hide captionRegent's Park Mosque, also known as London Central Mosque, where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab worshiped while he was living in London from 2005 to 2008. An ex-member of a radical Islamist group says gatherings at the mosque, and others like it, are used to identify potential recruits.
Courtesy of Pucasso via Flickr
Regent's Park Mosque, also known as London Central Mosque, where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab worshiped while he was living in London from 2005 to 2008. An ex-member of a radical Islamist group says gatherings at the mosque, and others like it, are used to identify potential recruits.
Courtesy of Pucasso via Flickr
Shiraz Maher stands outside the Regent's Park Mosque in central London trying to look inconspicuous. Young men brush by him on the way to midday prayers.
Maher, 28, used to be a member of a radical Islamist organization called Hizb ut-Tahrir. HuT, as it is known, has been agitating for a Muslim superstate for decades.
Maher joined when he was in college and was part of the organization for four years. He was in charge of its operations in northeast England. These days, he looks more like a graduate student than a radical Islamist. He has a trimmed goatee, a stylish haircut, dark-rimmed glasses, and is wearing a blazer.
The Christmas Day bombing suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, used to attend Regent's Park Mosque for evening prayer when he lived in London as a university student from 2005 to 2008.
While it is unclear exactly where and when Abdulmutallab embraced radical Islam, law enforcement officials agree that he didn't do so alone. Someone indoctrinated him, they say.
That was one of the things Maher used to do when he was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir — bring in recruits.
Maher and Abdulmutallab never met. But as a recruiter, Maher knew — and wooed — people like him.
How To Find And Cultivate An Extremist
He offered NPR his insights into how a recruiter might convince a young man like Abdulmutallab to embrace radical Islam.
"You can move from being a very ordinary Muslim or even a non-practicing Muslim and still be radicalized," Maher says. "That was certainly the case with myself. When I was in my first year at university, I didn't pray at all. In fact, I would describe myself as an atheist at times. It was after Sept. 11 that I wanted to go and speak to people, and find out what Islam had to say about this. That journey, meeting all these radical people, led to me being sucked into that."
There is a guard at the front gate of the mosque. He motions to any women wanting to enter that they must cover their hair before going farther. The mosque complex is enormous. There is a large courtyard in front, surrounded on three sides by low buildings. An enormous gold dome and minaret loom overhead.
Abdulmutallab used to come to this mosque for evening prayers, starting in late 2005, according to his posting on an Islam-oriented Web chat room. He said this mosque, also known as the Central London mosque, is his favorite in London.
Identifying Potential Recruits
A year before Abdulmutallab arrived, Maher was at the Regent's Park Mosque on a very important night in the Muslim calendar — the night Muslims believe the Quran was revealed. He remembers that the mosque was packed that evening. Worshippers were flowing out of the mosque and into the courtyard.
It happened to be the same night that U.S. forces launched the Fallujah offensive in Iraq. It was 2004. As the crowd grew, members of Maher's group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, began making fiery, anti-American speeches.
"There was a lot of anger, a lot of chanting and sloganing, and essentially a lot of recruiting, as well," Maher says. "On an event like that, what you would do is you would have your speakers giving their talks, but the crowd would be filled with your members. They would be speaking to other people assessing who is there to just listen but doesn't agree, and those who are listening and getting increasingly interested."
That is the initial step in the recruiting process: identifying possible recruits. They would be people who are joining in the chanting; people who seem angry.
"Once you identify people who are interested, you take their numbers, you find out where they live, and you begin a very strong one-to-one cultivation," Maher says. "Usually we would turn people around in three to four weeks and then assess where they were at."
Maher says recruiters look for people who not only embrace the ideas of political Islam, but also show an eagerness to act on them. For someone like Abdulmutallab, for example, simply knowing a great deal about the Quran would not have been enough, he says. There has to be that political component — a small ember of activism that recruiters can fan to flame.
Maher walks into the mosque's main prayer hall. The men's section is about the size of a high-school gymnasium. The walls are white. The carpeting is blue. The women pray in a slightly smaller space upstairs, decorated in the same way.
Every Saturday after midday prayers, Maher says, members of Hizb ut-Tahrir used to call people over to the left-hand side of the prayer hall, and would make a public speech.
"When I was part of the organization in 2003 and 2004, on a Saturday you could get 300-odd people turning up," Maher says. "And the talks were political, always political, nothing else. You would talk to people and take details down; and after you get details, you talk to these people away from the mosque."
Maher adds: "It is almost like the Western equivalent of going to the nightclub, getting the girl's number, then dating her away from the nightclub so no one can move in on your turf, basically."
Generally, new recruits aren't indoctrinated in mosques — a trend that the FBI and intelligence officials in the U.K. have known for some time.
Recruiters may find people who want to embrace a more radical form of Islam there, but they take them elsewhere to actually indoctrinate them. That's why intelligence officials are less worried about people who continue to attend prayers at a mosque. Their concern ramps up when people leave the mosque and set up their own prayer meetings elsewhere.
"I always say it is very seductive," says Maher, trying to put his finger on why Abdulmutallab got swept up in radical Islam. "When I was running the north [of England], I was 21 or 22. I was youngest guy there. There were guys in their 40s, and I would tell them what to do, and they would listen. That's hugely powerful."
hide captionAnother view of London's Regent's Park mosque.
Another view of London's Regent's Park mosque.
Abdulmutallab's friends in London say he was quiet and isolated. Maher says that is a combination that is attractive to recruiters. It plays into their hands.
"When you are starting to feel alienated from society, radical Islam gives you a great outlet and release from it," he says. "Radical Islam says, 'Yes, that is fine that you feel isolated. Islam can never be at home and comfortable within the West.' So therefore, the more upset you feel, the better Muslim you are becoming because, as they see it, these things will never mix."
Crossing The Line
Maher says his former group doesn't get involved with terrorist attacks. He said Hizb ut-Tahrir is a political arm in the Islamist movement. It advocates setting up a Muslim caliphate, but says it doesn't want to achieve that through violence.
At graduate school for Islamic studies, Maher came to the conclusion that HuT's interpretation of the Quran was wrong, and that led him to quit, he says.
But some of its former members — even people Maher knew — have been linked to violence. Maher was at Regent's Park Mosque recruiting that night in 2004 with one of them.
"The guy who attempted to bomb Glasgow Airport three years later was here that evening with me," he says. "We drove down from Cambridge together."
That guy was Bilal Abdullah. He was one of two men who drove a Jeep Cherokee filled with propane tanks into the airport terminal at Glasgow in 2007. Abdullah survived the attack. He is currently in Belmarsh prison, in southeast London, serving 32 years after being found guilty of conspiracy to murder and cause explosions. Maher testified against him at trial.
Officials aren't certain when Abdulmutallab actually crossed that same line and decided to mix Islam and violence. But he has allegedly told the FBI that he saw himself as a warrior for God.
Correction March 16, 2010
In the audio version of this story, we reported that one of the men involved in the 2007 attack on Glasgow's airport was a member of an Islamist group called Hizb ut-Tahrir. While that man did spend time with the group and attended its recruiting sessions, he was not a formal member. In an e-mail, Hizb ut-Tahrir told NPR that it does not condone violence in any way.