Counter terrorism police are now leading the investigation into the death of a Syrian preacher who was shot dead on a London street amid fears he was murdered by professional hit men.
Abdul Hadi Arwani, 48, a fierce critic of president Bashar al-Assad, was found slumped in a Volkswagen Passat with wounds to his chest in the suburban street yesterday morning.
At first, officers from Scotland Yard’s Homicide and Major Crime Command were in charge of the investigation.
But earlier today, the Metropolitan Police said its counter terrorism officers, who handle political assassinations, were now leading the inquiry because of its potential ‘international dimensions’.
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Outspoken: Abdul Hadi Arwani had taken part in a demonstration against President Assad three years ago
The move comes after a source revealed the killing had all the hallmarks of a ‘state-sponsored assassination’ as a friend laid blame at the feet of ‘Assad and his cronies’.
But his family have spoken out against this theory, saying they did not believe his opposition to Assad was the motive for his killing.
Confirming his identity for the first time, the Metropolitan Police said detectives from its counter terrorism command are carrying out the inquiry ‘because of their expertise in the management of investigations with international dimensions and an established liaison network abroad’.
Detectives are keeping an open mind of the murder including whether it was the result of some local dispute.
The father-of-six was an imam at the An-Noor Mosque in Acton, West London, but was forced to step down last year over reports it was repeatedly linked with extremists.
Mr Arwani was found with gunshot wounds to his chest in Wembley on Tuesday morning. He was declared dead half an hour later.
Today his family told how they were ‘at a loss’ and ‘mystified’ over who would target him.
They dismissed claims he might have been killed in a professional hit for being a fierce critic of the Syrian president.
His daughter Elham Arwani, said her father ran a building company and had been visiting Wembley in connection with his work.
Speaking from the family home, the 23-year-old said: ‘We have no idea what happened. We don’t even know how he was killed. We have just been told he was killed and that’s it.
‘Any Syrian who is free and who knows the truth is against Assad. It’s not going to be because he was against Assad. It must be for another reason, but we can’t think of anything.’
She described her father as a ‘loving father and husband’ and added: ‘He was the best person, always helping everyone. His phone would ring 24/7 with people asking for help and advice.’
Mr Arwani’s 20-year-old son Morhaf added: ‘The whole family is at a loss and we just cannot understand what could be behind this. At the moment we know as much as you do.
‘The local community is gathering for prayers and a meeting at a location in Park Royal this evening and there will be people there who will talk about the role my father had in the community.’
At least 200 mourners gathered to pay tribute to him this evening at Nadi Park Royal in Willesden Junction, north west London, where he preached every Wednesday.
Mourners claimed the imam was a peaceful man who opposed extremism.
Some speculated that he may have been killed in a hit from the Syrian regime or because of a disagreement over management of the west London mosque.
One also said that he had visited Syria ten times in recent years but had been ordered by the Turkish government to stop and had been questioned by security services at an airport there.
Mr Arwani was a preacher at the An-Noor Mosque (pictured) in Acton, West London, which has a reputation for hosting fundamentalist speakers
Dr Khaled Kamaraldi, who gave Arwani his first job as a builder 15 years ago, said: ‘He went out to Syria to educate the fighters about the treatment of prisoners of war and about human rights.
‘He said if you behaved like the Assad regime you become like them. He was questioned by security services but they let him go. He said everything in his heart.’
He added: ‘This was a state kill. Assad was behind it, and if not Assad one of his cronies. He was very active against the Assad regime. But he was a conciliator, he was not violent.
‘What shocks me is they shot him in broad daylight in the centre of London. They have no respect. There is no doubt the police will get him.’
One friend, solicitor Mohammad Bassam Tablieh, 43, from west London, said there could be ‘two reasons behind his killing’.
He said: ‘Number one: a dispute about running the mosque. Number two: his activities against Assad. He was an active member of the opposition against Assad.
‘There was a problem with dealing with who is imam at the mosque. He had nothing to do with extremism at all he was a very moderate person, very peaceful.’
He added that many people in London who had green flags in there car as a symbol of being anti-Assad have had their tyres slashed but did not know if Mr Arwani had one in his vehicle.
Mr Arwani’s son, Morhaf, tonight issued a statement paying tribute to his father.
Murhaf wrote: ‘My family and have been in a state of shock ever since we learned of this terrible news. We have not slept and our minds are a blur as to what happened and why.
‘To members of the public that knew my late father and even those of you who didn’t know him, please tell us what you know.
‘We know that it won’t bring our father back to us but it may help to deliver justice to those who killed him.
Preacher: Mr Arwani was known for his outspoken opposition to the Assad regime
‘My father was actively involved in the fight against extremism, campaigning for peace and advocating the importance of democracy and freedom.
‘He spoke out against the crime of terror and oppression wherever he found it. My father was a British citizen who loved the people of his country.
‘This was a heinous crime that robbed our community of one of its most valuable assets. My father was an inspiration.’
Mr Arwani grew up in Hama, the site of a notorious 1982 massacre where up to 40,000 civilians were killed by the Syrian Army under the orders of Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father.
He was involved in violent anti-Assad demonstrations outside the Syrian Embassy in London three years ago.
Police were forced to use riot shields to beat back protesters after they broke through barriers, and six people were arrested.
Mr Arwani, who runs a construction business in Wembley, told reporters during the demonstration: ‘This building belongs to the Syrian people, not a regime killing people every single day for ten months.’
In a lecture he gave in 2012, Mr Arwani described how the Assad regime had sentenced him to death, forcing him to flee his homeland, and then harassed his elderly relatives for three decades.
Mr Arwani, who was just 16 at the time, said that he took a series of photographs chronicling the damage done to mosques and houses in the city, and was sentenced to death by the authorities for it.
‘When they found out that I did that, they issued a capital punishment against me, when I was 16 years old – so I had to flee from Syria,’ he said.
The teenager bribed a policeman so he could leave the country, he said – but for the next 30 years, the authorities questioned his parents once a month in an attempt to find out where he had gone.
Home: Mr Arwani, originally from Syria, lived in this home in White City, west London
Mr Arwani blamed the atrocities carried out by the Assad regime on its supposed abandonment of Islam, saying that from the 1960s the government ‘started to implement atheism, and take off Islam from the life of the people’.
He also claimed that Muslim scholars were forced to stop working as imams, and told to take jobs selling cosmetics instead.
The Assad regime has been known to assassinate its political opponents in the past, most prominently the Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, whose killing in 2005 was blamed on the Syrian government.
Mr Arwani was reported to have travelled to Syria last year, where he addressed the East London Mosque remotely.
On Tuesday night, tributes were posted to Mr Arwani on Twitter. One read: ‘Just received the news Sheikh Abdul Hadi has been murdered. may Allah grant himjannatul firdous [paradise].’
Another tweeted: ‘The outpouring of tweets and posts in his memory is incredible. Irreplaceable to many Muslim youth today. RIP Sheikh Abdul Hadi.’
Mr Arwani was involved in violent anti-Assad demonstrations outside the Syrian Embassy in London in 2012
Jihad Kader posted on Facebook: ‘Sheikh Abdul Hadi Arwani was martyred this morning as many of you are aware, shot in Wembley.
‘I was fortunate enough to have him as one of my teachers and was also a close family friend, always there to help and ever so humble.
‘He was so active, never turning down the opportunity to be involved in good. He was the most optimistic person I ever met, a real inspiration.
‘He tried to encourage the Sunnah and was always keen to practice it. He talked highly of martydom and Allah granted it to him.
‘Just a reminder that this is what he would have wanted us to be like, active and optimistic. Spread his knowledge and any useful information you have of his. Keep him and his family in your duah.’
Mr Arwani was a preacher at the An-Noor Mosque, which has a reputation for hosting fundamentalist speakers.
The mosque also has well-established links to Syria. Regular worshipper, Ali al-Manasfi, 23, was shot dead at a check point in Idlib province, Syria, in May 2013, apparently while fighting with a group called Ahrar al-Sham.
Sources told The Sun that the mosque attracted a number of former criminals who have converted to Islam, raising the prospect that Mr Arwani’s killing could be part of a gangland feud.
Police were forced to use riot shields to beat back protesters after they broke through the barriers and six people were arrested
Detectives are now trying to establish whether Mr Arwani’s strong opposition to Assad was the motive
Mohamed Dubad, 44, a part-time IT engineer said he had seen Mr Arwani several days ago at the mosque. He added: ‘This is a shock. He was a quiet, simple person.’
A woman who has been attending mosque since 2011 added: ‘I used to help in his office to fix his Korans and his wife used to teach me Arabic.
‘I have good memories of him. I’m still digesting what happened to him, it will take a while.’
A former student of Arwani, who gave his name as Mahmoud, said he was ‘well known among the Muslim community in West London, not just for his Syria activism, but also as a community leader.’
LABOUR MP: ‘KEEP ISIS FAMILY OUT’
The family of nine caught trying to get into lawless Syria are no longer welcome in England and should find a new country to live in, Labour MP Simon Danczuk has said.
The Rochdale MP said anyone who is prepared to join IS will ‘rightly be seen as an enemy of the UK’.
The 48-year-old’s comments come after nine members of the same family – including the 21-year-old son of Rochdale Labour councillor Councillor Shakil Ahmed’s and four children – were arrested in Turkey last Wednesday on suspicion of trying to cross into Syria.
Mr Danczuk told MailOnline: ‘The idea that someone who was prepared to join IS could be allowed to return to civilian life in Rochdale and carry on as though nothing has happened is unacceptable.’
He added: ‘He was the type of person you’d go to if you had a problem, or if you had questions you needed to ask.
‘He was a moderate guy, and was against all forms of violence and extremism. He was looking out especially for younger Muslims.’
The mosque became notorious in 2013 when a terror suspect went there and changed into a burqa in order to escape surveillance then went on the run.
Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed has been missing for 16 months, and was last seen entering An-Noor dressed as a man before leaving in a full-length covering designed for women which obscured his identity.
He was subject to a Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measure, which restrict the movements of people suspected of involvement in terrorism.
Other extremists linked to the mosque include Uthman Mustafa Kamal, the son of hate preacher Abu Hamza, who has regularly led prayers at An-Noor.
Three years ago, another preacher delivered a sermon arguing that ‘Jews, Zionists, all of those people’ who mock the prophet Muhammad deserve to face ‘the sword’.
The institution is located next to a moderate mosque, the Acton Masjid, and is said to have been set up as a more hardline alternative.
Visitors to An-Noor today spoke of their shock, and insisted that Mr Arwani did not hold radical views.
A statement posted on the wall of the centre read: ‘We have with great sadness heard of the unfortunate death of Shaykh Abdulhadi Arwani who was the former Iman of the An Noor Culture and Community Centre who served from 2005 to 2011. He will be sadly missed.’
Mr Arwani was born in Syria but had been based in the UK for the past three years, where worked as an Islamic teacher.
According to the London College of Islamic Studies, he had studied at the Faculty of Sharia in Jordan, and was a teacher at various Islamic seminaries in Slough and West London.
Mr Arwani was considered an authority on Islamic marriage contracts and divorce law, working mostly in London.
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