As the drizzle descended on Hounslow mosque last Friday, it was not hard to see why Asif Mohammed Hanif might have wanted to spend the summer in the Middle East. It’s a little more difficult to explain why this quiet 21-year-old suburban West Londoner decided to turn a holiday to study Arabic in Damascus into a suicide mission to Tel Aviv that would leave four people dead, himself included, and dozens injured.
As the 2,000-strong congregation made its way home through the rain last week, those who knew Hanif were still struggling to fit the middle-class, learned and spiritual Muslim they knew to the picture of the Islamic martyr that was emerging from Israel – a ‘shaheed’ prepared to kill and be killed for the cause.
Hounslow mosque has a reputation as a moderate institution influenced by a deeply mystical form Islam known as Sufism, based on meditation and prayer. Followers of the radical Al-Muhajiroun group, which has claimed Hanif as one of its own, were expelled from the mosque seven years ago.
Many close to Hanif still believe his identity may have been stolen, so out of character does it seem for this gentle six-foot giant known as ‘the teddy bear’ to have committed an act of violence.
His close friend Shazad Gill told The Observer: ‘He was a nice polite guy, very anti-violence. He had everything to look forward to and wanted to be a teacher. I still think it is possible his passport was stolen.’
But if that is the case, then where is he? Why has he not contacted his friends or family to say he is safe? Yet if Hanif did carry out the bombing, what happened in Damascus to turn him from a man of peace into a holy warrior?
The Observer has discovered Hanif was an active member of the ‘LightStudy’, an international Sufi Muslim group with its British base at Hounslow mosque. The Hanifs’ house in Lela Avenue, Hounslow was often used to hold gatherings of the group because it was close to the mosque.
The group is led by the Syrian cleric Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, whose philosophy is directly opposed to al-Qaeda. After 11 September, the US arm of the organisation issued a statement saying that followers should deliver flowers to neighbours and a letter of consolation saying that as Muslims they were appalled by that suicide hijackings.
Rifat Sheikh, the British ‘Amir’ of LightStudy who knew Hanif well, said he had travelled to Syria in search of his Islamic heritage so he could pass on his knowledge to young people in England. He aimed to reach the highest level of Koranic scholarship as a ‘hafiz’, one who has memorised the Koran. ‘Every time Asif returned from Syria, the softer and gentler he seemed … as if he was undergoing genuine spiritual change.’ He would hear of suicide bombings and say, “God forgive us, this is not the way of our tradition.” He openly condemned it.’
The teachers of LightStudy have told The Observer they are devastated by the news. Hanif was a well known and popular member of the group and they are finding it difficult to believe he would go against everything he has been taught. However, one member said: ‘The teachers cannot control people, only guide them and forbid what is wrong.’
The portrait is consistent with the impressions of Hanif’s neighbours. Mohammed Hashmi, a former imam at Hounslow mosque, who lives opposite the Hanif family home said he would often disappear abroad for months at time: ‘I found him quiet and reserved. He was very interested in education and spent a lot of time in Syria learning Arabic. When I saw the picture in the paper I couldn’t believe a person like this would be able to do such a thing.’
Sixteen-year-old Amina, a family friend of the devout Hanifs, said: ‘He was very nice and friendly. He and his family were really religious and his sister wore the hijab [headscarf].’ But she added that he wasn’t ‘sly’ like some of the more extremist groups who preyed on young Muslims. He was not known to hang around with extremists such as the al-Muhajiroun group, whom some have connected him with since the bombing.
‘Some people hand out leaflets saying how Israelis rape Palestinian women and how they want to bring down the Jews,’ said Amina. ‘But he was never with those people.’
Neither Hanif, nor his alleged co-conspirator, 26-year-old Omar Khan Sharif from Derby, fit the conventional portrait of the dispossessed Muslim extremist. Neither was known to the police or the intelligence services for their political activity. Sharif was a former public schoolboy who attended Repton prep school and went to university in London; Hanif was remembered as an able student at Cranford Community School in Hounslow, although his religious devotions took him away from the traditional academic path.
Reports that Hanif was seen in Al-Muhajiroun’s London offices or the radical Finsbury Park mosque are questioned by friends, who say he has been out of contact in Damascus for several months.
The ‘road to Damascus’ for Sharif, who escaped the scene of the suicide attack, seems to have begun when he left Derby to study information technology in London. When he returned to Derby in 1999, he had rejected Western dress, grown a beard and started to live the life of a devout Muslim. The leader of al-Muhajiroun, Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed, said Sharif recently attended a course at his Sharia Islamic law school and spoke Arabic with a Syrian accent.
Investigators now believe Damascus provides the key to what happened to the two young men. One devout Muslim who had recently studied in Damascus said that Syria had become a magnet for young British Muslims wanting to improve their Arabic. It was possible to come into contact with every shade of Islamic thought in the capital of the early Islamic world.
Many go to Damascus seeking a spiritual experience. One studying there said: ‘They are known as “spiritual refugees”, escaping from the soul-less wastelands of modernity. Some of them go native – they don’t come back.’
Imran Khan, a Birmingham-based writer and commentator on radical Islam, added: ‘Anything can happen in Damascus. People who travel there are open to all kinds of influences. That includes spiritual ideas, but it is also possible that these men came into contact with more radical groups, such as Hamas, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and even Hezbollah.’
He said it was quite possible that the atmosphere in Damascus could have radicalised Hanif and Sharif: ‘Everyone in Syria is against the war in Iraq and passionate about the issue of Israel. It is also very close to Palestine. That crescendo builds up, you are on your own and think you have to do something.’
The journey of these two young Britons will have deep consequences for the region. If they were recruited in Damascus, this will further fuel claims that Syria is a sponsor of terrorism and lead to renewed pressure on President Assad to expel Palestinian groups from the capital.
They may have passed through Gaza on British passports, which do not need visas for travel to Israel. The Observer has discovered that the two young Britons did pass through the offices of the International Solidarity Movement, the peace campaigners Israel is now almost certain to expel from the country.
In Britain, the police have been criticised for overplaying the risk of a suicide bombing taking place here. Metropolitan Police Assistant Deputy Commissioner Barbara Wilding said last week their concern had been justified.
‘We know they have the stated intent to hit British targets and the capability. We have consistently said it is not a case of if, but when. Where does this take us? It just proves we were right to urge people not to be complacent over this issue.’
Palestine is the common thread that links the Muslim youth of Hounslow and the fanatics of Damascus. ‘You cannot underestimate the importance of Palestine to every Muslim. It is present in the hearts of every believer,’ said Inayat Bangalawala of the Muslim Council of Britain.
Outside Hounslow mosque, the subject was never far from worshippers’ thoughts. ‘If he’s blown himself up, then it must be serious,’ said Amina, the teenager who remembered Hanif as a gentle giant. Her friend ‘Abz’, studying for his A-levels at the school next door to the mosque, said he feared Hanif’s actions would make him an icon for radicals: ‘It makes me feel sick and it’s embarrassing that he comes from here. But for some he could become a hero.’
Even the chairman of trustees of the mosque, Suleiman Chachia, said the Israel-Palestine situation was an issue that was repeatedly raised by young Muslims he encountered.
‘Islam does not preach that you take a life: your own or someone else’s. I don’t see anything heroic about this act. But people are very much concerned about Palestine. We see the killings on television and to us a Palestinian death and an Israeli death is the same. But why are the United Nations resolutions not applied to Israel? This is a burning issue that has to be settled. Otherwise there will be other young men like this. What I know about Asif Hanif is that his nature was not aggressive. He was a 21-year-old with everything going for him.’
Chachia may yet find his answer among some of the more radical elements that still attend the mosque, despite the expulsion of al-Muhajiroun.
One young Islamist, who refused to give his name, had travelled from Hertfordshire to attend Friday prayers. He told The Observer that martyrdom was a Muslim duty: ‘Any Muslim who denies it has left Islam. Palestine, Kashmir, Chechyna, these are all struggles where it is justified to become a “shaheed”. This is a clash of civilisations.’
If this is not a simple case of mistaken identity, then Asif Hanif was somehow persuaded to abandon the path of peace and martyr himself for the Palestinian cause. If someone of his spiritual background can be converted on the road to Damascus, how many more British Muslims might be persuaded to do the same?
How the opposing Muslim groups reacted to the 11 September attacks
The LightStudy Group
Zaid Shakir: ‘We should choose a day. On that day every Muslim family will buy 14 flowers along with 14 cards with a message explaining that we are their Muslim neighbours and we wish to extend to them a small expression of condolence. We should personally deliver them to our neighbours.’
Anjem Choudary: ‘The people of America deserved 11 September. Osama bin Laden is a hero to people in the UK. If support for al-Qaeda wasn’t proscribed and people were free to air their views, many more would voice their support. Here at al-Muhajiroun we fear only God and are free to speak our view. Osama bin Laden is a hero and should be loved.’
Martin Bright and Fareena Alam
Sunday 4 May 2003
© Courtesy of The Observer