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Radical thinking

Mr. Hanif Qadir, founder of the Active Change Foundation, photographed at the Youth Centre in Walthamstow

Hanif Qadir photographed in his Active Change Foundation youth club, August 2017

Hanif Qadir bangs the table at his Walthamstow youth club so hard that I jump. “There was no intervention on these people – Khalid Masood, Salman Abedi,” he says. “Had there been an intervention by someone like me, lives wouldn’t have been lost.” As the perpetrators of the Westminster and Manchester attacks respectively, Masood and Abedi took the lives of 27 people and injured a further 300 and Qadir knows their motivations better than most. He was once like them – a British-born Muslim ready to kill for his faith.

There was little in Qadir’s childhood that pointed towards jihadism. His parents moved to Yorkshire in the 1950s from Pakistan. “It was a very happy and cohesive childhood,” says Hanif. “There were 15 houses on our street, everybody knew everybody”.

Children undergo military training in Afghanistan in 2001. Qadir saw children as young
as 12 being measured to become suicide bombers during his time in the country

In 1979, the family moved to Walthamstow in east London, and as a 14-year-old Qadir struggled to adapt. “The first time I experienced racism was in my first month in London. A guy called me a Paki. ‘Who you calling a Paki?’, I said, then I hit him. It was embedded within me that what’s wrong is wrong. You can’t be silent…” But Qadir also found it difficult to integrate into his new community. “The biggest shock for me was moving from a predominantly white area to an Asian community,” he says. “We spoke English in our house since I was born. We never spoke Punjabi. Now I was struggling to communicate.”

Qadir left school and worked as a minicab driver before going into business with his two brothers, first running their own minicab office and then a garage, which by 1997 they had built into a successful motor repairs firm. But they were fixing more than cars. “Me and my brothers were always the go-to people,” he says. “If you wanted a form filled in, if you wanted a phone call to be made to the local authorities, we’d always help out.” For Qadir this desire to help was rooted in his religion. “The basic rules of what’s right and wrong… Islam is very similar to Christianity. There are fundamental values that we all hold dear.”

Then on 11th September 2001 everything changed. “After 9/11, you saw the division being created,” he says. “You’re not an Asian or Pakistani or Indian any more – you’re now a Muslim and that’s what defined us… Ninety-nine percent of my customers were white British and in my mind they were looking at me differently because I’m a Muslim.”

“They’ll put you in a position where you believe you are calling the shots: you want to pick up arms, become a suicide bomber, you want to kill”

Qadir remembers one night as a particular turning point. His youngest son had hurt himself and he took him to the paediatric A&E. In the waiting room there was a TV showing the invasion of Afghanistan. “As we came into the waiting room, the door screeched and everyone looked,” he remembers. “I thought I was being looked at because I was a Muslim. Looking back I think this was 80 percent in my head, but at the time I was convinced: I wasn’t welcome in this country.”

It was Qadir’s reputation for charity that led to his radicalisation. He was approached by a friend looking to raise money for victims of the war on terror. Through him Qadir was introduced to a man he refers to only as “the Afghan” who showed him pictures of the conflict. Qadir agreed to raise money in the local community to help orphans in Afghanistan and started to attend meetings to discuss the situation in the region. One of the members of the group, a man Qadir calls “the Syrian”, gained increasing influence over him. “He resembled Osama bin Laden and he was very charismatic,” remembers Qadir. “By now I didn’t really care if he was Al Qaeda or not.”

Although the conversations between the two often returned to taking action, at no point did Qadir feel he was being driven to extremism. “The thing about the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network was that they never take the focus away from the humanitarian aspect of it. They’ll put you in a position where you believe you are calling the shots: you want to pick up arms, become a suicide bomber, you want to kill. That’s the whole process and what happened to me.”

Soon Qadir was convinced he needed to go to the front line. To allay fears from donors in the community that the funds he had raised would go astray, Qadir promised to deliver the money to Afghanistan himself, but he already knew that there was more behind his desire to go to the country. “My plan was to go, to see, to help and if need be get involved in the war. I left a will with my wife and just got on a plane.”

Qadir flew to Islamabad on 5th December 2002 where he met with friends of the Syrian who took him into Afghanistan. He found himself in a camp run by Mawlawi Jalaluddin Haqqani, leader of the insurgent Haqqani network, whose stated mission was to launch a holy war in Afghanistan. “It was a remarkable setting,” says Qadir. “There were a few houses linked up with tents in between… There were guys from Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Bangladesh, Chechnya.” But instead of an inclusive brotherhood, Qadir found a tiered society. “I was in a place where Islam was fundamental to everything we did, but their actions didn’t tell me they were Muslims,” he says. “The Pakistanis there were literally being treated like slaves.”

The treatment of children was much worse. “Kids were being measured up to become suicide bombers,” says Qadir. “Somebody said,  ‘They are going to meet their parents’; ‘They’re going to fly in paradise’. Most of these kids had lost their parents in the conflict and they were being promised paradise, with lots of food, no pain, rivers of honey and milk and meeting their parents. Most of them believed, but one 12-year-old told me: ‘I came here to help my Muslim brothers, but they are butchers.’”

A furious row ensued between Qadir and one of the leaders about religious duty and the use of children as suicide bombers. Realising he’d made a huge mistake, Qadir offered a man £50 to drive him back to Pakistan. He took the 12-year-old with him. “I kept telling the driver to go fast, and within an hour and 20 minutes I was back in Peshawar,” says Qadir. “From there I took another car to Islamabad and arrived in the evening. The next morning, I left for the UK. I actually cried on the plane.”

“They’ll put you in a position where you believe you are calling the shots: you want to pick up arms, become a suicide bomber, you want to kill”

Back in the UK, Qadir went in search of ‘the Afghan’ and ‘the Syrian’. “It’s a blessing from God [that I didn’t find them],” he says. “I probably would have killed them.” Qadir struggles to put into words what happened to him. “Radicalisation is the accepted term, but I call it abuse,” he says. Nevertheless he accepts that he played a role. “It was my decision, my stupidity, my lack of critical thinking [that led me to Afghanistan],” he says. He looks back at his escape with amazement. “If they’d caught me, I’d be in many pieces.”

Qadir was now driven to warn others about the organisations he’d once raised funds for. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” he says. “They didn’t believe me when I said they’re using young children as suicide bombers, cannon fodder. Nobody would listen to me.”

At around this time, Qadir decided to take out a lease on a former nightclub and turn it into a youth centre. “It was like a derelict building,” he says. “Some sofas, a broken TV and a ruined pool table, but it was a place where people could hang out.” The Active Change Foundation (ACF) was born.

He improved the facilities and made the centre open to everyone, although he was particularly keen to attract those who were at risk of radicalisation. “I got a fryer, bought lots of burgers and would cook free meals for them,” he recalls. “Burgers and chips. My monthly bill would be about £800. I needed to do that to keep them interested.”

Qadir initially refused to talk to those using the centre about his experiences in Afghanistan, but began to open up when he realised that “the kids were harbouring a lot of hatred and anger coming from what was happening in Afghanistan, the war on terror and Iraq”. When he eventually told them of his experience on the front line, he found he could strip away the glamour that many of them associated with jihad – although not everyone was convinced. “One of the guys, who was very quiet, told me: ‘I’ve been listening to you and you look proud of what you did.’ I told him I wasn’t,” says Qadir. “‘Damn right – you shouldn’t be. You ran away from the battlefield.’”

In 2006 the Home Office started to fund ACF’s work. A Young Leaders Programme was launched and the team grew; soon crews of ACF members were walking the streets encouraging people to use the centre. The police and social services also referred individuals classed as ‘at risk’ to Qadir. Qadir estimates that by 2016 as many as 2,700 people had used the community centre and that ACF had been involved in 1,200 interventions.

“An Islamist recruiter’s job is to go to certain parts of the community and occupy its space, including its virtual, conversational and mental space,” he says. “There are about 80,000 Muslims in Waltham Forest, from all walks of life. It’s not a vibrant or affluent community. It’s easy for recruiters to occupy those societies. To counter that, you have to have the same accessibility, the same kind of conversations.”

Qadir’s Active Change Foundation youth centre in Walthamstow, east London

Qadir’s rule for tackling extremism is simple. “Everything starts with a conversation,” he says. “[You need to] understand where these views are coming from: are they his or her own ideas or have they been implanted? And what’s the reason and vehicle used to plant the seed: is it the conflict in Syria? Did he or she have turmoil in their family life recently? Have they been bullied? Have they been racially attacked? Mental health? Everybody requires a different approach.” Through this process Qadir estimates ACF has deradicalised 120 people whom he would class as having been at medium to high risk. In the course of his work Qadir says he has been targeted on a number of occasions and his house has been petrol bombed.

ACF’s government funding was provided as part of Prevent, a government scheme intended to stop individuals being drawn into terrorism. Prevent has attracted controversy and faced criticism from NGOs, charities and a UN special rapporteur. It has been accused of creating an atmosphere of self-censorship in which people don’t feel free to express their views and of stoking Islamophobia.

“We’ve been fighting these people in the wrong places. The real battlefield will always be in the hearts and minds”

In August 2016, the Home Affairs Select Committee announced a change of strategy. The same year ACF’s funding was cut. While the Home Office would not comment on any particular funding decision, they told us that the new strategy for Prevent “continually looks to broaden Prevent activity with civil society groups and ensure that they have the capacity to deliver local projects effectively.”

Qadir was surprised by the cut to his funding. “We’ve been doing this for 10 to 15 years and we’ve been championed by the government,” he says. “We’ve done some damn good work.” To bridge the gap, he now relies on donations from large corporations and the community, but finds it difficult to attract donors in such a controversial area. Despite the cut in funding, Qadir remains a supporter of the government scheme. “Prevent is by far the best thing that could happen to young people to move them away from violence and crime,” he says. “But because it hasn’t been effectively communicated to the people in the community by the practitioners of Prevent, it’s become a toxic brand.”

Since 2016, Qadir has watched the rise of terrorist incidents in the UK with frustration. “If he [Manchester bomber Salman Abedi] was introduced to a person like me or an organisation like ours, there’s no way that guy would’ve become a terrorist. He would either be in prison or a reformed character. The same with [the people behind] the Westminster and London Bridge attacks: if we couldn’t change their views, we would have the police involved to ramp up the surveillance.”

Qadir believes that while the Manchester and London attacks may inspire copycats, what happened at Finsbury Mosque on the 19th June – when an alleged far-right terrorist drove into Muslim worshippers leaving one dead and 11 injured – is far more likely to create new jihadists. “Extremism breeds extremism,” he says. “Terrorists are being successful because they have now created division, two competing monsters which are operating in communities around the world. The West has become a tinderbox.”

But can video games, free burgers and a chat really help defuse the situation? Qadir is convinced it is a start. “[Isis] is adaptive, they adapt on a daily basis, and we can’t contain, control or anticipate what comes next,” he says. “But what they’ve always said to Muslims is that they’ll never be accepted and it’s slowly but surely becoming a reality. Now Muslims are not being accepted in many parts of the world.”

ACF hopes to show practising Muslims that they can be an accepted part of society in the West and that can start with something as simple as a conversation over a game of pool. “We’ve been fighting these people in the wrong places,” says Qadir. “The real battlefield will always be in the hearts and minds. If we fight in that battlefield, we can defeat terrorism. But first, we have to understand those hearts and minds.”


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