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You can kill terrorists, but you can’t kill the idea – former Al-Qaeda member

A deadly terrorist attack staged by a white supremacist in New Zealand has sent shockwaves throughout the world. Is it possible to contain radicalization, no matter what ideology it is driven by? We asked Hanif Qadir, former Al-Qaeda member and head of Active Change Foundation, which deals with extremist youth.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Hanif Qadir, former al-Qaeda turncoat and head of Active Change Foundation, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.

Hanif Qadir: A pleasure.

SS: So, a recent attack on a mosque by an extreme right-winger in New Zealand killed 50 people. Are authorities today so busy spotting potential jihadists that they actually turn a blind eye to far-right extremism? 

HQ: I think the problem has been developing for many-many years, and I wrote about this in my book. Look, we've obviously got a problem of violent extremism from a religious perspective, and in particular, from within the Muslim communities. And because we haven't been addressing that effectively, it's no doubt that the narratives that then come out from within societies is going to give rise to white supremacy and far-right extremists. Now, we've been talking about that for many, many years, I don't think it’s a matter of not having the time, I think they've been ignorant of the development of far-right extremism, which has been happening right under our noses, not just in the UK, but right across Europe, and across other parts of the world, as we witnessed in New Zealand. And if we don't take stock of our approaches to the violent extremism in all its forms, then, I'm afraid, these two monsters, be it Islamic-based extremism or far-right extremism, will consume our societies. 

SS: The New Zealand attack has been staged by a white supremacist. You've been working with Islamist extremists for a long time, but did you ever work with this side of radicalism? I mean, would you expect the mentality of a white supremacist to be so different from that of a jihadist fighter? 

HQ: There are similarities in the way that they are recruited, and there's an ideology behind this, and we saw this in New Zealand, when some people would say: “Oh, there's no ideology behind far-right extremism or white supremacy”... Of course there is. I've not come across, you know, any individuals that I had to work with from a far-right extremist background, but I've met many people from that kind of an ideology, and it's... The narratives are kind of similar to what would affect an individual from a Muslim background. But there is a lack of understanding by institutions and governments as to how much, or how effective, and how dangerous these organisations can be. 

SS: So, in the wake of the attack, at least partial blame has been attributed to the Internet and online culture. Is this where hate crimes like that originate in this days and age? I mean, considering how it's been going on for many years now with ISIS. 

HQ: It's wrong to blame the Internet or social media for all of the problems we've got. We've got problems with gang violence, and, you know, all kinds of things, online grooming. But look, in terms of violent extremism which creates terrorism, it's not just the Internet, you know. You have to be able to engage, and these narratives and these conversations are taking place offline, within communities and in societies, as well as online. So it's not just a matter of, you know, addressing it from a social media perspective, we have to have a robust proactive approach to these problems from the grassroots in the first place. If you can't access people, you know, physically as well as virtually, you're not going to be able to change them. So it's got to start from the grassroots level, and it's going to take shape, and the conversations to counter this problem have to also include online as well. But it's not just about focusing online. 

SS: But do you think... It feels like the authorities are sort of delegating the blame to the social media, in their point of view, it all comes down to that.But shouldn't the authorities be taking care of these things before they happen? 

HQ: Of course. It's... Unfortunately, you know, we've found that the authorities, whether they're here in the UK or across the world, they will always shift the blame to something else or somebody else. And it's got to be where... The authorities have got to take stock, they've got to take responsibility for the problems within society, because, ultimately, they have developed policies, and they can develop policies that will affect our societies. So it's wrong for the authorities to put the blame on one particular matter, in this instance be it the Internet or social media organizations and companies. So it's wrong for them to do that, just like it's our duty, it's the government's duty to protect our societies in all aspects, on every level: on a grassroots community-based, and also put the safeguards in place for online.

SS: The New Zealand attacker posted his ideas and manifesto online, yet the authorities and Big Tech companies sought to shut him down. In your view, is blacking out hate speech the right thing to do when it comes to radicals, or should their ideas be contested out in the open? 

HQ: Well, if we've got a number of different approaches across the world to contest and challenge and tackle hate preachers and the narratives that come out of radical Islamic preaching and individuals, why shouldn't we do the same with the ideology that we're faced with from far-right supremacists and extremists? We have to be able to have individuals, and mechanisms, and processes in place, where we tackle the ideology, and that can only happen through a set of conversations, and we can choose to have those conversations online or offline. And I say, we have to start offline first, because there is no way on Earth I will accept, or any expert in the field, that this individual that carried out the attack in New Zealand was groomed and radicalized online purely. He had connections around the world and with other individuals, and there were offline conversations being had, which led him to become so violently driven, that this is what he did. 

SS: So, ISIS has called for revenge for the Christchurch attack. Should we expect a tit-for-tat string of attacks now? 

HQ: Of course, look, ISIS are looking for these kind of opportunities. These, they both feed off each other. And I've been saying this for many, many years. And you can go into the book that I've written. I mentioned, I wrote this two years ago. They are going to feed off each other, and we can expect tit-for-tat, unfortunately. I hope we don't see it, but it's a natural outcome to expect because of the way that these individuals and these networks and groups feed off each other. 

SS: You've been working with youth who got radicalised after seeing people of their faith killed in mass numbers, and you said it is extremely difficult to help them cope with the hate they have inside them. Do you think Christchurch will radicalize even more people even further? 

HQ: I think, if we look at the broader picture and the dynamics involved with this situation in Christchurch, all the inscriptions, the manifesto and the narratives that are coming out, and you could say it's information, or it's misinformation, or fake news, or real news. But the reality is that it's affecting thousands and thousands of individuals across the world in a very negative way, because the theories that are coming out, and some of them may be true, and some of them may not, but the reality is that the individuals that are coming up with these theories, that is what they believe. So I feel that it's going to be a challenge for us to tackle the ideology going forward, because there are legitimate grievances, and if we look at the inscriptions in the manifesto, that hasn't been written by one man, that's been supported by others. So we know there's a bigger network out there, and because we know that, so do individuals that ISIS will exploit and recruit. Not just ISIS, there are others out there, you know, there's lots of narratives coming up from within communities here in the UK and across the world, that something must be done, because there's a whole agenda to annihilate Islam from the Earth. And this is what they believe, whether we accept that or not. 

SS: So when there's an attack committed by a Muslim, we can see the term Islamic terrorism being used all over the media, yet, while attacks committed by white supremacists are immediately recognized as acts of terrorism just as well, you'll never see terms like white terrorism or Christian terrorism in the headlines. Why do you think that society uses terrorism and Islam in one phrase, but doesn't link terrorism to Christianity, for instance?

HQ: So this is a classic narrative that stems from within communities, not just here in the UK, like I said, across the world, it affects everybody. And this is what a lot of... I'd say, millions of Muslims have been saying, have been calling for, and have got grievances about, that when it's a Muslim that does this, it's a terrorist incident, and when it’s a white supremacist, it's a shooter, or it's a young child who grew up to be an evil individual. Nobody calls it white terrorism, like you just said, and nobody calls it Christian terrorism, because it's... Now, this is a narrative that I'm going to use for a young person, because it suits the agenda. Young people believe that there's an agenda to undermine Islam and Muslims. And the reason why they don't use “white terrorist” or “Christian terrorists”, because it doesn't suit the agenda that they have. That's the narrative that young people... That’s one narrative that young people use. And you know, every time we do this, every time we fail to call a spade a spade, to call a terrorist a terrorist, every time we fail that, we are confirming the narrative and the ideology of the young people who would become sympathetic towards an extremist narrative. 

SS: So you have said you used to be an al-Qaeda member and you even went to Afghanistan to join the group there. But you said you went there not as a terrorist but as a humanitarian. What does it mean? I mean, did your recruiters promise you a non-combat role? What was their plan for you? What exactly were you supposed to do when you went there? 

HQ: No, I mean, it wasn't about me joining al-Qaeda. It was about me going to help alleviate the suffering of the innocent women and children that were caught up in the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States and the allies. And it's only when you arrive there and you find out the amount of destruction and the loss of life of innocent women and children, you know, the reality hits you. So it wasn't about me, you know, wanting to join al-Qaeda and go there as a fighter, and it wasn't even mentioned about, you know, it was about doing humanitarian work. But this is also what happens to lots of young men and women that have gone from here previously to go to Afghanistan or to go to Iraq, or to go to other places of conflict - they go because they feel about the human suffering of their fellow Muslim brothers and sisters. In my case it was about human beings, it was about children. It was about, you know, innocent women and children. And this is exactly why we've got a lot of people that go from this country and fight with the Peshmerga because they feel passionate about it, they feel sympathetic towards the Yazidi women. But then the narrative also comes out - but what about the young innocent women and children from the Muslim families? And that's why I was compelled. I was emotionally driven, you know, to do something to help those individuals and to stop the suffering. 

SS: So were you an al-Qaeda member or not? 

HQ: Yes, I was. It's because when I went there that's when I realised who these people were. But by that time you realise that what they're doing is not what everyone else is saying. You know, you see them as terrorists, you know, on the screen but when you're going down you see the amount of humanitarian work that they've been doing. You realise that actually the terrorist narrative is there for a reason, but it's actually when you really get involved with, you know, wherever they go and you actually realise how far from the truth it actually really is. And that's why I will always say that when young men and women want to join ISIS, you know, I know it's difficult for people to appreciate and understand, but I can tell you, one thing is that when people go there they realise that how wrong they were, how mistaken they were and how violent evil those organisations are. But it's wrong for us then to deny them a chance to return and for rehabilitation.

SS: So you say what turned you away from al-Qaeda was their use of children in their attacks. And so you headed back to the United Kingdom to prevent terrorists from radicalising other young people. I thought, al-Qaeda wasn't the kind of group that's easy to leave. I mean how difficult was it for you to get out of Afghanistan? 

HQ: It's not. I mean there are many groups that are not easy to leave. You have to be very lucky to be able to, you know, sometimes turn your back on them. But when the people that I've met from here in the UK and who I met there, I realise and they realise that they've duped me into this. Using young children to become suicide bombers is not part of Islam. I was old enough, I wasn't naive, you know, as a child or young person. I was old enough to challenge the ideology that's wrong. But then I was lucky to be able to, you know, slip away in the middle of the night. But not many people have that luck. And it's not easy to leave those those kind of networks. You know, we've seen a lot of changes since 2002, since when I went, you know, they've become a lot more violent and a lot more driven to once they've got somebody in there amongst them they're not going to let them go. So it's very difficult for many people to leave and if they can, I think, we should offer them a route back so we can at least, you know, rehabilitate them and learn from them. 

SS: When you were back to the UK, did you just return to your daily routine like if you’ve never been in the ranks of the worst terrorist network in history? Did the authorities look into your profile? 

HQ: I think, ISIS have taken the rank of the worst terrorist organisation in the world... 

SS: Fair enough. But al-Qaeda is pretty bad too. 

HQ: Of course. I'm just saying, you know, as a bit of humor, but obviously coming back to the UK, I'll be honest with you, I didn't know what to do with myself. You know, I was a businessman before I left, I was a family man. I did not want to go back to work. I didn't feel, I wanted to spend more time with my family, with my kids, with my brothers because I felt that I'd betrayed them and I'd betrayed my religion and I almost took away, you know, a father from my children and a family member from my family. So I was stressed out, I was going through a lot of trauma as to what I had actually done and what potentially could have happened to me. I didn't speak to the authorities. I didn't think it was important because I didn't do anything illegal. But, you know, it took me time to get people to understand in my community that we have a problem, and I started to engage with the local Muslim community who actually didn't know what I was talking about - even the local authorities, even government officials. It took one individual to actually realise how real the problem is and actually understand me, and that was a police officer called Ian Larnder who was a chief inspector at the time and I spoke to him. That's the first person apart from my brothers that I told about, you know, why I'm saying we have a problem in this country. And then we had 7/7, unfortunately. That's when people actually started to realise that what I was saying is true and it will be a reality. And then we had the airline plot in 2006 which happened right in our neighborhood, and that's when, I think, our local authorities actually realised that what I was saying - I was talking sense. That's what my mind was when I returned. That's what my, you know, my intention was, has been, and my passion lies in tackling this problem, this scourge. And I think, you know, it's... And I've written about it in the book many times. 

SS: So you run Active Change Foundation that used to deal with radicalised individuals. You said that your organisation was amongst the most successful ones in the field. Is there no more government funding for it? Or why isn't the British government supporting organisations like yours anymore? 

HQ: So I have to say that I started off the organisation with my own funds and I sold my businesses and whatever property I had to keep the organisation going up to 2006. That's when the government started to look at our work because of the aircraft plot. But our funding has been cut since 2016. The whole Prevent agenda has been too politicised. You know, it's been driven by individuals who are being opinionated. It's taking the eye off the ball. Our work in countering violent extremism is a risky work, but all of a sudden we've been told that our work is too risky. So it was about the government becoming too risk-averse and their intention has been focused elsewhere for, like, for instance, Brexit and becoming Prime Minister. So we got involved because we were leading the way and we were known as the pioneers of the field. And when you're the pioneers you’re always going to come across different issues and obstacles, and mistakes, and failures. And we did. You know, we had some mistakes, we had some failures, like anybody would, but it wasn't such that would cause a problem with society. It was like we were learning and we were passing the learning back to others so they can learn from us. But it became too politicised and that's where we lost our funding. So now we're almost on the brink of closure and I'm looking at ways of reviving the organisation ever since the New Zealand attack because I believe that a grassroots community approach is the way forward in tackling extremism. 

SS: So, I just wonder in your line of work have you ever managed to talk somebody out of committing an actual terror attack? 

HQ: So, our organization has worked with some of the most high-risk individuals in this country if not in Europe and I know, I challenge you to check that with our Home Office, with our records. And I've actually worked with individuals who were prepared to carry out acts of terrorism and I've managed to dissuade them and persuade them not to do this. I won't say that they were about to commit an act of terrorism imminently. I would say they were thinking of doing so and we managed to talk to them and put them back into the system of a different kind of understanding. So, yes, the answer to your question is yes, we have, you know, prevented individuals from becoming terrorists. 

SS: You say, radicalisation begins with an idea, with a conversation. So does that mean that at the end of the day there will always be terrorists? After all, you can kill a man but you can't kill a conversation... 

HQ: You can't kill the idea. I say that again after I refer to the book, I’ve written in there: you can try and bomb your way out of it. If we look since 9/11 and the war on terror and if you look at how many terrorists have been killed since 9/11.... But look at how much terrorism and terrorist networks have increased with almost 10-20-30-fold. You know, it's been multiplied many times. So by killing terrorists we are not going to defeat terrorism. You can't kill the idea. And those conversations will continue to happen. It's like people will say: “George Bush said we've defeated al-Qaeda, we've got them on the run.” I don't think so. Look now. And now we've been saying, you know, we've defeated ISIS. You know, we've almost finished them off. I don't think so. You can never defeat them completely unless we approach this in a different way. Killing our way out of it, you're killing innocent women and children... So you killed 10 terrorists and you give 50 a reason to become a terrorist. So we've seen that by war alone - you cannot decrease it, you're only going to increase terrorism. It has to be a different approach. It has to be through a set of conversations. It has to be through a grassroots community approach just like you create a revolution. 

SS: So, you know, I also not long ago spoke to a man named Aimen Dean, who is an al-Qaeda turncoat and also Britain's most successful spy in the organisation, and he said that there is now a theological crisis in Islam, because, I'm quoting, “many Muslims around the world have a superficial understanding of their faith”. The radicals that you worked with, was that the case with them? Did they understand the faith they were about to kill or be killed for? 

HQ: You know, to some extent, they would kill and be killed for what they believed in. And one could argue that that could be Islam. And I would say, yes, you know, they use Islam as a vehicle. They don't use the Islamic theology as a vehicle, they use Islam as a vehicle, but it's driven by their emotions, by their grievances, by the anger to what's happening around the world, with regards to what's happening in Afghanistan, what’s happening in Iraq, and Syria, and Palestine, and all over the world where Muslims are being persecuted or being attacked. Now, they use... The extremists will apply a warped understanding, and any expert will tell you that they take the religion out of context to create a narrative that will allow an individual to believe that they're doing it for the sake of their religion. 

SS: Alright, thank you very much for this interesting interview and insight. We wish you all the best of luck with whatever it is that you are doing. We were talking to Hanif Qadir, ex-member of al-Qaeda and head of Active Change Foundation, discussing radicalisation of youth and the best ways to tackle it.

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