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British Muslim family who lost their son to extremists speak out

In an unprecedented move, a British Muslim family has spoken openly about one of their own falling victim to radicalisation, a story which reveals serious flaws in how the UK deals with the threat of Islamist terror and the control order system.

"He was a very healthy, active individual," is how Awais Arshad describes his younger brother Umar when he was an undergraduate studying pharmacy at Manchester University.

A model student at school, Umar had won a place to study at the university in his home town in 2004. At the time everything seemed to be going well for the family, who were well integrated into British life and ran a successful business, a garage.

Umar would attend the local mosque with his father and brother, but according to Awais his behaviour was not out the ordinary. "We used to go there and read our prayers and come home, so we had a very good routine," he says.

Dropped out from college

However, in 2006 Umar uncharacteristically failed his second year exams, and from there things started to go wrong. After dropping out for a year, he began working at the garage with his father Mohammed. It was there that Umar was befriended by one of the many clients bringing in cars for repairs.

"He seemed at the time to be a nice individual who spoke very politely," Awais says of the man. "He was fine - another friend."

Umar was soon spending most of his time with his new friend, who cannot be named for legal reasons, and his family started to notice changes in his behaviour.  His mother says Umar began talking about religion and politics. He attended mysterious meetings about Islam, stayed out late and began to look ill, a view echoed by Awais.

"He seemed a lot weaker, he didn't seem well, he didn't seem himself. And this happened very suddenly. It wasn't a space of a year or two years, it occurred within a month."

The once demure boy told his mother that she had "lost her faith", that she was following a wrong form of Islam.

Committed extremists

The family believe Umar was being fed hard drugs to create dependency and to prise him away from home. He was spending more and more time at the central Manchester house rented by the man at the garage, a convicted heroin user.

But there was far more to Umar's radicalisation than hard drugs and the influence of one man. The family did not know it at the time, but he had become friends with a group of committed extremists living on the other side of town in Cheetham Hill.

Living in the house was a 25-year-old Pakistani student Abdul Rahman, who would later be convicted of disseminating terrorist literature, and his friend from Pakistan Aslam Awan, who would later head to the Afghan-Pakistan border area to fight British troops.

Mohammed Arshad says his son fell under the gang's control: "If they told him to sit down he would sit down, if they told him to stand up he would stand up."

Police notified

By October 2006, Umar, it seems, had decided that he should join the jihad abroad. He told his family that he was leaving and would not be coming back. Concerned about stories of youngsters being radicalised and for Umar's welfare, the family contacted the police.

"We went straight to the police and said he's in the wrong hands please find a way of stopping him leaving the country," Awais says. "The following morning we were called by CID, then we had a visit from Special Branch, after which MI5 were involved. Now during this whole process we were outlining our fears in terms of what has happened to my brother."

Umar was staying with the al-Qaeda supporters at Abdul Rahman's house, and, unknown to the family, police had the group under surveillance as part of a wider terror investigation.

After four days, the family managed to contact Umar by phone and persuade him to return home. However, MI5 and the police continued to monitor the Manchester radicals, and him.

Chance to abscond

On 3 Jan 2007, 10 weeks after the family first contacted the police and after further attempts by the family to get the police to take action, Umar was served with a control order by the police - the form of close supervision of terrorism suspects introduced in 2005.

Despite the seriousness of a control order, and the tight restrictions it places on a suspect's movements, Umar was given a full 24-hours before he had to surrender his passport.

That evening he asked to visit a mosque. His family dropped him off but when they returned he had gone - never to be seen again.

His father Mohammed says he feels let down by the police's failure to stop him. "I did mention my fears to the police, and I went back to the same subject again and again and again - I think I must have gone about three times and the scenario is still the same that I haven't had a positive response by the police."

Failure to act

In the early hours of the morning after he had disappeared, Umar was driven to Birmingham, bought a plane ticket for Tehran and flew later that day at around 6pm. His old extremist friends at Cheetham Hill had arranged everything, and even paid for his airfare.

Umar managed to leave despite the Arshad family notifying the police of his disappearance a full eight hours before the flight left the UK.

The failure to stop him flying has left the family bitter. "How he could still be allowed to leave the country I do not know... It's beyond gross negligence," says Awais. "We were in contact with the police after the control order. It's unbelievable."

When Newsnight tried to question Greater Manchester Police about why it took three months to place a control order on Umar, why he was given 24-hours to hand in his passport, and why when the family reported him missing on 5 January 2007 he was not placed on some kind of no-fly list they said they could not comment on the case for legal reasons.

The Home Office issued a statement saying: "Public security is our number one priority. The counter terrorism powers are currently under review and we will report back shortly. Knowing who is coming in and out of the country and stopping those who have no right to be here are crucial elements of the e-borders programme which will help us strengthen and modernise the controls at the UK border to combat terrorism and serious crime".

The security service MI5 assesses that Umar was sent to Pakistan for terrorist purposes - put starkly, to kill British and coalition troops.

Source
Tags: islam, terrorism, uk
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