In this instalment of the Human Voices in the War on Terror series, Abdullah (not his real name), speaks of his experience of being incarcerated,  his path to reformation and when MI5 began to develop an interest in him. 

My name is Abdullah from East London. I would like to share my experiences in order to inspire others in the community who are facing, or who may in the future, face similar hardships. As a young man, I was regrettably involved in the criminal sub-culture that the East End has long been infamous for. Sadly, as is so often the case, the end result of pursuing such a lifestyle is jail. I received a lengthy jail sentence for a serious offence.

One of the (few) positive side effects of being incarcerated, is that it gives one time to reflect. To reflect on life, its purpose and the direction in which your life is heading. Alhamdulillah, after some time inside, and in part spurred by the events of 9/11, I made the conscious decision to reengage with my deen (faith) and began to pray regularly. I sought out books on Islam and made an earnest effort to learn about Islam holistically from a variety of sources. I became increasingly vocal on the issues faced by Muslim inmates and as a result I came to the attention of the prison authorities.

One day, I found myself summoned to the offices reserved for the prison governor. It was here that I was introduced to two “researchers”. However, from the nature of their questions and their demeanour, I suspected they were agents from Special Branch or the Security Service (MI5). Their discussions focussed on the geo-politics of the Middle East and on the supposed link between Islam and violence, specifically terrorism. They wanted to know why some Muslim inmates were radicalised and drawn to violence.

Read more: What to do when MI5 comes knocking for you

Based on my own psychological knowledge coupled with my own personal experiences,  I told them that some prisoners were already predisposed to an anti-authoritarian mind set. Many of these prisoners, like myself were inside for offences involving violence and thus already receptive to misunderstanding the concept of Jihad to justify violence against innocent civilians.

So I suggested that the most effective remedy to such a problem, was to allow open discussions on these topics, led by those who were qualified and who commanded the respect of the inmates. Such discussions would reveal the detailed ethical framework surrounding the noble concept of Jihad in Islam and would serve as a guard against the misinterpretations that justify the type of un-Islamic actions we are currently witnessing.

Sadly, during my time inside I witnessed a distinct lack of courage and conviction on the part of many who were supposed to be representing the interests of Muslim inmates. I wish to share with you one incident in particular. During my study of Islam I learned of the ruling on Isbal – lowering the garment below the ankles – and that it was haram. I subsequently started raising my lower garments a few inches above my ankles which attracted the attention of the prison staff who informed me that due to “health and safety” regulations (apparently I was now at risk of being scalded by mishandled hot food) such an appearance could not be permitted. I informed them, politely but firmly, that for me, my duty to Allah (swt) came above any other regulations. As a compromise, I temporarily agreed to raise my socks to cover up the flesh that had been exposed as a result of rolling up my joggers.

In order to find a permanent resolution I needed sign off from the prison’s religious department approving a dispensation for my faith requirements. The Heads of these departments are always Church of England provided Chaplains who are then assisted in their task by other faith communities’ officials (e.g. Imams, Rabbis and Priests). I suspected that the prison Imam would not be sympathetic to my case for fear of upsetting the authorities – the “don’t rock the boat attitude” of meek subservience. I therefore presented my argument to the Head Chaplain who listened intently and agreed that my request was reasonable and assured me that he would fix the problem with the authorities, which he duly did.

A short while later, I was approached by the Imam who having heard of what I had done, warned me against “causing trouble for myself”. As if asserting your fundamental rights was trouble making! Sadly such a mentality is all too prevalent in our community and something we urgently need to tackle.

By the time I was released, the Syrian revolution against Bashar Assad had entered the phase of armed struggle. A number of young men had travelled from Britain to take part in this struggle, many of whom have since returned. That year, I was privileged to spend the final 10 days of Ramadan in Itikaf at the mosque. I mixed with many wonderful brothers and as I had hoped, it provided a boost to my iman (faith) and I achieved a sense of closeness to my Lord.

Shortly after Eid, I received a phone call from a man who identified himself as an agent of MI5. He said that the security services were worried about young Muslim men who were going to Syria and returning, and that they would pose a threat to national security. I was told that during my stint in prison I had known several such individuals and therefore the security services would like me to assist them. I informed them that  I had not kept in touch with my former prison associates since my release and moreover I was not comfortable with being a spy.

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I explained that this was not the way to go about tackling the threat – why not initiate an open dialogue with the community and allow a free discussion on these issues rather than forcing them underground? The agent was persistent in his request that I help them and while not openly threatening me, there was a tone of subdued menace in his choice of language (e.g. repeatedly telling me how he “understood how difficult things were for me” and that they could help). After rejecting an offer to meet at an undisclosed location, I ended the call by telling him I would mull over what he had said.

Just over a week later I received another call from the same individual. This time I told him plainly, but politely, that I wasn’t interested in co-operating with MI5 nor in their bogus offers of help. After I declined to answer his questions regarding two specific individuals I told him that I had nothing more to say to them and requested that they cease contacting me. I received an assurance that after a period of a fortnight the number he had called me from would be deactivated and that there would be no further contact from him but he caveated this by saying that he couldn’t guarantee others wouldn’t.

After the second conversation, I decided to contact CAGE in order to seek their support and advice. Alhamdulillah they were very supportive and took down all the relevant details of my interaction with the agent. They advised me that if I was contacted again, I should offer to meet them in a location of my choosing in the presence of a solicitor. When confronted with such an offer, in virtually all instances the contact from MI5 ceases immediately.

Although the past few years have been a tough experience for me, there has, Alhamdulillah, been a positive aspect to it. In adversity I learned the meaning of reliance on Allah (swt) and in the value of standing firm and being assertive. There is a difference between assertiveness, firmness and aggression and I feel my experiences in prison taught me the value of the former two over and above the latter.

I have reintegrated well into the community and have taken an active interest in local issues, helping on occasion to facilitate a constructive dialogue between the local mosque committee and the police over the issue of EDL demonstrations.

My parting message is this:

To my brothers and sisters in Islam we need to take hold of our own destiny, to place our reliance in Allah, to abandon fear and despair and to stand up and be counted.

To the authorities I would urge you to reconsider your policy of suppressing and stifling debate on Islamic topics such as Jihad. If we want to successfully dissuade young Muslim men (and women) from taking the wrong path then we need an atmosphere of openness where ideas can be discussed and debated freely, not one of fear and suppression.

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(Image courtesy of Michelle Robinson on flickr)

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)