An extremist group banned in more than a dozen countries has launched a recruitment drive in an inner-city neighbourhood that is linked to more homegrown terrorists than anywhere else in the UK, The Times has learnt.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose purpose is to re-establish the caliphate in the Middle East with Sharia law, has relocated to the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, which has been home to several convicted terrorists, including the UK’s first al-Qaeda inspired terrorist.
Campaign materials for its youth roadshow, launched in July, make no mention of the group’s name and do not feature its usual logo of the Islamic state flag. They instead aim to present the group, which two prime ministers considered banning, as an innocuous community organisation.
However, the same centre that hosted the youth campaign’s promotional barbecue has been holding official meetings of the group including one in May at which a speaker complained of a “Zionist stench” in the Middle East, a phrase that a former reviewer of terrorist legislation said could constitute criminal hate speech.
In August one of the Birmingham organisers defended a controversial Imam at a mosque attended by Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, who allegedly called for “armed jihad” six months before the attack.
The group has complained that “key concepts of Islam” such as Sharia and jihad are “criminalised” in the West, and its UK branch has shared posts on Facebook telling women they should follow “the Islamic dress code, as well as refusing non-Islamic ruling systems, refusing agreements with the Kuffar [Arabic for nonbelievers]”.
Once based in London, the UK operation is now centring its campaigning on Birmingham, leading to alarm among anti-extremism officials and local charities. After being rejected by the majority of Muslim communities, its weekly meetings are being promoted under a Facebook page innocuously titled The Friday Circle. It also chose Sparkhill to launch a youth campaign that is attempting to attract youngsters with hashtags such as #StandForNothingFallForAnything.
One Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflet seen by this newspaper called on “armies to mobilise” against Israel. Yahya Nisbet, a Muslim convert, has recently urged Muslims to “call for the complete liberation of the Blessed Land (Palestine) and the removal of the Jewish entity”. He also told a Sparkhill audience that Muslims “have superior power” which was being given up “to an inferior power who is noticeably weaker”. The group has called on UK Muslims to “exert pressure on the schools that seek to undermine the Islamic values”.
Lord Carlile of Berriew, former independent review of terror legislation, said last night that Hizb ut-Tahrir had “re-weaponised” itself in Birmingham. He said comments such as “Zionist stench” and “removal of the Jewish entity” crossed the line into hate speech.
He added: “I’ve always regarded them as potentially a menacing organisation, particularly the capacity to radicalise people and the determination to be patient and wait until the time is right to do the type of things they are doing on the streets of Birmingham.”
The organisation, which has been banned in Germany, China, Russia and many Arab states, has been calling for a boycott of Prevent, part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, which Abdul Wahid, leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain, describes as “about suppressing Islam”. Waqar Ahmed, Birmingham’s head of Prevent said Hizb ut-Tahrir was operating “just inside the line of respectability” and providing “fertile ground” for extremism. Experts say the group is a gateway to violent extremism.
Meetings are now held weekly in a Unity Centre underneath a carpet warehouse in Sparkhill. Anti-extremism officials believe secret meetings are also taking place.
According to a report by the think tank the Henry Jackson Society, 10 per cent of the UK’s 269 convicted Islamist terrorists between 1998 and 2015 were from five Birmingham council wards, including Sparkhill.
Hizb ut-Tahrir said it was not antisemitic but opposed Israel in its current location and said the suggestion that its ideas lead to violence had “no factual basis”. It said it picked areas to work in based on “the existence of people who need to be addressed” and these were where “the British State has no real solutions due to its adherence to the secular liberal ideology”. It said its use of the word jihad was “not akin to terrorism” and it does not tolerate “indiscriminate killing of any living creature”.
Behind the story
The inner-city suburb of Sparkhill is home to the vibrant multiculturalism that Birmingham is famous for (Neil Johnston writes). However, in recent years it has become the backdrop to police raids as links to terrorism emerged.
According to a report by the Henry Jackson Society, Sparkhill, with a population of 30,000, has been home to nine convicted terrorists between 1998 and 2015. The same report found that five terrorists also came from nearby Sparkbrook, and when combined with the neighbouring wards of Hodge Hill, Washwood Heath and Bordesley Green, this inner-city cluster accounts for 10 per cent of the UK’s Islamist terrorists.
Among them is Moinul Abedin, Britain’s first al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist who was jailed in 2002 after turning his Sparkhill house into a “bomb factory”, and Asif Sadiq, who became the UK’s first suicide bomber in 2000 when he drove a car packed with explosives into a checkpoint outside an Indian army base in Kashmir. Last year two local men who were part of a terror cell were jailed over an “imminent” plot.
Among those working to prevent extremism is Mohammed Ashfaq of the drug and alcohol support service Kikit. He said: “Quite often when we are supporting the most vulnerable people we’ve had elements of far-right and Islamist extremism in terms of people being radicalised in that area. We come across people who’ve fallen into the wrong hands.”