Revealed: how ‘banned’ militants are going under cover on British campuses
A leading radical Islamist group which Tony Blair wants to ban is recruiting “vulnerable” young Muslim students at British universities under several cover names, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned from campuses by the National Union of Students, has set up front organisations at more than a dozen universities with innocuous-sounding names such as the Ideological Society, the Millennium Forum and the New World Society.
They have secured access to freshers’ fairs across the country and will receive funding from student unions to help them operate. Muslim student leaders warned that Hizb would target “vulnerable” young Muslims when the new university term starts later this month.
“Before, we could stop the recruitment; we could save vulnerable people,” said Faisal Hanjra, a spokesman for the Federation of Student Islamic Societies. “Now, we have no idea who is targeting whom.” Hizb failed to respond when approached for comment.
News of the plan by the militant Hizb to set up front organisations comes as police and intelligence agencies scrutinise a videotape which associates al-Qa’ida with the London suicide bombings on 7 July, in which 52 commuters died. The warning of “war” from Mohammed Sidique Khan, the presumed leader of the bombers, has emphasised the danger that other British-born Muslims will be recruited for terrorism.
Hizb ut-Tahrir and another extreme group, al-Muhajiroun, face being banned under measures the Government has proposed in the wake of the attacks. Although both deny supporting violence, they are accused of radicalising young Muslims to the point where they attract the attention of terrorist recruiters.
The appearance of the bomber’s video has emphasised the gaps in the security services’ knowledge of the home-grown terrorist threat. It appears to have been recorded up to a year ago, showing they were in preparation for several months without attracting the attention of the authorities, despite Khan’s links to other terror suspects. After the attacks he was identified from photographs by a convicted al-Qa’ida operative in the United States.
Investigators are seeking to establish whether the video was made in Britain or Pakistan, which Khan visited late in 2004 and again early this year. Most experts believe the fact that he is unarmed shows it was probably recorded in this country and found its way to al-Qa’ida after the bombings, when a statement by the movement’s deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was added.
If it emerges, however, that the tape originated in Pakistan, that would point to much closer al-Qa’ida involvement. Security services are also anxiously waiting to see whether videos were made by other bombers – according to some reports, a statement by Shahzad Tanweer, who blew himself up at Aldgate Tube station, killing seven others, may soon be broadcast.
Although security sources in Britain and the US have emphasised that the video is not proof of al-Qa’ida involvement in the London attacks, they admit that it is a propaganda coup.
An unofficial intelligence contact called it “embarrassing”, saying: “This gives the appearance that al-Qa’ida did mastermind the bombings, while officially the security forces are saying there is no evidence and, worse still, no arrests or identification of a ‘mastermind’.
“It will be hard to persuade the public that both groups [the bombers of 7 July and those accused of the failed 21 July attack] were not part of a wider network, that might go to the top of the al-Qa’ida leadership in Pakistan.”
The Government is also under pressure on several fronts over the anti-terrorist measures it has proposed in the wake of the attacks. It wants to expel at least 50 foreign citizens accused of sympathising with terror or preaching hate in mosques, but cannot find high-security cells to hold them in. It is also facing a rush of legal challenges to the proposed deportations.
Plans to outlaw Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun have been criticised as a mistake which could drive the organisations underground and increase their support. Brian Paddick, a deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, told a conference of Muslim students last week that Muslim communities need to challenge radicals. “How will they do that,” he asked, “if they no longer know who they are?”
Asked whether Hizb ut-Tahrir should be banned, Mr Paddick replied: “There is a real danger of driving a legitimate debate underground. It is important to allow people who are ‘losing the plot’ to debate with people who are intelligent, who can stop them going down that path.”
Hasan Patel, a former member of the NUS national executive, said a ban on Hizb could lead to a rise in its membership. “When you ban something, you romanticise it,” he warned. “There is more chance of it appealing to people. There needs to be a proper debate – we don’t want an underground movement.”
Vice-chancellors are to be issued with new guidelines to deal with extremism on campus. The advice, to be published in October, has been rewritten since 7 July. Shahzad Tanweer was a graduate of Leeds Metropolitan University. Islamic societies are worried that university officials will be monitoring their activities. Some fear they may be forced to close down.