When I saw Bilal Abdulla’s name in the news, I recognised it immediately, though it took me a while to be completely sure it was the man I remembered. It wasn’t long before I was certain. This was the same Bilal whom I had known closely when I was a student at Cambridge.
I was born in Birmingham, although my parents were originally from Pakistan. When I was three months old my family moved to Saudi Arabia, where my dad had got a job as an accountant, but when I was 14 they sent me back to Britain to give me a better education. I attended Solihull School and lived with my grandparents.
In September 2000 I went to Leeds University to study history. I was a pretty sociable student and I enjoyed life. Then some of my friends began encouraging me to attend mosque, at least on Fridays. When 9/11 happened I had already started praying and going to mosque more regularly, rediscovering my faith. I remember thinking about the attacks: “This changes everything.” I was confused about it. I didn’t know what Islam made of it. Part of me thought they must be justified.
Nobody was offering me direction. I already knew about Hizb ut-Tahrir, so I talked to one of their guys at Leeds Grand Mosque who was in charge of the area. He took me back to his house where, I remember, we drank mint tea. He said America would use these events to colonise the Muslim world, to humiliate us, to attack Islam. I was convinced there would be war in Afghanistan. He brought me into the organisation within days. He was my cell leader and I rose through the ranks swiftly. By the end of my second year at university, I was looking after the whole area stretching from Leeds to Newcastle and Durham, and sat on the regional committee for the north of England. Our job was to liaise with cell leaders, to pressurise them to recruit more people. They were breathing down our necks. There was so much pressure on us to recruit.
After graduating I moved to Cambridge in September 2004 to start a PhD in history. I was living in a rented house on Milton Road and I had been in Cambridge only a matter of hours when the local rep of Hizb ut-Tahrir arrived at the house. He gave me a hand unpacking boxes and settling in. Once we’d done this it was a case of getting down to business. The guy was a friend. All of us in the party, as we called the organisation, knew each other well. Over a cup of tea he filled me in on the situation in my new town, regarding the dawah, the strategy. We went through a list of people identified as potential recruits. One of these was Bilal Abdulla.
Bilal struck me as very warm and affable. He was someone who knew about Islam. Even though he wore western clothes, he was very religious. His recitation of the Quran was very good. If he attended, he would always lead prayers.
Bilal had grown up in Baghdad. He told me how he hated Saddam Hussein, how even after the American invasion his extended family stayed there. All were of the same ideological persuasion. All believed in Wahhabi ideology. He didn’t see himself as being radical: he saw himself as following Islam. He developed a vitriolic hatred for the Shias after one of his closest friends at university in Iraq was killed by a Shia militiaman. He would say they needed to be massacred. He called them kafirs, disbelievers who insulted the Prophet.
Bilal said he had come to Britain to better his life, but did speak about returning home. When I first met him he was preparing to take the medical conversion course that would have allowed him to work as a doctor here. In the meantime, he worked behind the till at the local Staples stationery store.
I remember one incident well. Bilal lived above a Bengali restaurant. The other guy in his flat used to sing and play guitar, diabolically out of tune. I went round one day to Bilal’s and heard this guy singing and wailing. I said, “What’s this?” Bilal called him a “waster” and boasted to me that a few days earlier he had brought the guy into his bedroom. He sat him down and told him he needed to pray. He told him: “If you ever play again I’m going to smash the guitar.” He then put on a video of al-Zarqawi beheading one of the hostages in Iraq. “If you think I’m messing about, this is what we do. This is what our people do – we slaughter.” Bilal laughed when he recounted the story. I laughed with him, although I remember thinking the word slaughter was a bit disproportionate.
Hard hearts for non-believers
Bilal didn’t have a TV and kept his distance from people he considered were not true Muslims. He refused to frequent the local halal takeaway in Cambridge because the Turkish guys there didn’t attend mosque. He used to say to me: “We should have soft hearts for the believers and hard hearts for the non-believers.” He epitomised this. He was very humble and polite and had an endearing and distinctive belly laugh. He spent his time reading the Quran and looking at Arabic-language or jihadi websites. I remember during Ramadan that year, 2004, on the 27th and most holy night, we all went down to London to the Regent’s Park Mosque. It happened that was the night the Americans launched the massive assault on Fallujah. Bilal spent the whole night on his prayer mat. His stamina was something to behold.
By the end we would link up once a week. Some of the time he would come round to my place. Mostly we met in the cultural centre, the Islamic Academy on Gilbert Road. It was within walking distance of where both Bilal and I lived. It had a prayer hall downstairs and three bedrooms upstairs. One of those rooms was rented by the Hizb guy and, because of its location and Islamic setting, this became the main focal point where we would socialise, meet and discuss things. You could say all our activities in Cambridge orbited around the Islamic Academy.
Bilal talked about the validity of jihad, about expelling American and British troops. He described jihad as the highest pinnacle of Islam. He worked to the same endgame that we were all working to. There was no difference between us at the time. He would laugh when we talked about a particular bomb attack in Iraq. We all rejoiced then. And yet even I didn’t think that he would take action himself.
Like myself, Bilal didn’t have any non-Muslim friends and the circle of Muslims he chose to socialise with was small and selective. But he certainly trusted and respected us. I think this was solely because he recognised that we shared the same ultimate vision as him for Iraq and the wider Muslim world. In that sense our views were virtually identical. We only differed over our choice of method.
And so it was through my involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir and its ideology of extremist political Islam that I came to befriend Bilal, the would-be bomber. That’s why I believe it’s wrong to distinguish between “extremism” and “violent extremism” as the government has been doing in recent months. The two are inextricably intertwined. Without movements such as Hizb creating the moral imperatives to justify terror, people like Bilal wouldn’t have the support of an ideological infrastructure cheering them on. And, I believe, it’s a fallacy to suggest that the culpability of agitators and cheerleaders is any less than for those who actually carry out acts of terror.
I didn’t complete my PhD, as I didn’t get funding. In July 2005 I left Cambridge and moved back to Birmingham. That was a few days before 7/7. Bilal and I lost touch. I left Hizb ut- Tahrir and had never heard of him since – until last week.
Next week Shiraz Maher writes about why he left radical Islam behind him
Friday 29 June
Two car bombs fail to detonate in central London in the early hours of the morning; one outside a nightclub in Haymarket, the other towed away from Cockspur Street
Saturday 30, 3.15pm
Two arrested after burning car driven into Glasgow Airport terminal building. Suspects later named as Dr Bilal Abdulla and Dr Khalid Ahmed, who is still being treated for burns
Saturday 30, 9pm
Police arrest Dr Mohammed Asha and his wife, Marwah Dana Asha, a lab technician, on the M6
Sunday 1 July
Two non-British trainee doctors at Royal Alexandra Hospital, where Dr Abdulla worked, arrested. Another 26-year-old man is arrested in Liverpool, near Lime Street Station, later named as Sabeel Ahmed
Names of suspects confirmed to media and Dr Mohammed Haneef detained at Brisbane Airport in Australia. A second doctor in Australia also interviewed but later released
Six of the eight suspects, including Dr Abdulla, transferred to Paddington Green Police Station to consolidate investigation