N Kensington a happy hunting ground for militant recruiters
October 19 2014 10:34 PM
Mohammed el-Araj (far left) and Choukri Ellekhlifi (right) who were killed in Syria last year.
Mohammed el-Araj (far left) and Choukri Ellekhlifi (right) who were killed in Syria last year.

Evening Standard/London

A few minutes’ walk  from the streets of white stuccoed townhouses where David Cameron’s so-called Notting Hill Set plotted their route to government lies a very different stretch of west London.
The kids who live in the estates and blocks of North Kensington are among the most deprived in the capital, and in recent months a number of them have been killed, not in any local gang warfare, but on jihad.
Of the Londoners known to have been caught up in the Syrian war, it is striking how many hail from the neighbourhoods around Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park.
One counter-terrorism expert told the Standard earlier this year that he had noticed the clustering in North Kensington, and recent events have confirmed it.
But no factor that links the names immediately suggests itself.
Among them are young men from both Arab and North African families; some are said to come from devout households, others not; a handful attended the same fashionable state school but years before any problems emerged; some of them have been involved in political activism, others not at all.
If anyone might understand the cluster, though, it is those who run the Al Manaar mosque, formally called the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre.
It was purpose-built for the area’s sizeable Muslim community and opened by Prince Charles in 2001.
And there is evidence — from tweets, court statements and the testimony of friends — that most of the local young Muslims caught up in Syria of late were worshippers at Al Manaar, with differing degrees of regularity.
These include Britain’s highest profile export to Syria — the “Hip hop Jihadist” Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary.
No British citizen fighting in the conflict has received more scrutiny than Bary, owing to his past output as a rapper, his controversial father — said by the US authorities to be a former associate of Osama Bin Laden — and an infamous tweet in August showing him holding a severed head in Syria, alongside the words “Chillin’ with my other homie, or what’s left of him”.
He has had tracks played on BBC radio and was repeatedly — though probably erroneously — mentioned as a possible identity for “Jihadi John”, the tall, British-sounding “executioner” in the notorious decapitation videos.
His west London background has been noted, but what hasn’t been reported is that he was a regular at Al Manaar.
A now-deleted tweet posted by one of his fellow jihadists — saved by a counter-terrorism expert — features a picture of the mosque’s distinctive outside wall.
Another Al Manaar worshipper was Hamza Parvez, a local boy who worked at the Ibis hotel in Shepherd’s Bush and left his family without warning to join Isis (now called Islamic State) in Syria in May.
According to the journalist Tam Hussein, Parvez has seen combat in Syria and “is actively taking part” in the formation of the emergent IS. His best friend Mohamed Nasser — who travelled to Syria with Parvez but whose luck ran out in June when he was hit by a piece of shrapnel between the eyes and was killed — is also thought to have attended the mosque.
So too, according to someone who knew him, did 23-year-old Mohammed el-Araj, an engineering student who grew up minutes away from the homes of Parvez and Nasser in his family’s flat on Blenheim Crescent, an arching street that intersects with Portobello Market. He was killed in Syria, fighting with jihadist groups, last year. A friend of his was quoted in the Daily Telegraph, saying: “He started always to be with this group of people from the mosque, about six or seven of them.
They are very evil people who have completely wiped his brain.” But which mosque he was referring to — or whether any single mosque was influential in el-Araj’s plans — is not clear.
His Palestinian father has been quoted saying: “I don’t know which mosque. I wish I knew the mosque. Because I was seriously angry.”
Two weeks before his death, el-Araj’s friend, Choukri Ellekhlifi, another west London fighter, was also killed.
And at the trial of Amal el-Wahabi, convicted in August of fundraising for terrorism, it was revealed that she originally met her husband, Aine Davis, then a drug dealer from Hammersmith and now a fighter in Syria, whose main place of worship was in south London, at what was described as the “Aklam [sic] Road mosque”.
There is only one mosque on Acklam Road in Westbourne Park — Al Manaar.
We visited Al Manaar this week to find out what its leaders make of so many former worshippers ending up as jihadists in the most dangerous conflict on Earth. Its chairman, Abdulkarim Khalil, agreed to talk.
Khalil, a Libyan who came to the UK in 1982 and was instrumental in founding the Al Manaar centre, says he and his colleagues “hear about all these things [the actions of local jihadists] on the news, like everyone else”.
When I read out the names linked to the mosque, he says he doesn’t recognise them all, but doesn’t deny that they may have worshipped in the cavernous prayer room down the corridor from his office. “Of course we are very, very sad,” he says.
“We are also shocked as well. Sad for these young people who have got themselves into a situation that might influence the rest of their lives, if they come back. But also we feel sad because we know the situation of their parents.”
Khalil says the centre has been concerned about young Muslims from the area travelling to Syria for some time, and he emphasises that they have tried various things to stop more going, including advising parents on how to “spot the signs”: a Saturday school, at which volunteers from the City and other professionals give top-up tuition to youngsters; convening a recent meeting between worshippers and officials from the foreign office, home office, the police, charity commission and security agencies.
But can he be sure the influences that turned young men into violent extremists weren’t operating right under his nose, in the mosque itself?
He answers with remarkable candour. “The honest answer is that it is really difficult to know. On Fridays we have about 2,000 people come. Who meets who? Who says what to who? I think it would be dishonest if I told you ‘No’.
“But we try our best to control what goes on in our premises. We don’t allow people to address the congregation; we don’t allow people to distribute literature. Unfortunately these things happen on the big occasions, like on Fridays. And then you find people on the street outside the mosque, lobbying people, giving out literature — some of it for good causes, some of it for others.”
Khalil cites the poverty of many of the families concerned as a major factor in the area’s striking contribution of manpower to the Syrian frontline, combined with a lack of “control” at home, a language barrier in many households between Arabic-speaking parents and their locally educated children, and the consequent involvement of many youths in the area’s “culture of gangs”.
All of which leaves them angry and vulnerable to online influences. Nevertheless, he says: “It’s a wake-up call. We know we need to do more.”
Tam Hussein, who grew up in the area and knows the families of several of the men in question, echoes that view. “‘Sheikh Google’ has a big role to play in the decisions that these young people take,” he says, referring to the role of the web in spreading extremism, and mentioning the popularity among Britain’s fighters of video lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, the late Al Qaeda operative from Yemen.
“Most of these guys grew up on the estates, and there is a subculture where they are hanging out. And then they discover Islam and there’s not necessarily enough guidance.” He says the real-world influences on someone like Parvez were more likely to be lectures he attended, “dotted around everywhere”, rather than anything at the local mosque.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior researcher in counter-terrorism at the Royal United Services Institute, who saved the Bary tweet about Al Manaar, says he doesn’t know how many of the men were known to each other before travelling to Syria.
But many of them have petty criminality in common.
“What’s interesting is that they all kind of fit this profile of being young and on the fringes of gang culture,” he says.
Khalil says if he and his colleagues can stop one more local Muslim leaving their family, that will make their efforts worthwhile.
In the meantime, anyone interested in the process that leads London youngsters to risk their lives in the brutal battlefields of Syria could do worse than paying a visit to the streets of North Kensington.

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