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Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism

Although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century.

As the so-called Islamic State demolishes nation states set up by the Europeans almost a century ago, IS’s obscene savagery seems to epitomise the violence that many believe to be inherent in religion in general and Islam in particular. It also suggests that the neoconservative ideology that inspired the Iraq war was delusory, since it assumed that the liberal nation state was an inevitable outcome of modernity and that, once Saddam’s dictatorship had gone, Iraq could not fail to become a western-style democracy. Instead, IS, which was born in the Iraq war and is intent on restoring the premodern autocracy of the caliphate, seems to be reverting to barbarism. On 16 November, the militants released a video showing that they had beheaded a fifth western hostage, the American aid worker Peter Kassig, as well as several captured Syrian soldiers. Some will see the group’s ferocious irredentism as proof of Islam’s chronic inability to embrace modern values.

Yet although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century. In July 2013, the European Parliament identified Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism, and yet the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemning IS in the strongest terms, has insisted that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way”. Other members of the Saudi ruling class, however, look more kindly on the movement, applauding its staunch opposition to Shiaism and for its Salafi piety, its adherence to the original practices of Islam. This inconsistency is a salutary reminder of the impossibility of making accurate generalisations about any religious tradition. In its short history, Wahhabism has developed at least two distinct forms, each of which has a wholly different take on violence.

During the 18th century, revivalist movements sprang up in many parts of the Islamic world as the Muslim imperial powers began to lose control of peripheral territories. In the west at this time, we were beginning to separate church from state, but this secular ideal was a radical innovation: as revolutionary as the commercial economy that Europe was concurrently devising. No other culture regarded religion as a purely private activity, separate from such worldly pursuits as politics, so for Muslims the political fragmentation of their society was also a religious problem. Because the Quran had given them a sacred mission – to build a just economy in which everybody was treated with equity and respect – the political well-being of the umma (“community”) was always a matter of sacred import. If the poor were oppressed, the vulnerable exploited or state institutions corrupt, Muslims were obliged to make every effort to put society back on track.

So the 18th-century reformers were convinced that if Muslims were to regain lost power and prestige, they must return to the fundamentals of their faith, ensuring that God – rather than materialism or worldly ambition – dominated the political order. There was nothing militant about this “fundamentalism”; rather, it was a grass-roots attempt to reorient society and did not involve jihad. One of the most influential of these revivalists was Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91), a learned scholar of Najd in central Arabia, whose teachings still inspire Muslim reformers and extremists today. He was especially concerned about the popular cult of saints and the idolatrous rituals at their tombs, which, he believed, attributed divinity to mere mortals. He insisted that every single man and woman should concentrate instead on the study of the Quran and the “traditions” (hadith) about the customary practice (Sunnah) of the Prophet and his companions. Like Luther, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab wanted to return to the earliest teachings of his faith and eject all later medieval accretions. He therefore opposed Sufism and Shiaism as heretical innovations (bidah), and he urged all Muslims to reject the learned exegesis developed over the centuries by the ulema (“scholars”) and interpret the texts for themselves.

This naturally incensed the clergy and threatened local rulers, who believed that interfering with these popular devotions would cause social unrest. Eventually, however, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab found a patron in Muhammad Ibn Saud, a chieftain of Najd who adopted his ideas. But tension soon developed between the two because Ibn Abd al-Wahhab refused to endorse Ibn Saud’s military campaigns for plunder and territory, insisting that jihad could not be waged for personal profit but was permissible only when the umma was attacked militarily. He also forbade the Arab custom of killing prisoners of war, the deliberate destruction of property and the slaughter of civilians, including women and children. Nor did he ever claim that those who fell in battle were martyrs who would be rewarded with a high place in heaven, because a desire for such self-aggrandisement was incompatible with jihad. Two forms of Wahhabism were emerging: where Ibn Saud was happy to enforce Wahhabi Islam with the sword to enhance his political position, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab insisted that education, study and debate were the only legitimate means of spreading the one true faith.

Yet although scripture was so central to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s ideology, by insisting that his version of Islam alone had validity, he had distorted the Quranic message. The Quran firmly stated that “There must be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256), ruled that Muslims must believe in the revelations of all the great prophets (3:84) and that religious pluralism was God’s will (5:48). Muslims had, therefore, been traditionally wary of takfir, the practice of declaring a fellow Muslim to be an unbeliever (kafir). Hitherto Sufism, which had developed an outstanding appreciation of other faith traditions, had been the most popular form of Islam and had played an important role in both social and religious life. “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest,” urged the great mystic Ibn al-Arabi (d.1240). “God the omniscient and omnipresent cannot be confined to any one creed.” It was common for a Sufi to claim that he was a neither a Jew nor a Christian, nor even a Muslim, because once you glimpsed the divine, you left these man-made distinctions behind.

Despite his rejection of other forms of Islam, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself refrained from takfir, arguing that God alone could read the heart, but after his death Wahhabis cast this inhibition aside and the generous pluralism of Sufism became increasingly suspect in the Muslim world.

After his death, too, Wahhabism became more violent, an instrument of state terror. As he sought to establish an independent kingdom, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Muhammad, Ibn Saud’s son and successor, used takfir to justify the wholesale slaughter of resistant populations. In 1801, his army sacked the holy Shia city of Karbala in what is now Iraq, plundered the tomb of Imam Husain, and slaughtered thousands of Shias, including women and children; in 1803, in fear and panic, the holy city of Mecca surrendered to the Saudi leader.

Eventually, in 1815, the Ottomans despatched Muhammad Ali Pasha, governor of Egypt, to crush the Wahhabi forces and destroy their capital. But Wahhabism became a political force once again during the First World War when the Saudi chieftain – another Abd al-Aziz – made a new push for statehood and began to carve out a large kingdom for himself in the Middle East with his devout Bedouin army, known as the Ikhwan, the “Brotherhood”.

In the Ikhwan we see the roots of IS. To break up the tribes and wean them from the nomadic life, which was deemed incompatible with Islam, the Wahhabi clergy had settled the Bedouin in oases, where they learned farming and the crafts of sedentary life and were indoctrinated in Wahhabi Islam. Once they exchanged the time-honoured ghazu raid, which typically resulted in the plunder of livestock, for the jihad, these Bedouin fighters became more violent and extreme, covering their faces when they encountered Europeans and non-Saudi Arabs and fighting with lances and swords because they disdained weaponry not used by the Prophet. In the old ghazu raids, the Bedouin had always kept casualties to a minimum and did not attack non-combatants. Now the Ikhwan routinely massacred “apostate” unarmed villagers in their thousands, thought nothing of slaughtering women and children, and routinely slit the throats of all male captives.

In 1915, Abd al-Aziz planned to conquer the Hijaz (an area in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia that includes the cities of Mecca and Medina), the Persian Gulf to the east of Najd, and the land that is now Syria and Jordan in the north, but during the 1920s he tempered his ambitions in order to acquire diplomatic standing as a nation state with Britain and the United States. The Ikhwan, however, continued to raid the British protectorates of Iraq, Transjordan and Kuwait, insisting that no limits could be placed on jihad. Regarding all modernisation as bidah, the Ikhwan also attacked Abd al-Aziz for permitting telephones, cars, the telegraph, music and smoking – indeed, anything unknown in Muhammad’s time – until finally Abd al-Aziz quashed their rebellion in 1930.

After the defeat of the Ikhwan, the official Wahhabism of the Saudi kingdom abandoned militant jihad and became a religiously conservative movement, similar to the original movement in the time of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, except that takfir was now an accepted practice and, indeed, essential to the Wahhabi faith. Henceforth there would always be tension between the ruling Saudi establishment and more radical Wahhabis. The Ikhwan spirit and its dream of territorial expansion did not die, but gained new ground in the 1970s, when the kingdom became central to western foreign policy in the region. Washington welcomed the Saudis’ opposition to Nasserism (the pan-Arab socialist ideology of Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser) and to Soviet influence. After the Iranian Revolution, it gave tacit support to the Saudis’ project of countering Shia radicalism by Wahhabising the entire Muslim world.

The soaring oil price created by the 1973 embargo – when Arab petroleum producers cut off supplies to the US to protest against the Americans’ military support for Israel – gave the kingdom all the petrodollars it needed to export its idiosyncratic form of Islam. The old military jihad to spread the faith was now replaced by a cultural offensive. The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices in every region inhabited by Muslims, and the Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Quran, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern thinkers whom the Saudis found congenial, such as Sayyids Abul-A’la Maududi and Qutb, to Muslim communities throughout the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. In all these places, they funded the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and established madrasas that provided free education for the poor, with, of course, a Wahhabi curriculum. At the same time, young men from the poorer Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, who had felt compelled to find work in the Gulf to support their families, associated their relative affluence with Wahhabism and brought this faith back home with them, living in new neighbourhoods with Saudi mosques and shopping malls that segregated the sexes. The Saudis demanded religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England, and Buffalo, New York, as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.

A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own. While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop. In the past, the learned exegesis of the ulema, which Wahhabis rejected, had held extremist interpretations of scripture in check; but now unqualified freelancers such as Osama Bin Laden were free to develop highly unorthodox readings of the Quran. To prevent the spread of radicalism, the Saudis tried to deflect their young from the internal problems of the kingdom during the 1980s by encouraging a pan-Islamist sentiment of which the Wahhabi ulema did not approve.

Where Islamists in such countries as Egypt fought tyranny and corruption at home, Saudi Islamists focused on the humiliation and oppression of Muslims worldwide. Television brought images of Muslim suffering in Palestine or Lebanon into comfortable Saudi homes. The gov­ernment also encouraged young men to join the steady stream of recruits from the Arab world who were joining the Afghans’ jihad against the Soviet Union. The response of these militants may throw light on the motivation of those joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq today.

A survey of those Saudi men who volunteered for Afghanistan and who later fought in Bosnia and Chechnya or trained in al-Qaeda camps has found that most were motivated not by hatred of the west but by the desire to help their Muslim brothers and sisters – in rather the same way as men from all over Europe left home in 1938 to fight the Fascists in Spain, and as Jews from all over the diaspora hastened to Israel at the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967. The welfare of the umma had always been a spiritual as well as a political concern in Islam, so the desperate plight of their fellow Muslims cut to the core of their religious identity. This pan-Islamist emphasis was also central to Bin Laden’s propaganda, and the martyr-videos of the Saudis who took part in the 9/11 atrocity show that they were influenced less by Wahhabism than by the pain and humiliation of the umma as a whole.

Like the Ikhwan, IS represents a rebellion against the official Wahhabism of modern Saudi Arabia. Its swords, covered faces and cut-throat executions all recall the original Brotherhood. But it is unlikely that the IS hordes consist entirely of diehard jihadists. A substantial number are probably secularists who resent the status quo in Iraq: Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime and former soldiers of his disbanded army. This would explain IS’s strong performance against professional military forces. In all likelihood, few of the young recruits are motivated either by Wahhabism or by more traditional Muslim ideals. In 2008, MI5’s behavioural science unit noted that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” A significant proportion of those convicted of terrorism offences since the 9/11 attacks have been non-observant, or are self-taught, or, like the gunman in the recent attack on the Canadian parliament, are converts to Islam. They may claim to be acting in the name of Islam, but when an untalented beginner tells us that he is playing a Beethoven sonata, we hear only cacophony. Two wannabe jihadists who set out from Birmingham for Syria last May had ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon.

It would be a mistake to see IS as a throwback; it is, as the British philosopher John Gray has argued, a thoroughly modern movement that has become an efficient, self-financing business with assets estimated at $2bn. Its looting, theft of gold bullion from banks, kidnapping, siphoning of oil in the conquered territories and extortion have made it the wealthiest jihadist group in the world. There is nothing random or irrational about IS violence. The execution videos are carefully and strategically planned to inspire terror, deter dissent and sow chaos in the greater population.

Mass killing is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. During the French Revolution, which led to the emergence of the first secular state in Europe, the Jacobins publicly beheaded about 17,000 men, women and children. In the First World War, the Young Turks slaughtered over a million Armenians, including women, children and the elderly, to create a pure Turkic nation. The Soviet Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guard all used systematic terrorism to purge humanity of corruption. Similarly, IS uses violence to achieve a single, limited and clearly defined objective that would be impossible without such slaughter. As such, it is another expression of the dark side of modernity.

In 1922, as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rose to power, he completed the Young Turks’ racial purge by forcibly deporting all Greek-speaking Christians from Turkey; in 1925 he declared null and void the caliphate that IS has vowed to reinstate. The caliphate had long been a dead letter politically, but because it symbolised the unity of the umma and its link with the Prophet, Sunni Muslims mourned its loss as a spiritual and cultural trauma. Yet IS’s projected caliphate has no support among ulema internationally and is derided throughout the Muslim world. That said, the limitations of the nation state are becoming increasingly apparent in our world; this is especially true in the Middle East, which has no tradition of nationalism, and where the frontiers drawn by invaders were so arbitrary that it was well nigh impossible to create a truly national spirit. Here, too, IS is not simply harking back to a bygone age but is, however eccentrically, enunciating a modern concern.

The liberal-democratic nation state developed in Europe in part to serve the Industrial Revolution, which made the ideals of the Enlightenment no longer noble aspirations but practical necessities. It is not ideal: its Achilles heel has always been an inability to tolerate ethnic minorities – a failing responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. In other parts of the world where modernisation has developed differently, other polities may be more appropriate. So the liberal state is not an inevitable consequence of modernity; the attempt to produce democracy in Iraq using the colo­nial methods of invasion, subjugation and occupation could only result in an unnatural birth – and so IS emerged from the resulting mayhem.

IS may have overreached itself; its policies may not be sustainable and it faces determined opposition from Sunni and Shia Muslims alike. Interestingly Saudi Arabia, with its impressive counterterrorist resources, has already thwarted IS attempts to launch a series of attacks in the kingdom and may be the only regional power capable of bringing it down. The shooting in Canada on 22 October, where a Muslim convert killed a soldier at a war memorial, indicates that the blowback in the west has begun; to deal realistically with our situation, we need an informed understanding of the precise and limited role of Islam in the conflict, and to recognise that IS is not an atavistic return to a primitive past, but in some real sense a product of modernity. 

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Bodley Head, £25)

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

Clive Turner/Maeve McClenaghan
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Inside the lives of the 78 people who died homeless this winter

Some died in doorways or in tents pitched in the snow. Others died in shelters or temporary accommodation.

In early March, the snow lay thick over the windows of Hamid Farahi’s car, obscuring the jumble of blankets, books and bags within. An entire life crammed into the passenger seat of a Peugeot 206.

Amongst the clutter was a prized possession – a letter from the office of Stephen Hawking. But 55-year-old Farahi no longer needed it.

Less than a mile down the road, Farahi had been checked into a hotel, the inclement weather forcing the homeless man out of the car where he was living and into a warm room for the night. It was there that he died. The cause of his death is still being investigated.

Farahi is one of 78 people the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found to have died while homeless this winter. This averages to more than two people a week, with at least ten people dying last month alone.

Despite many of these vulnerable people being known to the authorities, local journalists and charities are often the only ones that report these deaths.

The Bureau spoke to councils, hospitals, coroners offices, police forces and NGOs. Whilst there is a charitable network recording information on people sleeping rough in London, it found that there is no centralised record of when and how people die homeless in the UK. Therefore, its count is likely an underestimate.

And so today, the Bureau launched Dying Homeless, a long-term project to track and count those that die homeless on UK streets. 

It has already started to log some of the stories of those who have died homeless on UK streets. They include an avid gardener, a former soldier and a grieving 31-year-old who had lost both his mother and brother.

Some died in doorways or in tents pitched in the snow. Others died in shelters or passed away in hospitals after living on the streets. Many were rough sleepers, others were statutory homeless and staying in temporary accommodation.

The Bureau found that, since 1 October 2017, at least 59 men and 16 women have died – and in a further three cases the gender is not known due to lack of public information. The ages of those in our database so far range from 19- to 68-years-old. Fourteen deaths were of people 35-years-old or under.

The project has been welcomed by those working in the sector.

Petra Salva, St Mungo’s Director of Rough Sleeper Services said: “It’s a scandal that people are dying on our streets.

“St Mungo’s would welcome more nationally collated, robust statistics around rough sleeper deaths.”

Thames Reach Chief Executive Jeremy Swain said: “To systematically record the number of deaths of rough sleepers in order to gauge the scale of the problem and investigate trends will be of enormous practical value.”

Farahi’s car now sits unclaimed, on a quiet side road behind the car park of a huge Tesco shopping complex in Harlow, Essex. Four weeks on from his death and, instead of snow, the windscreen is covered with floral tributes. There are 11 bunches of flowers in all, most now withered and brown.

“They all appeared over the past couple of weeks”, said Adam Protheroe. A local businessman, Protheroe had met Farahi the year before and had come to know him well. “I’m back and forth from Tesco all the time getting stuff for the wife and kids. I just came across him, said hello, he was a friendly enough guy,” he said.

Farahi once told Protheroe he had studied aeronautical engineering in Bristol. His Facebook page registers a stint working in avionics for British Airways.

Once, he even applied for a graduate research position with Stephen Hawking’s office at the University of Cambridge. The Bureau saw paperwork confirming his application. Farahi told Protheroe and others he had made it down to the last three applicants.

But then, things started to go wrong.

“Someone conned him out of money and he ended up selling his pension to shark companies, that is what he called them,” Protheroe explained. “Losing that money was the start of the alcoholism I think, it alleviated the stress.”

Iranian-born, Farahi was also reportedly suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from his time fighting for the army in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

People that knew Farahi years before told Channel 4 News he was not the easiest man to live with. He struggled with alcoholism for years and had to be removed from several properties. But many people in Harlow told the Bureau of their affection for him.

Chrissy Sorce works in a car rental hut, just five metres from Farahi ’s makeshift home. Her cigarette breaks would often bring her face to face with the homeless man. “At first I thought that’s a bit weird living there. He first arrived in the summer, and so I just started saying hello, ” she explained. Soon she was charging his phone for him or making him tea.

She told the Bureau that after gathering many books on advanced mathematics and engineering he had to enlist the help of a friend, who stored them in her daughter’s garden shed because they could no longer fit in his car.

“You know he’s a person like anyone else. Everyone’s vulnerable aren’t they,” she said. “He was a very intelligent man, he had all engineering books, maths books you know. He was just left here, I thought that was really wrong.”

The number of people sleeping rough has risen sharply across the UK, increasing 169 per cent in England since 2010, according to the government’s latest rough sleeper count. Experts warn cuts to mental health and substance abuse provision, coupled with rising private rents and a lack of social housing, are now forcing increasing numbers into homelessness.

However, there is no central database logging deaths of those who die when homeless. There no obligation on councils or coroners to log the deaths. Not all deaths make the news.

But that does not mean they go unnoticed. The Bureau found that for those working in the sector, news of premature deaths can be hard to shake.

Wayne Hood, from the charity Streets2Homes, knows two other people who died in Harlow this winter. The families do not want the names shared.

Hood knows only too well the dangers of sleeping rough. Now a paid outreach worker, he first arrived at the Streets2Homes shelter when he became homeless in 2015.

These days he splits his time between helping those who arrive at the day centre, tucked away in a small industrial estate on the edge of the town, and the time he is out walking the streets, looking for those that need help.

“I have these flyers printed”, Hood explained, pulling a handful of A4 sheets out of his rucksack. In big, bold letters they read: “Homeless you are not alone”. In the corner of a storeroom are bulging plastic bags tied tightly at the top, full of toiletries, bottles of water and other essentials. These are the packs Hood hands out on his round.

“Street homeless is becoming very visible here now. It has definitely increased,” he said. “We have 28 registered rough sleepers that we know of here in Harlow. It is probably more like double that in reality”, he added.

People bed down where they can. In a small square of grass outside the local St Paul’s church, eight tents huddle in varying states of disarray.

“When the weather was bad in March, we went out to places we thought people might be. A couple of occasions we opened up the centre here too, on Friday and Saturday night when it was really cold. It was a case of people bedding down here on the day room floor,” Hood explained.

At the same time, 70 miles away, Robert Wallis was settling in on the floor of an emergency shelter too.

Six days before Hamid Farahi died, as 'the beast from the East' cold snap pummelled the UK, Eileen Wallis, a homeless woman, woke up on the floor of the Catching Lives drop-in centre and found her 41-year-old son Robert, who was also homeless, dead beside her.

Eileen told journalist Gerry Warren of KentOnline: “I woke up and reached out for his hand but it felt really cold. I realised he was dead but tried to revive him.

“I knew he was ill, but this came completely out of the blue and I am devastated. I have no idea what my future holds now.”

The centre, a squat rectangular building housed just metres from Canterbury East station, had been turned into an emergency shelter as the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol, a statutory requirement on councils to house homeless people in severe weather, prompted charities within the sector to open their doors.

“When the temperature is forecast zero [degrees Celsius] or less for three nights or severe wind, rain or snow, the council contact us and we open our day centre”, explained Graeme Solly, a Project Leader with Catching Lives day centre. “We had 47 nights of that this winter.”

The tables which usually line the hall were pushed to the side, the snooker and ping-pong tables moved back to make room for 15 people bedding down on mats on the floor. The centre was at capacity most nights.

"We are seeing a large number of rough sleepers, sofa surfers, and people who are vulnerably housed coming to our centre to seek advice", said Solly. Footfall at the Catching Lives day centre doubled between 2013 to 2015 and has remained around this mark since, he added.

Official figures show that, across the South of England, the numbers of rough sleepers has increased by 194 per cent since 2010, higher even than the national average.

Cuts to council budgets have had an impact on the care homeless people can access, said Solly.

With fewer options for referral to other services, staff at Catching Lives are left trying to support people as best they can.

Staff in the centre are still shaken by Robert Wallis’s death. Responding at the time, the centre’s general manager, Terry Gore, told Kent Online: “Every year we lose a number of clients, but we’ve never had anyone die inside the building before. It’s very sad for our staff, clients and volunteers.”

But Robert was not the only person to die while homeless in Canterbury this year. Less than three weeks later, the city saw another death.

Out on the streets of Canterbury, Sonya Langridge walks with a purpose, her years working for the navy evident in her powerful stride and eagerness to keep time.

“It was incredibly difficult this winter,” she told the Bureau. “I normally go out to start my round around 6am but there were some nights I’d find myself lying awake worrying about people, so I’d just get up earlier and check they were okay.”

Sonya is an outreach worker with Porchlight, a homelessness charity which works across the entirety of Kent. “People will sleep anywhere that is safe, if they are sleeping in the town centre it is for safety reasons, where they know cameras are, they know they have someone watching over them, or equally you get the people that go out in the woods by the rivers, tuck themselves away there where they feel they are not on show, they feel safe when no one knows where they are- those are the worrying ones, those are the ones we want to keep our eye on for their own safety.”

One of the people on Sonya’s watch was Shelly Pollard, a 42-year-old woman who was well-known around the city.

Many nights Pollard would bed down in the dimly lit doorway of a record music shop, the grand city walls visible from where she sat. Women make up around 22 per cent of rough sleepers in Canterbury, according to Porchlight, higher than the national average of 14 per cent. Sleeping where there is light and CCTV can provide some form of security.

“She was here every morning. She was always just here in the corner in the sleeping bag, maybe with some cardboard, sometimes spare clothes, you’d just hear snoring,” shop worker Alex Furness told the Bureau. “You couldn’t really believe she’d died until you heard it from a couple of people.”

A short distance down the road, watched over by a bronze statue of poet Geoffrey Chaucer, candles and flowers lay in tribute to Pollard. By the time of publication, a GoFundMe page trying to raise money for her funeral had raised £1,360 of its £4,000 goal.

Sonya is still shaken by Pollard’s death. But there is no time for her to stop. She covers a huge patch and spends her days scouring the streets and woods around the city, checking in with those that are rough sleeping.

“Sonya is fantastic, she can get people to talk to her who would never open up to anyone else,” said Mike Barrett, Chief Executive of Porchlight. “She was keeping almost a daily watch on Pollard. Sadly now Pollard has passed away.

“Her death is an example of the end of a process that is not fit for purpose, which is destructive and immoral.”

Barrett can reel off a long list of things he thinks are causing the increase in homelessness in the area and across the country: cuts to mental health services, lack of regulations around private landlords, landlords refusing to take those on Universal Credit.

Those issues, he says, are compounded by funding cuts to homelessness services.

“The cuts have impacted to a point where some services have closed. Others are so diluted they can’t do what they were set up to do”, said Barrett.

“Years ago Porchlight had 28 outreach workers. In 2011 our budgets were cut by 75 per cent and we ended up with a team of four [outreach workers]. So the charity, our board decided to pump some of our own reserves into it and we’re still doing that. But we’ve only got a team of 11, ”said Barrett. “The whole funding environment has returned to what it was in the 80s,” he added.

The Homeless Reduction Act, which was brought in earlier this month, puts more responsibility on councils to prevent homelessness and provides some additional funds. But many in the sector told the Bureau they are worried it is not enough to counter the cuts that have already happened.

A recent survey of local authorities, by the homeless charity Crisis, found that 74 per cent warned that a roll-out of Universal Credit would significantly increase homelessness in their area. Nearly half also feared the lowering of the total benefit cap would significantly increase homelessness.

Farahi, Pollard and Robert died within weeks of each other. At least seven more people died while homeless in March too, according to the names compiled by the Bureau. The true figure is likely to be much higher.

Matt Downie, Director of Policy and External Affairs at Crisis, said: “The Bureau’s figures are a devastating reminder that rough sleeping is beyond dangerous – it’s deadly, and it’s claiming more and more lives each year.

“Those sleeping on our streets are exposed to everything from sub-zero temperatures, to violence and abuse, and fatal illnesses. They are 17 times more likely to be a victim of violence, twice as likely to die from infections, and nine times more likely to commit suicide. What’s worse, we know these figures are likely to be an underestimate."

“It is extraordinary and unacceptable that nationally data on rough sleepers is so limited”, said Jeremy Swain of Thames Reach.

Thames Reach, along with other homeless charities, has now pledged support for the Bureau’s Dying Homeless project.

Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it totally by 2027.

Responding to the Bureau’s findings, a government spokesperson said: “Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many. We are taking bold action and have committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it by 2027.

“We are investing £1.2bn to tackle all forms of homelessness and earlier this month the Homeless Reduction Act, the most ambitious legislation in this area in decades, came into force."

Farahi’s death is still being investigated by the coroner’s office. Around a week after he passed away his hero Stephen Hawking died. Hawking was buried with ceremony 17 days later, on 31 March. Farahi is yet to be buried. 

His car sits, stuffed with his belongings, the only remaining marker of his life.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis