Mehdi Hassan is the fourth British man from the coastal city of Portsmouth to be killed while fighting for ISIS in Syria. Hassan was just 19 when he left with four friends for Syria in October 2013. They named themselves the "Britani Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys." Four of the five have been killed.
Much of the media has, over the last few years, attempted to explain why British Muslims are being radicalized, and why some wish to fight for a terror group known and feared for its brutality.
Some commentators blame the darker corners of the internet; some point to the supposed glamour and glory of war, and others attribute part of the blame to "government policy" and the "persecution" felt by British Muslims living in a country allegedly full of "anti-Islamic feeling."
Those concerned with the practical workings of radicalization, however, look to the initial involvement of Western recruits to ISIS with extremist preachers and organizations. Even while crediting the allure of the internet, it seems improbable that anyone would join a cult or extremist group without some encouragement or introduction.
Nasser Muthana, center, appears in an English-language ISIS recruitment video.
In Britain, the fingerprints of a number of Salafist preachers and organizations in Portsmouth seem to be present in the departure of young British Muslims to fight and kill in foreign lands. The most notable is the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA), a Salafist dawah [proselytising] group.
The Portsmouth Five were members of the Portsmouth Dawah Team, a group of local proselytisers who wore iERA clothing and distributed iERA literature.
Mehdi Hassan, an ISIS fighter killed in Syria this month, wearing an iERA shirt.
Ifthekar Jaman (second from left), who was killed in Syria in December 2013, wearing an iERA shirt.
Perhaps sensing trouble, the iERA took the unusual step of publishing a statement on its website on October 27, before any accusations had been levelled, in which the group denied any connection to the Portsmouth Five, and stated: "iERA is not responsible for the acts of any teams or any individuals that order our material on-line."
Unfortunately for the iERA, this denial is demonstrably untrue. The Portsmouth Dawah Team is a component of the iERA's street proselytization program, "Mission Dawah". In one post on social media, Mission Dawah's Facebook account describes the Portsmouth Dawah Team as "our team from Portsmouth." Moreover, the iERA chairman, Abdur Raheem Green, liaises directly with similar dawah groups around the country.
The iERA was founded in 2009 by convert Abdur Raheem Green, who remains its chairman today. The group describes itself as "a global dawah organisation" working "to empower Muslims as individuals and local communities to invite and inform people about Islam."
Abdur Raheem Green was a graduate of the Salafist movement in Britain during the 1980s and 90s. He briefly became a jihadist alongside Islamist fighters against the Soviets, in Afghanistan, but he was better known as an Islamist preacher in London, frequently to be found in London's Hyde Park, complaining of the Jewish "stench," or addressing mosque congregations, and encouraging men to hit their wives to "bring them to goodness."
This sort of rhetoric is also heard from other iERA officials, including preachers such as:
- Zakir Naik, who has said, "every Muslim should be a terrorist."
- Hussein Yee, who openly preaches hatred against Jews, and claims that Jews in America were "happy" when the Twin Towers fell.
- Abdullah Hakim Quick, who has called upon God to "clean and purify al-Aqsa from the filth of the Yahood [Jews]" and "clean all of the lands from the filth of the Kuffar [non-believers]."
Both Hussein Yee and Zakir Naik have since been banned from entering the UK, along with Bilal Philips, an American Islamist preacher and additional iERA official, who describes the Taliban as "innocent Muslim people" who did many "positive, good things." He also claims that rape and domestic abuse are permissible in Islam, and advocates the murder of homosexuals. Furthermore, Philips was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Other activists within the local dawah groups affiliated with the iERA echo this rhetoric. Hassan Farooq, a "senior member" of the Newham Dawah Team, praised Hitler and expressed a desire to go "Jewish bashing."
The Portsmouth Dawah Team is not, however, the only link between the iERA and ISIS recruits. In June, the British government banned Sheikh Mohammad Al Arifi from entering the United Kingdom, after the Saudi preacher was linked to the radicalization of British youths now fighting for ISIS in Syria.
Sheikh Al Arifi had previously given sermons at the Al Manar Centre in Cardiff, at which three young British Muslims -- Nasser and Aseel Muthana, brothers, and their friend, Reyaad Khan – were radicalized, according to the Muthana brothers' father, Ahmed Muthana. Sheikh Al Arifi has previously been involved with the iERA; and the Al Manar Centre has frequently organized courses with the iERA itself, and has provided a platform for iERA staff on a number of occasions.
Saudi Islamist preacher Muhammad al-Arifi (right), who has been linked to the radicalization of British Muslims now fighting in Syria, attends an iERA stall in London.
While political analysts may point to "government policy" or "Islamophobia" as the reason that some Western Muslim youth decide to join the most notorious terror group in the world, it is the father of the radicalized Muthana brothers who offers the most reasonable explanation: "Behind this are Islamic radicals, hiding behind the scenes, influencing the minds of young people. … Someone is persuading them, brainwashing them."
Before they went to join ISIS, the Portsmouth Dawah Team also fundraised for a number of Britain aid convoy charities, including the coalition of charities with which the first British suicide bomber in Syria travelled in 2012.
Today, those running the Portsmouth Dawah Team continue to fundraise for charities under investigation by the authorities, including the British charity, "Aid Convoy." When one of the charity's convoys was stopped at Dover by British police in 2012, they found that the convoy was carrying banknotes worth tens of thousands of dollars in three different currencies. Aid Convoy's trustees have included Moutaz Dabas, accused by Spanish authorities of collaborating with a terrorist organization; and Usman Ali, a British Islamist who showed children footage of the 9/11 attacks while shouting "God is great." Usman Ali also led a prayer group attended by the murderers of British soldier Lee Rigby.
The Charity Commission is currently conducting a statutory inquiry into the iERA, which was established over "concerns about the charity's governance." If this inquiry fails to shut down the iERA, how long before more activists working for these dawah teams, affiliated with the iERA and fundraising for extremist charities, abandon their street stalls and pick up a gun? The process of radicalization may be complicated, but its catalysts are right in front of us.