping he would be released once the police realised that he was not on the list of men to arrest. But the police kept him in, angry and distressed, whilst they searched his house for a week. They found a flare signal kit in his wardrobe, which Musa had confiscated from his son years before. The flare was classed as a ‘firearm’. The police also claimed that they had found a copy of the Anarchists’ Cookbook, which Musa denies owning
Charged at the secret court inside Paddington Green police station, and then locked up in Belmarsh, Musa tried hard not to worry too much about his five children and his future. He describes the atmosphere amongst the Muslim inmates as friendly and brotherly, with people playing practical jokes ‘like the Marx brothers,’ at association time. He became very close to several of the young men convicted for plotting to set off a huge fertilizer bomb in a London nightclub and shopping centre, particularly Anthony Garcia, who was jailed for life in May 2007.
I asked him if the young radicals who had been convicted of plotting the deaths of civilians preached extremism inside, or vowed to continue the struggle on their release.
‘People just want to forget. They just want to have a laugh. They want to phone up their mum, they want to speak to their wife, they’re having a game of pool, having a laugh and a joke.’
Those who planned to hurt innocents, he says, ‘will have to answer to Allah for their actions, for what they’ve caused – and for what they haven’t done.’
Whilst Atilla struggled inside Belmarsh, and suffered claustrophobic panic attacks, Musa says that the knowledge that he was innocent and would eventually be released kept him sane. ‘The thing is with the police, yeah, I was bitter. I am bitter. But I’m not telling them not to do their job. If you look at it, they’ve done a really good job. Look at how quiet it is…you’ve got no one out there screaming, you’ve got no one out there really saying anything anymore.’
Why was he kept inside for nine months?
‘I wasn’t mixing with anybody bad outside. The undercover cop, he knew I was nothing to do with the group. He could have got me out. But he didn’t.’ He frowns. ‘No, I don’t blame them, because they do have to do their job – fifty two people dead. But nine months, I feel it’s too much.’
‘I think they was hoping to find something – thinking ‘if we look hard enough, long enough, we will get this guy.’ It’s possible that they may have just locked me up with my brother to keep me out of the way of the investigation. Or they thought I was financing terror.’
Musa thinks that the hyped-up intensity in radical groups creates the problem with young Muslims ‘This isn’t a Muslim country, you’ve got to follow the laws of the land, like it or don’t like it, that’s they way it is.’ Of the fearsome boasts and the bloodcurdling speeches that landed his brother and so many others in jail he says ‘Sometimes I think, was it just kids, trying to get a buzz, trying to feel big‘
I asked him whether he had listened to the tapes of his new ‘brothers’ inside jail that were played in court and on TV – of them discussing gruesome attacks on UK soil. He has. ‘It sounded like two little kids in cuckoo land, dreaming up something that could never be. I looked at it and I thought ‘Idiots. It sounds like a load of bull’
But the men who bombed London on 7/7 seemed like normal British guys until they murdered dozens.
The subject clearly makes Musa uncomfortable. He maintains of his terrorist friends that he ‘finds it hard to see beyond what I knew of them. It’s strange, because I was with them all my time in there, and I got to know them so personally. I never got to see that side to them. They seemed so bright, they was fun loving…’
What is the magic ingredient, that turns ‘fun-loving lads’ into jihadi warriors on a suicide mission?
‘I think as soon as they get into extremism, if they don’t come out of it, over time it can build up. They get it instilled into them and these youngsters, if they can’t see a future, if they haven’t got anything going for them, and they’re down – it could be any one of those reasons, and they just think – what is there for me? And if you’re promising Paradise, and dreams like that, and they’re in dreamland thinking, Paradise, wives…it could be anything that could turn a person’
He thinks ‘a good percentage, maybe 25%, 30% of the brothers inside would rejoice if there was another 7/7 or 9/11 There is arguments about this subject, we used to discuss this kind of thing in there’. He remains adamant that whilst his brother may have spoken favourably of those training to fight abroad, Atilla has never approved of attacking civilians on UK soil.
How do people who have prepared to kill themselves and others cope with facing the rest of their lives in jail? Musa describes talking to a remand prisoner who surprised him by saying ‘If I’m in here and Allah has decreed that for me, I’m better in here than out there. What am I going to do out there?’ He didn’t mention attacking. He just mentioned that there’s so much sinning going on out there, he would rather be banged up away from it all, being cleansed for 35 years. Lo and behold, the guy’s smiling at me having a laugh and a joke - and then he went and got sentenced - 35 years. And when he came back, he was the same, he still had this smile. For me personally, I don’t think I could cope with that.’
‘There’s a lot of them like that, they believe so much. You have to have strong beliefs… I told you, I’m just a Muslim who does his prayers… I ain’t strong; I would love to be strong. Not like that way, not in the way that I’d want to do some flipping atrocity, just in myself, you know, to be better than I am, to have that kind of faith. There are these guys doing these years and it don’t seem to bother them’
‘I think he’s looking for Paradise, because that’s what he said. He’s being punished now – they always say its better to be punished whilst you are on earth than God punish you there, because the punishment there is going to be totally different to here. Whatever befalls you, you’re still meant to praise Allah.
So people accept it as their fate?
‘Yeah, a strong believer will say this was written for me’
Do you think the bombings were ‘written’?
‘No! No, because that isn’t written…you have the free will to do it or don’t do it. You could have changed it. You could have said no, I’m not doing it. It’s wrong.’
Do many people in Belmarsh advocate bombing civilians?
‘I believe after a taste of prison, a lot of people have come to their senses’Musa was released after the jury found him not guilty of the firearms charge. The terrorism charge relating to the Anarchist’s Cook book was dropped. When he finally came out, he cried with relief. He was particularly worried about his five children, who had ‘gone haywire’ whilst he was inside.
I ask Musa if he thinks his brother was preaching hate ‘outside’. Musa says no, then talks about the pressure of the media wanting controversy, and Atilla playing to the cameras. ‘When you are new to Islam, you take what knowledgeable people say. If you don’t have the knowledge, you have to take it from these people, and if it’s the wrong knowledge…he’s at the learning stage still, he hasn’t studied himself to know this is wrong…. So all of a sudden, he’s there, he’s doing security, the media are there, things are getting out of hand… ‘
I ask Musa if he thinks it would make a difference if the people teaching Islam were more experienced, given that a lot of people who get involved in extreme Islam, like Atilla, know very little about theology. Musa agrees that is it is easy ‘to put people on the wrong road, that people new to Islam are vulnerable to the wrong messages.’
‘Knowing what you know now, would you let your kids listen to Abu Hamza?’
Musa is visibly shocked when I tell him that the security services say there are a couple of thousand people believed to be actively involved in attack planning. ‘Where are they then?’ he asks. ‘Because it’s so quiet. Why has not one or two of them succeeded?’
As we talk, sirens blare outside Finsbury Park mosque and the Muslim cafes outside my flat. I wonder how hard it is being a young Muslim these days.
‘There are loads of Muslims, they get raided because someone’s phoned up intelligence or M15 and said, look, this guy’s bad. And they find some kind of literature. That’s enough to warrant the police putting them in prison. And they’re going, look , you had jihadi material, you had extremist material. And yet the person isn’t [extremist]. You can always find extreme material, like in Hadiths and this and that, even some verses in the Qur’an. And people think whoa, don’t like the sound of that. But the police are arresting them. There are so many people like that, they don’t deserve to be in jail. Not everybody in there is having that view of ‘let’s go and bomb someone.’
But you have to stop the people who want to detonate bombs. Musa agrees. I ask him if he has a message for people.
‘Yes. Ask for evidence. Even a newcomer has the right to be shown the evidence’
‘Learn from your teacher, but be careful who your teacher is?’
I guess that is all we can hope for. That people will realise that self-righteousness and rhetoric is not the same as discovering the facts for yourself. That submission to God is not the same as vengeance against unbelievers. That some dreams of Paradise lead to hell on earth.
I hope that Musa ‘s fierce brothers do temper their anger in future. Without figureheads, and cameras, and column inches, with time to study and learn from those who have renounced violence and hate, they have a chance. I’m crossing my fingers.
Additional Research – Dave Bones