NS Profile - Omar Sharif

Omar Sharif was the British suicide bomber who attempted an attack in Tel Aviv three years ago. now,

"The last six months, for sure he was attending my circuits but he wasn't at all asking about jihad issues. He was debating issues, theological issues," says Omar Bakri Muhammad, former leader of the now-disbanded radical Islamic group al-Muhajiroun. We are sitting in the Beirut flat of one of Bakri's relatives and he is talking about Omar Sharif. Bakri was one of the last people to talk to Sharif before he tried to blow himself up in Tel Aviv on 30 April 2003.

Just two weeks before he left Britain for Israel, Sharif, 27, was seen leafleting for Bakri's organisation on the streets of Derby, his home town. He also attended Islamic theology sessions that Bakri travelled up from London to deliver, the last of them on 14 April. So, did Bakri have anything to do with the attack? "It was no conspiracy. There was no plan from Britain. He just went by himself, on his own." The attack didn't go to plan. Asif Hanif, Sharif's accomplice, was stopped as they tried to enter the Tel Aviv seafront bar that was their target by a bouncer who thought he looked like a junkie and might make trouble. Hanif stepped back from the bar door and detonated his bomb, killing a waitress and two musicians and injuring 65 others. Sharif tried to set off his own bomb, but when he pressed the trigger the kilogram of explosive packed into a brace at the small of his back failed to detonate. In the confusion he got away, dumping his bomb. Twelve days later he was found dead, washed up on a beach.

A British suicide bomber: not such a strange idea now, but unprecedented then. And if there have been others since, it only increases our need to understand, to know the answer to the question: what, or who, drove this young man to want to commit multiple murder, and in a country 3,000 miles from Derby? On the third anniversary of the attack, for which Hamas claimed responsibility and which has been echoed in the bombing in Tel Aviv in recent days, a new witness has come forward who can shed some light on what happened.

Eight days before the attack, Sharif had written to his brother, Zahid: "Difficult times may lay ahead for you and the family in the next few weeks or months if Allah wills. Plan now and get rid of any material you may consider problematic. I am in al-Quds [Jerusalem]." To his wife, Tahira, he wrote: "We did not spend a long time together in this world, but I hope through Allah's mercy and your patience we can spend an eternity together . . . I hope to be with the best of company soon. You will hear from my friend the good news inshallah [God willing]."

Sharif's sister, Parveen, wrote to him the next day: "There are no goodbyes just a lapse of time. When we see you again it will be like only half a day has passed. Stay focused and determined. You have no time for emotions." This correspondence was the cornerstone of the subsequent prosecution of Sharif's brother, sister and wife for failing to disclose information that would have prevented the attack. Parveen was also accused of helping incite Sharif to commit an act of terrorism. All three were found not guilty.

The implication of the court's verdict on the family, and the clear message of Omar Bakri, is that it just happened: that Sharif, a religious young man, had the idea, found a like-minded accomplice and went off to Israel to see it through. The video suicide note that he and Hanif left offers few clues: the only explanation he gave was that he was acting "for the sake of Allah and to get revenge against the Jews and Crusaders". But now we know more. Zaheer Khan was a friend of Sharif's in his days as a maths student at King's College London. Rejecting the theory of spontaneous revenge, Khan says he knows who radicalised his friend.

Sharif, he says, was "like an empty bowl" when they met soon after arriving at university in 1994. "Omar didn't know much about the culture of his own family, his background," nor was he religious. "He didn't have a clue about Islam. He knew namaz [how to pray] and this and that, but an in-depth understanding was not there at all." Sharif was impressed by the diversity he found among young Muslims. "It was really exciting, coming out from isolation from where he was, where maybe he had not interacted with wider communities," Khan says. "He probably thought that Muslims are just Kashmiris!"

About three months into his course, Sharif began attending meetings organised by the radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). Khan remembers that the group's activists were not stereotypical hardliners. "Hizb ut-Tahrir were people who dress normally, had their own sort of environment, and so it attracted a different sort of person altogether," he says. Whatever their dress, there was nothing normal about their message. Founded in Jordan in 1953, HT believes Islam is a holistic way of life that is not compatible with so-called western notions of freedom and democracy. Every true Muslim, the message goes, has a duty to make sure the world comes to accept sharia law. The aim, therefore, is to build a movement that could one day overthrow nationalist and secular Muslim-majority states and replace them with an Islamic theocracy known as the caliphate. Zaheer Khan was attracted by this. "The HT idea is that there is a political angle to all this, that there's actually a way of looking at the Prophet's life in a political way and that will give the direction. It's something that we all must do, so it's not just enough to pray." Since second-generation Muslim youths rarely knew much about Islam, Khan says, they were easily drawn in. "Stick in a few out-of-context aiyas [verses] from the Koran and from the Hadith [traditions of Muhammad] to back themselves up, and people with that vulnerability will buy in . . . Omar Sharif was that type," he says. The mid-Nineties was a busy time for HT, reported to have been active in more than 50 universities. Up to 1996, when he broke away to form al-Muhajiroun, its leader was Omar Bakri, working alongside Farid Kassim.

They were an outspoken pair. During the first Gulf war in 1991 Bakri called for the assassination of John Major, while Kassim lectured in 1994 on the theme "Peace with Israel - a crime against Islam". In 1995, at an evangelical rally in Trafalgar Square, HT asserted that people converting to Islam would be rejecting the "evils of freedom and democracy". Talk of this kind was unpopular; HT was denounced at conferences of the National Union of Students and by 1996 some dozens of universities had banned it or frozen its assets and the assets of affiliated student societies. According to Zaheer Khan, rebelliousness was part of HT's appeal to young Muslims, and it advocated forms of law-breaking that gave it an anti-establishment kudos. For example, he says, the party insisted that car insurance was inconsistent with Islam, so members used to go without.

Khan attended several HT meetings at King's, especially ones addressed by guests such as Omar Bakri and Mohammad al-Massari, the radical said to have links to Osama Bin Laden. Khan says Sharif never missed a meeting. "I think it was probably towards the mid-first-year when he was heavily attending all, absolutely all, HT-organised circles and even when speakers came from outside he'd be there," he says. At the beginning of the second year, Khan, now more interested in completing his studies, drifted away from the group, but by that time he says that his friend was "squarely" with HT, meeting members from outside the university as well. According to Khan, Sharif acquired a mentor: Reza Pankhurst, one of the HT members released from a three-year prison sentence in Egypt in February this year. Khan remembers attending talks by Pankhurst and says that although he wasn't the leader he had "a big hand to play" in organising on campus.

It was in these circles that Sharif met his wife. Tahira's father testified in court that she was radicalised at university. "As their relationship developed I noted that both began to strengthen their religious views," he said. "They said they both had become involved with a Muslim group that had operated at the college. My daughter began to wear a headscarf and more traditional Muslim clothing." At the end of the second year, says Khan: "All of a sudden they got married. It was a thing at that time that young people need to get a move on, get married young, you know, all that stuff that HT was promoting at that time. He must have taken that literally."A few months later, in autumn 1995, Sharif dropped out of university. He never completed his degree.

At about this time, Omar Bakri fell out with Hizb ut-Tahrir's international leadership, based in Lebanon. Bakri says the party told him that since Britain was not part of the Islamic world, he could not work to establish sharia here. He disagreed and in January 1996 set up al-Muhajiroun.

Sharif appears to have followed Bakri into the new, more radical organisation and to have had less contact with HT. As we shall see, he was still a close follower of Bakri in the spring of 2003.

Is it fair to say, then, that Hizb ut-Tahrir laid the founda- tions of Sharif's radicalism? That the hardline group (which Tony Blair announced last year he wants to see banned) took this "empty bowl" and filled his head with its ideas? The group adamantly denies it.

In a response to this piece, it flatly says that Sharif "had no affiliation whatsoever with Hizb ut-Tahrir" and his decision to become a suicide bomber was "not influenced at all by any member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, including Reza Pankhurst". In a statement it added: "Despite extensive investigations by the police and security services, including legal proceedings against members of the Sharif family, no link to Hizb ut-Tahrir has ever been proven."

This is difficult to reconcile with the evidence of Sharif's e-mail inbox, examined by police after his death. Of the three e-mails he received on 29 April, the day before his attack, two were circulars from 1924.org, an HT outfit. The second e-mail urged him to "destroy the hegemony of the colonialist powers".

An ex-HT member, Shiraz Maher, says that he was told by an HT executive committee member that Omar's brother, Zahid, was one of the party's "shabab"or unofficial youth members. In court it was revealed that in a questionnaire, Zahid had writ-ten that what made him feel the happiest and most fulfilled was "joining Hizb ut-Tahrir"; and at Parveen Sharif's home, police found HT pamphlets.

Zaheer Khan's opinion is simple: "From what I could see, the influence that he got from university was to blame. Now to go and blow yourself up, you probably need to be severely indoc-trinated with quite a vivid ideology." Sharif's "ideological backbone" came directly from HT, he says. "His vision of an Islamic state, his anti-west sentiments, all that came from their conditioning. So if he now goes on, eight years later, to act out violence, who's to blame?"

Does HT support suicide bombing? Though it insists it does not, dozens of its leaflets over the past decade suggest otherwise. One, posted on the party website in 2004 under the title "And kill them wherever you find them", declares: "Today the Mujahi-deen in Palestine provide us with the best of examples. The youth are competing in the martyrdom operations. Young girls have started to compete with the young men for martyrdom. Mothers are pushing their sons to become shaheed, and they make sujood [religious prostration] in thanks to Allah when they hear the news of the martyrdom of their sons. A new dawn is beginning to rise on this umma in which iman [belief], jihad, martyrdom and victory prevail against the kuffar [westerners], their agents and tools. Is it not time that you yearned for jannah [paradise]? . . . If you neglect this duty then you will bear the sin of remaining silent, and you will be humiliated and disgraced."

In Beirut, I asked Omar Bakri if it was true that a few weeks before the attack Sharif had come to him and asked him to be his spiritual companion, or emir. He confirmed it, but said he turned the young man down. "He asked to accompany me, to be a student, you know, to travel with me everywhere, to stay with me for a couple of months continuously. With companionship you will learn a lot within six months. But I told him inshallah, but not now, I'm so busy. Maybe next year."

Bakri was clearly close to Sharif, so did he really have no inkling of what was to come? "[It] took everybody by surprise when they [Sharif and Hanif] went to Palestine. Even me," he says.

What does he think drove Sharif to do what he did? "I think he changed when he started to . . ." He pauses and starts again: "Every time has got its own obligations in Islam. So before the occupation of Muslim land, the main obligation for the Muslim umma worldwide was establishing khilafah, but when the non-Muslims gather together to fight against Muslims and occupy Muslim land, the mother of all obligations is to liberate, the fight back. Today the obligation of the time is jihad."

Shiv Malik's documentary on Hizb ut-Tahrir is on More4 News, 21 April (8pm)

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The real first casualty of war