Why has extremism been so able to take hold in Portsmouth – and what is being done to stop it? The Telegraph reports from the south coast
It is Saturday afternoon in Portsmouth and lines of police are watching the crowds streaming out of Fratton railway station. Football fans in white and blue weave between the mounted officers in the middle of the road, some steadier on their feet than others. A scuffle breaks out between a gang of beery youths and an equally drunk older man about whether or not they are ‘Portsmouth’. The young men jeer as police usher him away.
The city’s football team is playing Luton, the town where the English Defence League (EDL) started in 2009. In the ensuing six years the organisation has managed to take root 100 miles away in Portsmouth, where it now has, in the words of the city’s council leader, a ‘virulent’ presence. The authorities fear trouble will accompany such a meeting of minds, and there are rumours that an EDL demonstration is planned at the Jami Mosque to coincide with the football match. The city’s largest mosque, it has been targeted by the far right numerous times in recent years.
There is also concern at what the EDL may have in store on the other side of town. As on every Saturday afternoon, volunteers from the Portsmouth Dawah – an Islamic street-proselytising group – are standing outside Debenhams handing out Libyan basbousa cake and flyers to passers-by. The group occupies the same section of high street as proponents of various faiths: Jehovah’s Witnesses, a man in a sandwich board predicting a second coming; not to mention political campaigners.
But the Dawah stands out through its former volunteers. Several members of the ‘Pompey Lads’ – a group of six jihadists from Portsmouth who travelled to Syria to fight for Isil – used to man this stall, among them Ifthekar Jaman, their charismatic 23-year-old ringleader.
A young man helping out on the Dawah stall today, a software engineering student called Bilal Jaff, denies anybody was aware of the extremist views shared by Jaman and his followers. Jaff, 21, never met them personally. ‘Our role is non-political,’ he says. ‘The only thing we do here is preach the message of Islam.’
Despite such supposedly benign motivations, its members are subject to regular incidents of hate crime. As he speaks, a police officer wanders over to warn about the football match, and the three volunteers start packing up their makeshift stall instantly. ‘I only feel sorry for the people that swear at us,’ Jaff says. ‘What they don’t have is the full understanding of things. We try to bring more peace into the community rather than create any friction.’
But friction there is, and not only when Saturday comes. Portsmouth is a focal point for a national struggle against extremists on both sides of the divide. Since the Pompey Lads left for Syria in 2013, close to double figures of men and women in their teens and 20s from the city have been stopped from making the journey. At the time of writing the authorities are aware of several others close to trying to leave. Separately, Hampshire Constabulary has had ‘hundreds’ of referrals of young people deemed at risk of radicalisation from extreme Islam or the far right.
What is the government doing to fight radicalisation?
The word that the Home Office hopes will tackle such grass-roots extremism here is not a popular one: Prevent, the programme introduced as part of a post-9/11 strategy and ramped up in the wake of the 7/7 bombings with the aim of stopping people becoming terrorists. In the years since, it has been overhauled and scaled back after various mistakes. Moderate Muslims have complained the strategy makes them feel singled out, while in the past Prevent has also been criticised for funding the very extremist organisations it was introduced to stop.
Now, however, it is being extended. Originally the Home Office devised 30 target areas in England and Wales to receive funding under the £40-million-a-year programme. Fourteen Prevent-supported areas have since been added; seven, including Portsmouth, in the past few months. Under the recent Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, every local authority, school and university in the country also has a statutory Prevent duty to have ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. At the National Union of Teachers conference in April, this was criticised for turning teachers into ‘spies’.
Dal Babu, a Muslim former chief superintendent who retired from the Metropolitan Police two years ago, was similarly scathing about the Prevent strategy when he described it recently as a ‘toxic brand’. Yet in the face of the slick videos and social-media campaigns tempting an ever increasing number of British Muslims to jihad, the Government is relying on this to win back young hearts and minds.
Portsmouth is a gritty naval city, still predominantly white British (84 per cent of its 205,000 population) and working class. Its 4,000-strong Bangladeshi community, the second largest ethnic group, settled here three generations ago, attracted by work as well as the English Channel, which helps relieve homesickness for former residents of the waterlogged country. While the Bangladeshi community is close, by no means does it occupy a cultural ghetto. Residential areas are mixed, as are schools. Indeed, several of the jihadists – who all came from Bangladeshi families – attended the fee-paying St John’s Catholic college.
Somerstown, a cluster of terraced residential streets not far from the Jami Mosque, is one such area where different communities have long lived side by side. The Pompey Lads all came from nearby, and the area has been the focus of intense police activity ever since. Early one morning last October, neighbours on Hudson Road were woken up as police raided Ifthekar Jaman’s old house, arresting four family members. Police revealed last month that there have been 338 such counterterrorism arrests in England, Wales and Scotland over the past year – a 33 per cent increase on 2013/2014. In Somerstown, rumours of informers and wiretapping swirl.
‘One of the boys [who went to Syria] – I have had his sister over to my house,’ says a 32-year-old care support worker who knows several of the Pompey Lads’ families and does not wish to be named as a result. ‘As soon as you look at her you can tell she is frightened. Even inside my home she whispers because she thinks people are listening.’ As she talks on a street corner, she glances left and right. ‘They went [to Syria] because they felt Muslim people were struggling and wanted to do something about it. It is not just the boys. Some girls have talked quite openly about wanting to go as well. They say we have to do something,’ he says.
Abu Mohammed, a 23-year-old with a wispy beard, scuffed deck shoes and a Ralph Lauren jumper, is another resident of Somerstown who has attracted police attention. A solar-panel salesman who declines to give his real name, he says he has recently been contacted by counterterrorism officers for supposedly harbouring extreme views – such warning visits are an established part of Prevent.
‘People don’t trust the government. For how long has this Prevent programme being going on now and what damage has been caused? When somebody from the Muslim community is spying on another Muslim then that is wrong. And that is the starting point of all of this.’
The man charged with changing these beliefs is Sgt David Knowles, 47, the head of the Prevent team at Hampshire Constabulary. Since it was overhauled in 2011, the strategy has been largely police-led. We meet in a cafe near Portsmouth’s main police station, where the families of the Pompey Lads came to report their sons missing. Ifthekar Jaman and three others have since been killed in combat. The eldest of the group, Mashudur Choudhury, returned to the UK and became the first British person jailed for terrorism offences relating to Syria. Only Jaman’s cousin, Asad Uzzaman, remains at large. The most recent intelligence suggests that he is injured in hospital, somewhere in Syria.
Sgt David Knowles, the head of Prevent at Hampshire Constabulary (Emily Mott)
‘I’ve seen the effect on families,’ Knowles says, sipping a coffee. ‘The mothers and sisters have cried in front of me and said, “Don’t let anybody else suffer the way we have.” ’
Knowles is articulate and passionate about the problems in the city where he grew up. He strikes a slightly different chord from the new fierce zero-tolerance counterterrorism rhetoric espoused from within Government, and insists that young people being groomed by extremists are ‘victims’ suffering from a crisis of identity. Knowles and his team have found that a lot of young Bangladeshi men in Portsmouth have two social-media profiles: one devout and decrying Western culture as sinful; the other obsessed with music, fashion and sport.
‘These young men are caught between respecting their ancestors and being good devout Muslims who defend the global umma [Islamic community], and being completely Westernised young men who love hip hop and Premier League football. They fall into a third place where they want to do both. That is the case with a lot of young men in Portsmouth and I dare say it is replicated across the country. That obviously doesn’t mean they are extremists, but what can we do collectively to make these young men be British and embrace both identities?’
Another shared experience of the would-be jihadists Knowles has encountered in Portsmouth is that they have often been the victim of a low-level hate crime, which has helped harden their beliefs. Aside from the EDL demonstrations in the city, there have been pig heads left outside the Madani Academy, an Islamic-faith school whose opening has been heavily contested by the far right. Drunk people have disturbed prayers at mosques, shouting obscenities. Worshippers have also had their shoes stolen or urinated on where they have left them at the door. ‘That builds up and gets into your core,’ Knowles says.
He insists that Prevent covers extremism in all its forms and says his work reducing the threat of the far right is as important as that focusing on radicalisation in the Muslim community. His team – all white officers, one woman and three men, which he admits is a nationwide issue for the police trying to build trust with ethnic minorities – deals with referrals as well as community engagement.
Currently he is working with students from Highbury College, where Ifthekar Jaman studied, to make a film on radicalisation. The students involved with the project who I talk to are enthused that their film may help to change some perceptions in Portsmouth. Knowles’s team has already given talks and workshops in every secondary school in the city, principally directed at 15- and 16-year-olds, although he has come across instances of children as young as 10 showing beheading videos to classmates. ‘Just as a dare, but once you’ve seen them you can’t delete them from your memory,’ he says.
How are communities fighting extremism?
On Thursday evenings the women of the Portsmouth Bangali Community Association meet at a community centre for a chat. Their children play Peppa Pig snakes and ladders on the floor. The association was formed in 2012 to support families in Portsmouth. It is non-religious and open to all, has numerous women on its management committee, and hosts fundraising community days, music lessons and swimming classes.
As with Knowles’s work, bolstering an understanding of identity underpins everything the group does. ‘We have our own cultural values but our children are not aware of it,’ says the chairman, Jayda Begum Khan, 39, a mother of three. ‘It is so important for the young generation to have that identity. If you don’t have knowledge about your roots and respect for your own identity then you won’t have respect for anything else.’
The association seems like the sort that should receive funding and support under Prevent, but the £10,000 lottery grant that covered last year will soon run out. When we meet the group is waiting to hear if any more money is forthcoming, while previous invitations to the police to attend community days have not been answered. ‘We wanted to give them the opportunity to give a safeguarding message,’ Begum Khan says. ‘Not necessarily just about Isil but lots of other areas. Islam clearly says that if you educate a woman you educate an entire community, but if you educate a man you educate just him.’
When I put this to Knowles, he promises to get in touch with the group and admits it is frustrating that he has not been able to establish closer contact with Portsmouth’s female Bangladeshi population. One of the main criticisms of Prevent nationally has been that the ‘community leaders’ it has tried to engage with are not necessarily that. Portsmouth provides the example of Mashudur Choudhury, who before going to Syria was recruited by the council under Prevent funding to help stop violent extremism.
Choudhury was offered the job alongside Taki Jaffer, 56, a former magistrate and executive officer for the Portsmouth Interfaith Forum. Jaffer, however, turned it down. ‘I could see the potential dangers of Prevent, which is focusing on one community,’ he says. ‘But they wouldn’t want to listen because they were driven by the Government agenda. I fear more repercussions now and more money being wasted. This money should be spent in working with communities across the board rather than under a specific gender or label.’
Similar concerns are expressed by some within the University of Portsmouth. Its 22,000-strong multicultural student body means it is a focus of Prevent work in Portsmouth – and it will now be even more so with the statutory duty imposed on those working there to report signs of radicalisation. Academics across the country may be contesting this as a threat to the principle of free speech, but Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of Prevent who still sits on its oversight board, says it is overdue.
Taki Jaffer, Portsmouth Interfaith Forum (Emily Mott)
Home-grown jihadists, he says, are the product of a society in which they feel marginalised, but also ‘the product of a system in which warning signs are neither shared nor acted upon’. He adds, ‘All academic institutions, I include schools in this, have a duty of care to their students. Where there are suspicions that they may be involved on the fringes of terrorism or jihad they should do something about it.’
Lord Carlile is enthusiastic about the extension of Prevent. At the university, the sociology lecturer Dr Naheem Jabbar feels differently. He says the university’s Islamic Society has recently stopped cooperating with interviews with his students because it feels targeted – the group also declined to take part in this article. ‘I think that’s symptomatic of the retreat across campuses because of the extension of the Prevent programme through this recent legislation,’ Jabbar says. ‘It’s simply counterproductive. Because universities in their traditional role are areas for the free exchange of ideas, when young people are disenchanted where are they allowed to voice their concerns? On a pragmatic level, the counterterrorism bill is flawed.’
Where else should we look to fight radicalisation?
Every Friday lunchtime Portsmouth’s imams now begin prayers with messages against radicalisation. Sgt Knowles has spoken at Jami Mosque several times over the past few months, most recently to a crowd of 1,200 – all men, though the sound is transmitted to women listening on walkie-talkies at home.
The Pompey Lads met regularly at the Jami Mosque, but while the police continue to work closely with the imams – and despite what the EDL claims – nobody believes this is where young people get radicalised. ‘All the mosques in this country are against terrorism,’ says Mohammed Mukith, 56, a former secretary of the Jami Mosque. ‘In Islam there is no place for terrorism; these children are all radicalised on the internet. Parents don’t know what they are doing. Years ago children used a computer. Then it was a laptop. Now it is a mobile.’
Mukith, who has five children in their teens and 20s, says online is where official attention should focus – and where imams and parents should be given more support by the authorities. ‘Stigmatising’ Muslim communities through Prevent will only foster resentment. Ask him who is to blame for the radicalisation of young British Muslims and his answer is troubling: ‘The Government. We want extremists to be stopped but this will just make people more segregated. If you have a tree and you cut the branches every year, the more they will grow. If you want to stop the tree, cut the root.’
Mukith isn’t interested in football, and bearing in mind Portsmouth’s supposed minority far-right following that is perhaps unsurprising. He is, however, obsessed with cricket and watches it regularly with his son – who cheers on England while he supports Bangladesh. ‘People are always talking about Muslim bombers or fanatics, but when someone like Moeen Ali [the England batsman born to a Pakistani family] wins a match for England, nobody says, “Muslim man scores 127 runs.”’
Hope lies, he says, in such fleeting moments of true national unity. When distinctions disappear, so too do those seeking to exploit them.