A Muslim preacher identified in the British media as a “key influence” on the two men convicted over the murder of a British soldier on a London street has denied any involvement with the pair and says he is a victim of press harassment.Newspapers including the Sunday Times and the Guardian alleged that both Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale attended a prayer group in Woolwich run by Usman Ali, who the Daily Mail described as forming part of a “powerful web of Islamic radicals and terror convicts”.
The Daily Mail also speculated that the contact Lee Rigby’s murderers had with Ali and others “may have inspired them to attempt to plot a terror attack.”
But Ali exclusively told Al Jazeera that the allegations were “baseless”.
“If I was such an important person in this whole thing, then why haven’t the police knocked on my door? Surely they would have arrested me by now. It is just typical British media hype.”
Since the attack in Woolwich, south London, in May, Ali said he had been repeatedly approached by journalists, including reporters for the flagship BBC news programmes Newsnight and Panorama, despite making clear that he did not want to speak to the British media.
“Obviously the family is fed up with it, the kids more than anyone else. The worst thing is them knocking on the door, early morning, early evening. And they are harassing the neighbours,” he said.
“After the killing it was every day for two-and-a-half weeks and they’ve been coming round since that time. Constantly on the phone. You start to get paranoid. If someone is looking at you or looking at the house you think, ‘Are you a journalist?’”
Media coverage of Ali’s alleged links to Adebolajo and Adebowale have highlighted his arrest in 2006 on suspicion of involvement in a plot to blow up the Canadian parliament, and his past membership of al-Muhajiroun, a now-banned group established by the Syrian-born cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed in the 1990s which called for a global Islamic state under Sharia law.
Yet Ali was released without charge after being held for nine days, and parted company with al-Muhajiroun in 2003 because he disagreed with their provocative tactics.
Ali said he remembered Adebolajo, who he knew as “Mujahid”, attending the prayer group that he led at Glyndon Community Centre “once or twice”, and said Adebolajo had once asked his advice on taking a course in teaching English as a foreign language. But he said he had not known that Adebolajo had travelled to Kenya with the apparent intention of joining al-Shabab in Somalia.
“The most we knew of each other was just to say, ‘Hi, how’s things?’ But we never really knocked about with each other. I didn’t know him on a personal level.”
He said he did not know Adebowale, but said friends had told him that he had attended Woolwich’s main mosque at the Greenwich Islamic Centre. Reports that he had set up the Glyndon prayer group, which meets in a community hall a few hundred metres from the mosque, were also incorrect, he said.
“There were three or four other individuals who had a dispute with Greenwich mosque. I needed to pray somewhere so I used to attend the prayer group. And then they needed people to do the sermon so I used to do the sermon sometimes as well.”
Ali was banned from Greenwich Islamic Centre in 2007 for alleged extremist preaching. Newspaper reports alleged he had shown children videos of the 9/11 attacks while chanting “Allahu Akbar”; something he also denied having done.
He said he and others had shown videos of alleged atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan but said his exclusion owed more to arguments with mosque leaders, who objected to protests organised by Ali in opposition to a campaign encouraging local Muslims to join the police.
‘Covenant of trust’
Ali said he had been shocked by Rigby’s killing and did not consider the attack to be legitimate under Islamic law because he believes Muslims live in the UK under a “covenant of trust”.
“What determines how a Muslim lives is where he lives. So now, for me, I’m here in the UK. I can’t start killing people. I can’t start blowing up British soldiers. It doesn’t work like this.”
But he accepts that the attack was a politically motivated response to British foreign policy borne out of frustration, and said there was debate among Islamic scholars as to whether attacking a British soldier away from the battlefield was justifiable in retaliation for the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan.
Adebolajo, who drove the car that ran into Rigby and then attempted to cut off his head, is alleged to have been pestered by British security services after being repatriated to the UK from Kenya.
Ali, who has previously told Al Jazeera about MI5’s efforts to recruit him as an informer, believes that may have contributed to his decision to act.
“He wasn’t planning to do anything in the UK, he was actually trying to leave. This guy was forced to come back,” said Ali. “Now you’ve just frustrated a very, very angry person. Really and truly they should have said ‘Go and don’t come back’. You have to say it was something really severe to push him to do that.”
Ali split from al-Muhajiroun in 2003 in disagreement over the group’s methods, which included publicity-seeking stunts such as celebrating the 9/11 hijackers as the “Magnificent 19”, though he said he still shared many of its beliefs.
But he said claims made by Bakri, the group’s founder now based in Lebanon, that he had known and influenced Adebolajo had been overplayed to court attention.
“Back in the day, we used to say that no publicity is bad publicity, so that’s the same understanding they have. They want people to contact them for those soundbites.”
Ali said he was frustrated that he continued to be associated with a group that he left a decade ago.
Islam ‘not black and white’
“I have changed a lot of my views and I would like to think that I have matured over the years in my Islamic understanding and realised that Islam is not black and white, it doesn’t work like that. So if you asked me a question about jihad 10 years ago you would have got a very different answer. Not because of fear but because I am understanding a little better now.”
Yet Ali remains uncompromising in his views on jihad. He recognises the desire of some Muslims to fight in what they consider occupied lands, such as Syria and Afghanistan, but said he had not actively encouraged anyone to go and had even dissuaded some from taking that path.
“That particular person could become a liability and do more harm than good. If someone goes to Syria, what if he doesn’t speak Arabic? What if he joins the mujahideen and he’s shooting and someone tells him to stop firing? What skill do you have that is going to count? If you don’t have a skill just stay back in England. It’s better for you. To be honest, people don’t need to go and I see a lot of people trying to run away from their lives here.”
Since coming to power in 2010, the British government has taken an increasingly tough stance against those who it accuses of hate speech, with proposals recommended in the aftermath of the Woolwich attack including giving authorities new powers to silence those considered too extreme.
Ali said there was no country in Europe that had been more tolerant towards Muslims than the UK, but he urged the government to engage with those it deemed extremists to understand their grievances.
“If you ask anybody who has sat in my sermons or my lectures, nobody would ever say, ‘You know, that guy said to kill soldiers or blow up bases in London’. If I’m a hate preacher what have I preached that is hatred? How dare you accuse me of being a hate preacher with no proof at all. If people want to call me Islamist, iihadist, extremist, radical, good luck to you. I refuse to be silent and I will continue to speak as much as I can.”
A version of this story was originally published on Al Jazeera on 19 December, 2013.