Hanif Qadir joined Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan 13 years ago, now he’s helping prevent young Londoners from repeating his mistake.

Hanif Qadir joined Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan 13 years ago, now he’s helping prevent young Londoners from repeating his mistake.

As the Islamic State fights for territory in Iraq and Syria, another battle is playing out on social media which brings the conflict into the homes of young people across Europe and around the world. IS and other jihadist groups use slick videos and sophisticated messaging to win recruits, funding and confidence—and they’ve been very successful. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) at King’s College London monitors extremism online and holds a database on 700 known western fighters, but many others have also joined the conflict.

Hanif Qadir knows the situation all too well. Disgusted with the West’s response to 9/11, the Londoner (originally from North-East England) arrived in Afghanistan in December 2002 and worked with Al-Qaeda, hoping to provide humanitarian aid.

“Looking at things on the internet is very different from being there and looking at it for yourself, I saw the people I was going to support were treating the locals in a very harsh way and for me as a Muslim that wasn’t right,” he says in an interview with Huck, where he recounted his Afghanistan experience and his eventual escape.

After returning home, he founded the Active Change Foundation in Walthamstow in 2003, where he uses his experience to fight youth radicalisation. ACF have dissuaded up to a hundred young people not to join the fight, but they are aware of up to five who may have slipped through the net.

In Hanif’s experience, most western fighters find the reality on the ground contrasts hugely with the propaganda and idealism that motivated them to sign up. They quickly realise they’ve made a mistake, but leaving can be difficult as jihadist groups often kill those trying to escape. For fighters who make it home without being detained, there is little support available. A 45-year-old single mother from north London recently told the BBC she felt abandoned to care for her son alone after he returned from Syria with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Without support, returning foreign fighters could become ticking time bombs, Hanif says. It’s crucial to help them reintegrate into society once it’s established that they no longer pose a threat.

How did you become radicalised?
The period after 9/11 was a defining moment. What happened was gut-wrenching, understanding that people from my faith had carried out these atrocities was appalling. But then what followed, the language and the attitude from western leaders was again on an appalling scale. For the sake of the actions of 19 people, you want to and bomb a civil war-wracked country back into the stone age? If the western response had been strategic, like it was supposed to have been, everyone would have backed that. But George Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ began and the attitude of the Americans was they’re ‘gonna go in there and kick some ass’. Seeing a few American soldiers standing over the bodies of kids and women, with an M16 and boot on a child’s body made you think, ‘hang on, this is not fair’. We understood what happened on 9/11 wasn’t right, but what the Americans were doing was indiscriminate killing.

Seeing those images on a daily basis and hearing the language of the generals, saying ‘this is a war against evil and we should come together under the banner of Jesus Christ’ – it felt like a crusade was going on – that’s what drew me in to wanting to do something meaningful. I wanted to help the innocent women and children of Afghanistan – also by the same token, if I came across an American with that sort of attitude I wanted a have a fight with him. I felt I had role to play as a human, but also as a Muslim. This was not fair, I wanted to do something.

How did you find yourself in Afghanistan?
Over eight to nine months in 2002 I was engaging with a network of individuals that I didn’t really understand were from Al-Qaeda and we started to support the victims over there. I was supporting its efforts in Afghanistan financially and by sending over clothes but I wanted to do more. I wanted to be there and see the effects of our work. The internet images I was seeing and being shown made me more and more angry. I wanted to do something aggressive to the people who were doing this, like any human being would do.

Without really planning it properly I ended up in Afghanistan in December, 2002. What I found on the ground was very different to what I had seen on the internet. The same people I was going to support with humanitarian work were treating the locals very harshly. They said they wanted to fight the invader and remove the suffering, but what they were doing was equally as bad. On the pretence that they were going to help them, they were using locals as cannon fodder. That was unacceptable, it was unfair. For me as a Muslim that wasn’t right. We will stand up against unfairness and injustice no matter what form it takes. That led me in to arguments with the mostly Arabs who were out there. Luckily those arguments didn’t develop into a fight because I had no guns and they had rocket launchers and all sorts.

How did you make it home?
Lots of people ask that question: How come they didn’t kill you or imprison you? Maybe it was because they thought I was part of their network. I don’t know why. But it was a blessing in disguise that I managed to walk away from them in disgust. I came back to the UK within 24 hours of that incident happening, because I needed questions and answers from the people I had been meeting in secret. What the bloody hell was all this about? I couldn’t find them, none of them were available. They disappeared, which pissed me off more.

How similar is the conveyor belt taking people to Syria today?
It’s exactly the same process. You can understand why we’re getting young men and women drawn into going to Syria, because of what they’re being exposed to, the frustration and the anger. For me, going there was always about doing some humanitarian work and my human side: my emotions, my anger. But it was also my duty as a Muslim to go help my fellow Muslims. That led me to believe that if something was to happen and I was to die, I would be martyred because I was doing something right and helping other human beings.

Then you have young men and women who want to go and fight because they believe it is a holy war and martyrdom is the ultimate goal. I can guarantee that once they’ve been exposed to the harsh realities of the conflict in Syria, where you’ve got different fractions supposedly fighting the Assad regime but actually fighting among themselves, then the question is raised with them: this is not a holy war. But they can’t get out.

So, our young men and women are exposed to some very harsh situations out there. Some people may not agree with me on this, and I can understand why, but these are young kids, teenagers – these are not adult people who have a rational way of thinking. They want to do something meaningful, but they’ve made a mistake and they want to come back.

When people realise they’ve made a mistake, how difficult is it to return?
IS and Jihad al-Nusra are extremists on steroids. If you argue with them you are are going to get killed. You disagree you are going to get killed, you try to walk away from it they will kill you. If fighters are not allowed back, they are going to get killed or they are going to kill others.

Whether they are going to Syria or Somalia, the groups that have evolved from these conflicts are extremists with no regard for human life. But our young people don’t see that from here. They see it when they’ve got there but sometimes that’s too late.

The only ones that are going to survive are going to be so angry at – forget IS – but they’re going to be angry at the nation that has refused them help and support because they made a mistake. Had they been a rapist or paedophile or a gang member they would have been incarcerated but they would have been given help in prison.

If they survive their circumstances they are going to want revenge and that is a problem that our government hasn’t considered. With what is coming our way, we have to position ourselves in a way we can meet those challenges. Our government, sadly isn’t positioning itself properly.

How close are these conflicts to the kids you work with in East London?
It’s closely linked. What happens in Syria now is visible within seconds through social media. A lot of our young people are focused on developments in Syria and elsewhere in the world. It’s very close, it’s very sensitive.

What impact has western intervention had?
Western air strikes have caused a surge in support for IS. Shia and Kurdish peshmerga have been allowed to join the conflict but Sunnis risk being labelled extremists. Air strikes and focussing on IS instead of the wider conflict has provoked a shift in support. We are loosing ground. We’re losing the battle over the narrative to IS. We are now seeing calls to support IS coming from India, Somalia, Bangladesh, etc. and that is worrying because going back a few months, they were all standing up against IS.

We’re seeing a build up in support and that is reflected here. The days when Britain used to go out to the world are long gone. The world has come to Britain. There are people from different parts of the world in this country who who feel very passionate about what’s happening elsewhere.

Has that made your day-to-day work more difficult?
It’s making it more challenging. We’re committed to meeting the challenge but we’ve been put to the test. We haven’t slipped up but what is coming is going to put us to the test again, so it’s difficult. Certain government polices don’t help us. For instance, there’s little opportunity to open the doors, or even provide a small little doorway for certain individuals to come through, and have checks and balances put in place for them to be measured and processed. Even those who come back with inferior intentions, we can process them and if they are going to be a problem for the public or a national security risk you can incarcerate them. The ones who are genuinely coming back because they have been exposed to the harsh realities and they’ve made a mistake, we can use them as our front line attack against the ideology. They are our front line preventive individuals who will make a massive difference.

Are you working with any recently-returned fighters?
No. The ones who have come back have already been pulled by security officials and they are being detained. Some are due to be released this year, but when they come out they are going to be more pissed off. These people can suddenly become a risk to society, but some are very human beings and if we learn how to manage them and work with them they can be assets to our nation.

How does your background help you engage with these kids?
For me as a Muslim, it is guidance through theology. If I followed my religion in its entirety, I would learn we were warned about extremists and people who were quoting the books without actually having any theological backing. Osama bin Laden was pushed out of the fold as a disobedient to the cause and the religion – scholars have refuted him time and time again.

Our job is to give the individual the truth, to look at the human side and critically analyse the situation. Why are IS and other groups fighting against each other? Who is this guy who is calling himself the Caliph? Where does he get his guidance from? We create an environment where the individual can understand what is going on within themselves. A lot of them know my background. I can talk about what they’re feeling, what’s going on in their mind and how angry they are.

ACF also works with gangs and other vulnerable young people. How much crossover is there with your de-radicalisation work?
Everyone has a level of vulnerability, that is not the problem that we deal with. We look at how people target that vulnerability. All the tools in our workshops are about making people aware of how to protect their vulnerable state and recognise when others attempt to exploit it.

We are the only youth centre in the borough with an outreach team. Young people need something to do and services to support them. If they are outside in an uncontrolled environment they can’t control the circumstances that they are exposed to, so they become vulnerable to other people’s mentoring – whether by gangs or extremists. All of our projects are about creating environments where we can mentor young people and they are not exposed to circumstances they can’t control.

Young people are being failed across the board. We’re very vocal at about that at ACF. Young people need something to do, but funding for youth centres and other projects is always being cut. If the community can’t answer the question, ‘what is there for young people to do’, you have failed them.

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A version of this article originally appeared in Huck 48 – The Origins Issue, out now.