A terror suspect vanishes in disguise, a young Londoner ‘dies’ fighting in Syria and videos appear of a preacher praising holy war: what is going on at the An-Noor mosque in Acton?
05 November 2013, Evening Standard
On Friday afternoon, the 27-year-old terror suspect Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed chose a very modest stage for his headline-making disappearing act.
The An-Noor Cultural and Community Centre is an unlovely structure of brick and breezeblocks in Acton, a few minutes’ walk down Church Road from the high street. It’s a far cry from the magnificence of a mosque such as Regent’s Park, and its obscurity may have aided Mohamed as he pulled on a sizeable, black women’s burka and — at some time after 3.15pm — slipped out of the police’s grasp.
Mohamed is the subject of a terrorism prevention and investigation measure (Tpim), a court-approved order that requires suspects to report to the authorities daily, wear a GPS tag and sleep at a specified address. The Somali-born British citizen is linked to Al-Shabaab, the terror group responsible for the Nairobi shopping centre massacre.
As soon as the authorities realised he had absconded, the Counter Terrorism Command notified ports and borders of his disappearance and Scotland Yard urged anyone who sees the 5ft 8in suspect to call 999 immediately.
Mohamed’s audacious costume-trick has embarrassed the Home Secretary and raised questions about how the security services monitor their most worrying targets. But some will ask what a figure like Mohamed was doing at An-Noor in the first place, and whether his use of the mosque to lose the police suggests he had accomplices among its hundreds of worshippers. Significant terror suspects don’t just walk off the grid, but he did.
It wouldn’t be the first time that goings on at An-Noor have warranted concern. Earlier this year the Standard reported that Abu Hamza’s son, Uthman Mustafa Kamal, was preaching at the mosque, offering prayers for “holy warriors” to “destroy their enemies”.
But this paper has learned of another troubling link at An-Noor, which is likely to receive more scrutiny now that Mohamed’s stunt has put this unprepossessing house of worship in residential Acton firmly into the spotlight.
When Syrian Londoner Ali Almanasfi was reported killed in May, fighting for a rebel brigade, the Guardian claimed that he had been “attending a radical mosque in west London” in the months before he flew to Syria. When we asked the mosque’s founder days after Almanasfi’s body was reportedly found riddled with bullets near the Syrian city of Idlib if An-Noor was the mosque in question, he told us: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. There is no one here who knows that gentleman at all.”
In June, however, the journalist Tam Hussein, a friend of Almanasfi’s, wrote a dramatic blog on the Huffington Post claiming that Almanasfi was alive: “He got in touch with me via Skype. We spoke for approximately an hour.” Dead or alive, Almanasfi’s current whereabouts remain unknown.
Almanasfi refuted a newspaper report that he was a member of a hardline Islamist brigade. Hussein wrote: “It was clear that Ali considered himself a freedom fighter not a terrorist.”
A regular worshipper at the mosque told the Standard he did know Almanasfi from An-Noor, recalling that the 22-year-old had prayed there. Last night a staff member at An-Noor said he knew of Almanasfi but did not want to comment.
A family member of Almanasfi’s, who asked not to be named, told the Standard he thought the Londoner had fallen in with a bad crowd, although he couldn’t say where they met up. “They saw he was vulnerable and they took advantage of that,” he said. “They are cowards because they would never go out and fight.” Quite how the troubled Almanasfi, out of work and recently out of prison, could have got himself to Syria is another question. “I think someone paid for him to go,” the family member said. “I don’t know who paid for him to go. He wouldn’t have been able to afford it, this is the thing. Basically, whoever paid for him to go, they are the people who need to be looked at a little bit closer.”
Khalid Rashad, a man of Caribbean descent and Christian background, founded An-Noor 19 years ago, soon after converting to Islam. He says he started the masjid — mosque — because he felt “there was no place for us”, suggesting he and his convert friends were made to feel unwelcome at other mosques in the area.
Since then, An-Noor has established itself as popular for an eclectic mix of west London Muslims — including Africans, Arabs and a white cockney-sounding electrician and convert called Sayed, who says he joined because An-Noor had a “buzz” that his previous mosque lacked.
During popular prayer sessions, or during the visits of respected preachers, the prayer hall is full and some worshippers cram in to an upstairs level. The venue can hold 1,500.
Few outside Acton had heard of An-Noor until earlier this year, when videos emerged on the internet that provided an unappealing insight into the masjid’s choice of guests. In one, Kamal (the second-youngest son of the hate-preacher Hamza) was seen inviting his listeners in the mosque to “sell the life of this world for the Hereafter (and) fight in the cause of Allah”. In another he prays for “mujahids” or holy warriors.
Counter-extremism group the Quillam Foundation says it was “extremely concerned” about Kamal’s teachings at An-Noor, which they believe put a “jihadist lens” on the meanings of the Koran.
Confronted with the videos in March, An-Noor’s manager, Farouq Malik, said the “enemies” referred to by Kamal were the “occupying forces” in Iraq and Afghanistan. He described Kamal as a “celebrity” in the area but apologised for publishing them online.
Could hard-line preachings at An-Noor like those shown in the videos of Kamal have attracted and encouraged darker characters to worship and socialise, such as Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed? The mosque sought to distance itself from the terror suspect last night: “We want to place on record that the recent incident bears no semblance to the work we do as an organisation for the development of the community at large.” It continued: “Given our open-door policy and our preparedness to work with every sector of the society, at times such events are an unintended consequence of the task we have set ourselves.” That claim of openness tallies with local accounts of An-Noor as a place that welcomes newcomers and those who haven’t found a home elsewhere. An-Noor is known to focus on young converts, and the masjid’s YouTube channel (which also features a clip of the high-profile Dr Khalid Fikry preaching) is full of videos of nervous-looking youngsters being welcomed to Islam by stating their new faith in front of an enthusiastic audience.
Hussein, who knows the nuances of London’s mosques, says he doesn’t think An-Noor is radical. “I do know, from the conversations I’ve had with him [Almanasfi], he sat down with friends from similar backgrounds and my understanding is that there was never adult supervision, or someone who knew really, who could kind of oversee that. There was never that impression — it seems quite ad hoc. And that for me is the issue here.”
As Hussein puts it, “mosques in and of themselves are not radicalising places”. They are places where people meet, and many of London’s Muslims attend talks and prayers in multiple mosques in the course of a year. Nevertheless, a place which has played host to a Londoner fighting for an Islamist brigade in Syria, a terror suspect linked to the Somali terror group Al-Shabaab and an extremist preacher — all in one year — may have difficult questions to answer.