How I befriended a Glasgow bomb suspect and Islamic radical

Former extremist Shiraz Maher recalls his friendship with Bilal Abdulla

Times on Line 

When I saw the name of Bilal Abdulla – one of those arrested in connection with suspected bomb attacks – in the news, I recognised it immediately, although it took me a while to be completely sure. This was the same Bilal I had known when I was a student at Cambridge – a time when I had become a radical Muslim.

When the 9/11 attacks happened I had already started praying and going to the mosque more regularly, rediscovering my faith. I remember thinking about the attacks: this changes everything. I was confused about it. I didn’t know what Islam made of it. Part of me thought they must be justified.

Nobody was offering me direction. I already knew about Hizb ut-Tahrir [an organisation that espouses a strict Islamic code] so I talked to one of their guys at Leeds Grand Mosque, who was in charge of the area. He took me back to his house where, I remember, we drank mint tea.

He said America would use these events to colonise the Muslim world, to humiliate us, to attack Islam. He brought me into the organisation within days. I rose through the ranks and soon sat on the regional committee for the north of England. Our job was to liaise with cell leaders, to pressurise them to recruit more people.

Bilal struck me as warm and affable. He was someone who knew about Islam. Even though he wore western clothes, he was very religious. His recitation of the Koran was very good. If he attended, he would always lead prayers.

Bilal had grown up in Baghdad, where his extended family were all of the same ideological persuasion: Wahhabi [a strict Islamic ideology]. He didn’t see himself as being radical: he saw himself as following Islam.

He developed a vitriolic hatred for the Shi’ites after one of his closest friends at university in Iraq was killed by a Shi’ite militia. He would say Shi’ites needed to be massacred. He called them kafirs, disbelievers who insulted the prophet.

When I first met him he was preparing to take the medical conversion course that would have allowed him to work here as a doctor. In the meantime, he worked behind the till at the local Staples stationery store.

I remember one incident well. Bilal lived above a Bengali restaurant. The other guy in his flat used to sing and play the guitar diabolically out of tune. I went round one day and heard this guy singing and wailing. I said, “What’s this?”

Bilal called him a “waster” and boasted that a few days earlier he had brought the guy into his bedroom. He sat him down and told him he needed to pray. He told him: “If you ever play again I’m going to smash the guitar.”

He then put on a video of a hostage being beheaded in Iraq: “If you think I’m messing about, this is what we do. This is what our people do, we slaughter.” Bilal laughed when he told the story. I laughed with him, although I remember thinking the word slaughter was a bit disproportionate.

Bilal kept his distance from people he considered were not true Muslims. He refused to frequent the local halal take-away in Cambridge because the Turkish guys there didn’t attend the mosque. He used to say to me: “We should have soft hearts for the believers and hard hearts for the nonbelievers”. He epitomised this. He was humble and polite and had an endearing belly laugh. He spent his time reading the Koran and looking at Arabic language or jihadi websites.

I remember during Ramadan that year, 2004, on the 27th and most holy night, we all went down to London to the Regent’s Park mosque. It happened that was the night the Americans launched the massive assault on Falluja. Bilal spent the whole night on his prayer mat. His stamina was something to behold.

By the end we would link up once a week. Mostly we met in the cultural centre, the Shiraz Academy on Gilbert Road. It had a prayer hall downstairs and three bedrooms upstairs.

One of those rooms was rented by the Hizb guy and this became the main focal point of where we would socialise, meet and discuss things.

Like myself, Bilal didn’t have any nonMuslim friends and the circle of Muslims he chose to socialise with was small and selective. But he certainly trusted and respected us. I think this was because he recognised we shared the same ultimate vision as him for Iraq and the wider Muslim world. We only differed over our choice of method.

And so it was through my involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir and its ideology of extremist political Islam that I came to befriend Bilal, the alleged would-be bomber. That’s why I believe it’s wrong to distinguish between “ex-tremism” and “violent extrem-ism” as the government has been doing in recent months. The two are inextricably intertwined.

Without movements such as Hizb ut-Tahrir creating the moral imperatives to justify terror, people like Bilal wouldn’t have the support of an ideological infrastructure cheering them on.

I didn’t complete my PhD as I didn’t get funding. In July 2005 I left Cambridge and moved to Birmingham. That was a few days before 7/7. Bilal and I lost touch. I left Hizb ut-Tahrir and had never heard of him since – until last week.

This is an edited version of an article in the current issue of the New Statesman

Radicals seeking Islamic rule

Hizb ut-Tahrir was founded in Jerusalem in 1953 and now has 1m members in 40 countries, with about 8,000 in Britain. Its aim is to unite all Muslims under the rule of a pan-Islamic state, or caliphate. The group has been accused of advocating violence in other countries, but in Britain it has never openly supported violence. It is banned in several Middle Eastern and European countries, including Syria, Egypt, Holland and Germany.

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