In an east London office, its walls plastered with posters of myriad militant groups from around the world, Muqatil quickly covers his face the moment the camera is trained on him. But once the camera is lowered reluctantly, Muqatil does not hesitate in describing his passion for training and transporting young mujahideen to strife-torn corners of the world for upholding the cause of Islam. "I can't give you precise numbers, but over the past five years the youths we have sent out from here to our training camps total up to figures that are in triple zeroes," he declares grandly.
Muqatil is a pseudonym of this Muslim radical, a top leader of the Al-Madad group, which well-informed official sources consider as the principal outfit that recruits Muslims in Britain to fight for the Islamic cause abroad. Muqatil doesn't think he is guilty of committing any wrong, because all he is doing is "obey(ing) the command of God."
It is then that your eyes fall on the poster of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba. And you are reminded of Mohammad Bilal, reportedly a Birmingham youth who blew himself outside the cantonment gate in Srinagar. But Muqatil says Bilal wasn't an Al-Madad recruit. Yet, he is quick to sing a paean to Bilal: "His wasn't an act of terrorism, but an attack on the military establishment of an occupying force on behalf of the people who want freedom. That makes him a freedom fighter, not a terrorist."
Indeed, when a zealous Muslim youth in Britain wants to fight with the Lashkar-e-Toiba in Pakistan, the Al-Madad get him there. Ditto for those who want to join the Hizbul Mujahideen or the Harkat-ul-Ansar. Besides the Al-Madad, there are at least two other Islamic groups in Britain which have substantial training programmes for young British Muslims wanting to pick up the Kalashnikov and fight for the life and honour of their brethren worldwide. These are the Al-Baraqa Security, which operates in north England, and Sakina Security. But it is Al-Madad which is the prime recruiting group for those who want to become mujahids.
"We have two training camps, one in the Arab world and one in the Indian subcontinent," says Muqatil, who is of Pakistani origin. And there are several training camps at mosques in Britain too. "The camps in Britain train the youth for three months in hand-to-hand combat," says Muqatil. "Then if we consider them fit, they are sent to the camps outside for military training." The training, he says, is given by "instructors from different countries" and includes a retired Pakistani general.
Obviously, Muqatil doesn't believe he's training callow young men to indulge in terrorist activities. "We are sending the youth out as a religious obligation," he says. His recruits remain in hiding until they come out to conduct operations, as they did during the seizure of the Russian embassy in Beirut two years ago. And, yes, Kashmir is there on the agenda of Muqatil, who says mujahideen trained in one of the group's camps outside Britain have fought in the Valley. He says their recruits are specifically commanded to never target civilians. "If a civilian gets killed, then that is only the outcome of a situation of war," he says impassively.
The list of places where the Al-Madad men have fought is long—Kashmir, Bosnia, China, Chechnya... They have killed and been killed. "We are there for Muslims to fight in occupied areas," says Muqatil. But the Al-Madad recruits only fighters for those groups which battle different governments under the banner of Islam."We send recruits to the Lashkar-e-Toiba, but not, say, to the jklf because it is fighting in the name of territory and not in the name of Islam."
The Al-Madad and the other "security" groups are reportedly the militant wings of an Islamic movement which has the Al-Muhajiroun as its public face in Britain. In fact, some officials feel that groups like Al-Madad whose names are public could be red herrings deliberately thrown to camouflage the identity of those operating clandestinely. But all these groups share the common feature of opposing all 'man-made laws' and establishing Islamic rule transcending all nationalities.
The Al-Muhajiroun was set up by Omar Bakri Mohammed five years ago after the split in the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which primarily ran a campaign across British universities to convert Hindu and Sikh students. Its campaign led the authorities to ban the organisation from college campuses in the mid-nineties. Following the split, Bakri Mohammed inaugurated a new strand of Islamic movement among the Muslim youth, mostly those of Pakistani origin. Believing that the Tahrir was limited in its focus as it primarily targeted West Asia, Bakri sought to build on the commitment of British Pakistanis to Islam. And he seems to have succeeded beyond expectations, what with the Al-Muhajiroun emerging as the public face of the movement.
But even Bakri isn't shy of supporting the cult of mujahideen. "Violence can be pro-life and it can be against life. It can be pro-life in a situation of mujahideen versus occupiers," he says philosophically. He, too, disowns Bilal, but says many others like Bilal have been killed in Kashmir.
Bakri Mohammed claims that the Al-Muhajiroun group is raising money in Britain to back mujahideen or support the families of those killed in action. "All members of Al-Muhajiroun pay a third of their income for the cause," he reveals, but refuses to specify the size of its membership. "Besides, there are many businessmen the world over who are donating money for our cause," he adds.
"In areas of occupation such as Jammu and Kashmir we support our brothers and sisters verbally and financially. We want to liberate Kashmir from the Indian forces. We are not at war with the entire Hindu nation but only with the occupiers and their forces," says Bakri Mohammed emphatically.
A large chunk of the donation is also being utilised to launch a political campaign against 'man-made laws'. Bakri's dream is to see the Islamic flag flying over 10 Downing Street. And then he declares: "If someone thinks that is a wishful dream, then better that dream than the nightmare of man-made laws and a society where women are not mothers, sisters, daughters but sex objects, and men are not fathers, brothers, sons but sex objects. Our group is also leading a fight against homosexuality and lesbianism and such practices that contradict the command of God."
All this raises the question: What is the British government doing? This might be answered more effectively next month, when the House of Commons has scheduled a debate on a Bill that seeks to make existing laws more stringent so that Britain is not used as a base for terrorist activities abroad, or for funding terrorist activities. "If that becomes law, many of us will have to go underground," says Muqatil. "And it will be worse for the British government if this movement goes underground."
The Islamic groups are preparing to counter the new laws which might come into effect in the UK."Just because I'm British, should I neglect my brothers abroad?" asks Bakri Mohammed. "Being British does not mean I sell myself ideologically."
The new law, among other things, is expected to list proscribed organisations. And the Al-Muhajiroun and Al-Madad are expected to be on that list. "They talk of freedom of speech in this country," says Bakri Mohammed. "But freedom of speech here was aborted a long time ago." He, obviously, doesn't understand that the right to freedom of speech can't include the right to preach hatred and violence.