Usman Raja, a leading British-Pakistani cage-fighting coach with a storied career in the sport, is the managing director of The Unity Initiative, a British-Muslim interventions consultancy founded in 2009 that has deradicalized dozens of convicted terrorists and hundreds of Islamist extremists, and promotes pluralism in the UK. British officials view it as the most successful program of its kind. His team has worked to dismantle the radical views of 25 convicted terrorists after their release from prison through intensive one-on-one mentoring based on the teaching of a spiritual, open-minded, and tolerant interpretation of Islam. Unity also provides training to British police, prison, and probation staff, as well as imams.

CTC: A growing number of individuals convicted of Terrorism Act (TACT) offences in the United Kingdom are back on the streets after serving their sentences, creating a headache for British security agencies. How do you connect and engage with these radicalized individuals?

Raja: In some cases they are channeled toward The Unity Initiative by prison or probation officials soon before or soon after release. But in an increasing number of cases the individuals themselves contact me because they have heard about our successful track record from sources they trust including lawyers, prison imams, fellow Muslim prisoners, and community contacts. One recent self-referral was a British recruit to an Islamic State-linked group who was arrested on his return from Syria. He wrote to me post-sentence from Belmarsh prison telling me he had made a terrible mistake and asking me to help him through his crisis of faith. [1]

From my experience, the key aspect of striking up a trusting relationship—in which they want to listen—is for them to be impressed by your sincerity. What helps is that like many of them, I grew up in a tough neighborhood—in my case in east London—and once had fundamentalist Salafi views myself. I came close to fighting jihad in Bosnia in the 1990s. This personal experience—and the delivery of our approach to hard-to-reach elements of society—has given us a legitimacy and access that makes these types of individuals willing to listen.

In about a third of the cases, coaching these individuals in MMA (mixed martial arts) has helped me connect. A lot of these guys got into physical training both as an outlet and for their own protection inside jail, and they think MMA is pretty cool. Getting inside the fighting cage challenges your idea of yourself—believe me—and this gives me an opportunity to bond with them and open up their minds. Training with me gives these guys a sense of discipline and purpose.

The process of dismantling their radical worldview is really intense. It can be a very traumatic experience. They come to realize almost everything that previously gave them a sense of self-worth and identity was wrong. We spend hundreds of hours sitting down one-on-one with each released TACT offender we work with, meeting at least four hours each week for coffee or food in halal restaurants or shopping malls. And they call me up night and day on my cell phone. They basically come to rely on me, and that gives me the opportunity to reshape their perspective. The aim is not just to defuse the potential threat they pose but to transform their entire worldview. This involves convincing them that their previous interpretation of Islam was misguided and instilling in them a spiritual, open-minded, and tolerant understanding of Islam. We’ve been successful in about 95 percent of cases so far. And nobody I’ve worked with has been convicted again on terrorism charges.

CTC: But how do you get some of the most hard-core extremists in the UK to so fundamentally change their worldview?

Raja: It’s the legitimacy of the Islam we preach. It’s based on the teachings of my mentor Sheikh Aleey Qadir, a Malaysian cleric who is a leading figure in a worldwide spiritual Islam movement that includes the American Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf and the Jeddah-based cleric Abdallah bin Bayyah, who President Barack Obama recently praised for issuing a fatwa condemning the Islamic State. [2] Millions of Muslims around the world follow this traditional spiritual understanding of Islam.

Unity’s theological expert—my colleague Wael Zubi—is a student and official interpreter of Sheikh bin Bayyah. My mentor Shekih Aleey often comes to London and sits down with the young men I’m working with. These teachers belong to a lineage of learning stretching back to the Prophet Mohammed that predates the writing down of the Quran. Salafis have a narrow and literalist interpretation of the Quran, but it’s the oral tradition that shapes the way we interpret it. The oral tradition has primacy. For us, true Islam is open-minded, tolerant, and humanistic. We believe Islam is but one of many spiritual pathways to God. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and others all have their own spiritual pathways. The Islam we follow doesn’t just counter violent extremism; it also counters associated bigoted attitudes like anti-Semitism and homophobia.

CTC: Some Salafis have labeled people like you “hippy” Sufis. What do you say to those who might think it’s farfetched to believe that the most hardcore of extremists could be swayed by this spiritual interpretation?

Raja: Our efforts are backed by some of the world’s foremost Islamic scholars and the results are there for all to see. Take just one example: Ali Beheshti, a radicalized British-Pakistani who was previously the number-two leader in the British pro-al-Qa`ida (and in recent times pro-Islamic State) grouping al Muhajiroun founded by Omar Bakri Mohammed. [3] Michael Adebolajo, the extremist who murdered the British soldier Lee Rigby in east London in 2013, regularly attended Ali’s talks. In 2009, Ali was convicted of an arson attack on the house of a publisher of a controversial novel about the Prophet Mohammed. [4] After his release from prison he was referred to me by probation officials. It wasn’t easy or quick—it took nearly a year—but Ali’s views have been totally transformed. He’s out on the streets now, helping us counter the extremists’ message. He’s been particularly effective given his history. Just imagine if he was still working for the other side.

CTC: How important is the work Unity does to deradicalize female radicals?

Raja: It’s absolutely vital, but until recently it was totally overlooked. This is a social movement we are dealing with. Families are being radicalized and leaving for Syria to join the Islamic State. We are aware of one woman who took her five children to Syria to join up with the group, with the support of her mother-in-law, among others. Mothers, wives, and sisters reinforce and sometimes influence the radical worldviews of fathers, husbands, and brothers. Women are often the sole gateway to knowledge for the next generation and therefore need to be immunized against this ideology to prevent it being passed down.

My wife, Angela Misra, has successfully transformed the worldview of five convicted female terrorists recently released from prison. As a Muslim convert, doctor, wife, and mother of three, Angela is particularly effective in dismantling their radical ideology. Her life story is a direct contradiction to their perception of Muslim women being discriminated against in British society, and this starts the process. Her reputation within the community in effectively helping women with social issues and her certification to provide religious guidance by Sheikh Aleey means that she is then able to tackle the literalist mindset, whilst empowering and supporting women to follow through on their liberated outlook and implement change within their families.

What needs to be understood is that women turn to radical Islam for different reasons: some turn to this ideology in a search for independence from immigrant families with traditional belief structures. Others turn to it in a search for status as a wife or mother.

CTC: How do you assess the overall effort to counter violent extremism in the United Kingdom?

Raja: The results are not encouraging. Too few government officials and civil servants understand the terrain. An interventions industry has emerged in which Muslim community groups tick boxes on forms to get government funding. Many of these groups run sports and social clubs for young Muslims in neighborhoods where there is a high degree of radicalization [in order] to keep youth active and distract them, but that does nothing to break down their separation from the wider British community. Very few are effective. Over the years, some of these groups have themselves espoused fundamentalist interpretations. Salafi Muslim community groups working to counter violent extremism can do little more than defuse radicalized individuals because Salafis are fundamentally reactionary in their worldview. I suppose there is a public safety argument for such Salafi community groups working with young Muslims. But unless you can radically transform their worldview, radicals can all too easily tilt back into violence.

CTC: How big a challenge has the rise of the Islamic State posed?

Raja: The declaration of a so-called Islamic Caliphate has created an unprecedented challenge. I have never seen anything like it. It has electrified a significant minority of young British Muslims. Previously, extremism was something that was endemic but it could be contained. It’s now become an epidemic spreading like wild-fire. The analogy I like to use is Communism and the Soviet Union. It was the Soviet Union that gave Communism staying power and legitimacy, and it’s the same with the “Caliphate” and violent Islamist extremism. They’ve legitimized what was previously a fringe deviant jihadist subculture. Its utopian worldview has attracted a lot of support.

When it comes to the threat, the fatwa announced by Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani in September 2014 calling for attacks in the West was a game-changer. Those who support the Islamic State here in Britain view it as creating a religious duty to carry out attacks.

CTC: What are the root causes of violent extremism in the United Kingdom?

Raja: The core of the problem is the existence of what I call a deviant and jihadist subculture that often has a criminal undertone. In this subculture, the belief is that they are living in Dar el Harb (the land of war) and that this justifies all manner of criminality, including terrorist attacks. You have groups like Anjem Choudary’s al Muhajiroun, whose greatest strength is providing their followers a sense of community by creating a wall between “us” and “them.” And this network is spread across Europe and the West, creating an alternative worldview and lifestyle.

The problem is wider than that though. This deviant jihadist subculture subsists in a wider Salafi-absolutist insular community. A lot is written about Muslims feeling alienated from mainstream society, but the problem is that if you are growing up in some parts of east London or “Muslim ghettos” of Europe, then this environment is effectively the mainstream. We need to find ways to break down these barriers. In my MMA training sessions, some of the TACT offenders are now training with white working class youngsters. As well as our work with TACT offenders, we’re also working with hundreds of individuals across London to break the absolutist mindset through group sessions, dynamic workshops, and specialist interventions.

CTC: To what degree has social media played a role in radicalization?

Raja: A lot of research into radicalization has focused on the social media aspect because that’s the easiest part to research. But this is just scratching the surface. In the UK, most of the radicalization is going on inside the Muslim community through person-to-person contact. You have to tackle the problem inside the community. When I sit down with young Muslims they tell me what’s really going on. One significant development is the growth of Sunni-Shia violence that mirrors what’s going on in Iraq and Syria.

CTC: Given the scale of the radicalization problem in the United Kingdom, some experts who have praised your work say that it would need to take place on an industrial scale to make a significant difference. Some might say your success is to a great degree down to your personality—charismatic, driven, and unrelenting in the face of death threats—and that’s difficult to replicate. To what degree can Unity’s efforts be scaled up?

Raja: We’re essentially a three-person team so right now obviously Unity can only make a small dent in the problem, but our results demonstrate our approach works. To scale up, clearly you need people who have the right kind of experience and who are willing to deal with these individuals from a human perspective, but ultimately what will make a difference is the message not the messengers. We’re training up around a dozen people right now so that we can expand our efforts in the UK. But money is tight. We get a small amount from government agencies for some of our intervention work, but we are mostly self-financed and our goal is to eventually raise all the money for our operating costs ourselves. I’ve worked with several convicted terrorists completely pro bono.

Our long-term goal is to create international branches that will act as hubs propagating and disseminating change while maintaining quality control. We are discussing setting up a “Unity4Belgium” branch and are looking to also export this to other European countries and North America, where we hope to create a “Unity4USA.” The goal is not just to work on deradicalization, but to help provide the military, police, probation, and prison officers with a better understanding of the challenge they are facing.

In aiming for these branches, we are consciously countering the efforts of Anjem Choudary and his pro-Islamic State al Muhajiroun grouping in the UK, which in recent years has set up “Shariah4” franchises in Europe. The Sharia4 franchises have supplied hundreds, if not thousands, of recruits to the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. I’m arguably Anjem Choudary’s biggest threat. Unity has dismantled the worldview of several al Muhajiroun followers, including Ali Beheshti who outranked Anjem Choudary while the group was led by Omar Bakri Mohammed. If I can rip away people like Ali, just think of what we can do if we can get hundreds of people working for Unity across Europe.

[1] Belmarsh prison in south-east London contains a high security unit that often houses prisoners charged in terrorism cases.
[2] Dina Temple-Raston, “Prominent Muslim Sheik Issues Fatwa Against ISIS Violence,” NPR, September 25, 2014.
[3] Al-Muhajiroun has periodically changed its name to avoid bans. Names it has allegedly operated under include “Muslims against Crusades” and “Shariah4UK.”
[4] “Three Jailed for Publisher Arson,” BBC, July 7, 2009.

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