Friday 23 February 2018

Irish Muslim convert who had 'teen crush' on Osama bin Laden stirs up security concerns

A young woman has claimed that a second jihadi suspect involved in the London Bridge terror attack visited Ireland

REVELATIONS: De-radicalised Muslim Sister Aaliya, which is not her real name, speaking to media alongside Sheikh Umar Al-Qadri, who is the imam at Al-Mustafa Islamic Centre, Coolmine Industrial Estate, in Blanchardstown, Dublin, and the chair of the Muslim Peace & Integration Council. Photo: Steve Humphreys
REVELATIONS: De-radicalised Muslim Sister Aaliya, which is not her real name, speaking to media alongside Sheikh Umar Al-Qadri, who is the imam at Al-Mustafa Islamic Centre, Coolmine Industrial Estate, in Blanchardstown, Dublin, and the chair of the Muslim Peace & Integration Council. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

At the end of Friday prayers in a converted warehouse unit in the Coolmine Industrial Estate, Blanchardstown, scores of men rise up in their stocking feet in unison. The imam, Sheikh Umar Al-Qadri, invites anyone who wants to stay for the much-anticipated press conference but most head to the exit to fetch their shoes. The press corps who have been standing at the back or skulking outside take up positions in a hastily arranged bank of chairs.

The woman they are here to meet takes her seat, her face hidden behind sunglasses and a niqab. Beside her, the imam gives a thundering speech about how his warnings about extremists in Ireland were ignored, and how this young woman's story is further proof that Islamic extremism is here, but in greater numbers than we had thought before.

He says: "These individuals that are extremists that are given residency in Ireland. The government say there are 20 individuals being monitored. According to the sources here, there are more than 100 people, so many of them are not monitored. What is the State going to do about it?"

Then he introduces Sister Aaliya, a 26-year-old Irish Muslim convert who moved to London, was radicalised by the notorious and now-jailed "hate preacher" Anjem Choudary, and who knew one of the three jihadis behind the London Bridge terrorist attack last weekend.

This was not Rachid Redouane, whom police confirmed last week lived in Dublin until September 2015. It was the suspected terrorist ringleader Khuram Butt (27) who, along with Redouane (30) and Youssef Zaghba (22), murdered eight people and injured 49 in a rampage across London Bridge last Saturday night.

During a question-and-answer session, which she later elaborates on in a one-on-one interview with the Sunday Independent in the mosque's tiny office, Sister Aaliya tells her story. It is both disturbing, as she is clearly a vulnerable young woman, and alarming because of her depiction of radical extremists in Limerick, Clare, Tipperary and Dublin, and of their facilitators flitting over from London.

She is an unlikely whistle blower for followers of Isil. Sister Aaliya, her Muslim name, grew up in south-east Ireland with a family that was "not her birth family".

Her teenage crush was Osama bin Laden; he was the "screensaver on her mobile phone". "From about 15, 16, I was completely obsessed with him," she says.

Asked was it his looks, she says: "No, I think it was his reputation. It's really, really, bad. When I think of it now, I feel sometimes so sick about it." She was a bit "screwed up", she admits.

She converted to Islam when she was 18 and says she used to listen to Khalid Kelly, the Irish jihadi from the Liberties, in Dublin, who graduated from preaching outside the GPO in Dublin to blowing himself up in a suicide attack on Iraqi soldiers in Mosul last year.

She says she wasn't surprised. "He was obsessed with Osama bin Laden as well," she says. Sister Aaliya moved to Barking, East London, where, as a young Muslim convert, she and a friend "pretty much always talked about jihad". She adds: "It was pretty much known in the area that I was fascinated by that kind of stuff. I never denied that I was fascinated by it."

At a friend's house, she claims she met Choudary, who was jailed in September for pledging allegiance to Isil. She says: "I remember she [her friend] turned and said to him [Choudary] that I had an obsession with Osama bin Laden. And he started debating about him with me. I just answered him back and said, 'No, no, it's not like that, he's completely different how he thinks'. He made him out to sound bad but he was like, 'Oh, so we have the same views.

"Pretty much from there, we started to talk.

"He used to just say to me that I should get married to have children so I could send them to jihad."

It wasn't only Choudary but "all of them", she says, including one of Choudary's "friends" who later became her fiance and who, "in the beginning, was really, really nice".

Her fiance, whom she met when she was 23, would tell her "we have some plans". She adds: "He never shared what he had planned. He always said when the time is right he'd tell me more, but he never said any more than that.

"They used to all say they were going to do it, that they were going to blow up things, and kill thousands of people. But, you know, all the time, I thought it was just saying something.

"Their dream was to have an army of jihad."

She says she met Butt in London, and also in Dublin and in Limerick. Asked what Butt was like, she says he "spoke more like he was the person in charge", adding: "Him and Choudary, they were explaining together and they spoke about stuff. But when they both spoke, the rest of them listened."

She claims Butt used to "give talks" in a private rented house in Limerick and she also met him "a couple of times in Dublin" but he avoided mosques. They were places for "non-believers", she says.

She and her ex-fiance would regularly fly to Belfast, to avoid immigration, and get a lift or bus across the border.

Her ex used to "set up apartments [for people]. I remember he used to help them get bank accounts as well. I didn't really know why they were doing that, but they used to set up bank accounts and stuff as well".

Limerick, Clare and Tipperary were "the easiest place to get properties, they were always cheaper. I think there were a majority of older landlords down there and the rent was a lot cheaper". She adds: "I remember they took a four-bedroom house in Limerick city for €650 a month."

In Dublin, she regularly stayed in a house between Ballymun and Santry "rented by someone in the UK", and she claimed Choudary visited there "in 2014 or 2015".

Sister Aaliya says she was eventually "de-radicalised" by an imam in East London. She left her fiance after he beat her as she got off a bus in East London. She returned to Ireland for good last October.

A few days after the London Bridge atrocity, one of her friends phoned. Sister Aaliya says: "She said, 'You know that guy who you were friends with in London?' I said, 'Yeah'. She said, 'He's on the paper. I think he died as a victim'. I was like, 'OK'. And then when I seen it, I was like, 'Oh, my God'.

"I knew straight away he was after doing it. There was no doubt about it."

Shocked, she says she told a garda at the immigration bureau and told Imam Al-Qadri, who felt the information was so important she should share it with the public.

Sister Aaliya's startling account puts her in conflict with An Garda Siochana, which is likely to take her statement in the coming days.

In the wake of the atrocity, Garda security has come under scrutiny, with immigration lapses exposed. One Garda association has claimed the force is not equipped to deal with a terrorist attack.

Sister Aaliya's claims, if they are corroborated, raise further questions.

This weekend, security sources say they are satisfied that the extremists active in Ireland are on their radar. They say an estimated 20 extremists are being monitored in Ireland and point to the number of deportations they are bringing before the courts as proof.

A Jordanian man who was deported last year was one of their key targets. Gardai described him in court as one of the "key facilitators" for Isil, organising funds and travel documents to get people out of Ireland to the Isil battlegrounds of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

He was monitored for months, operating out of an apartment in north Dublin, and apparently acting as mentor to Khalid Kelly, who spent his final months sharing his apartment before he left to wage his so-called jihad in Iraq.

Another man, who is also alleged to have been part of the Jordanian's group of Isil supporters and facilitators, has had his deportation halted pending a Supreme Court hearing. Neither of these men can be named by court order.

Redouane clearly was not on their radar and detectives are scrambling to piece together his life here. Details about him are scant enough. Redouane was born in Morocco but claimed Libyan citizenship. In 2006, he is believed to have moved to the UK, where he lived in Harrow, north west London, and then in Manchester. He worked at kitchen jobs while applying for asylum, for which he was turned down in 2009.

He was arrested that year trying to board a ferry to Ireland without papers. But he still managed to get into the country. After that, he went off the official radar for a number of years. Some reports claimed he went to Libya in 2011 after the Arab Spring but Garda sources could not confirm this.

They know he married Charisse O'Leary, a care worker from Dagenham, London, in a register office wedding in Dublin in November 2012. They lived in a flat in Grosvenor Road, then moved back to the UK.

They returned to Ireland in 2015, taking a flat on the Finglas Road in Cabra. Neighbours at both of his former homes had no memory of him last week. The landlady of his Cabra flat told a newspaper last week that he was "a grand tenant".

"He was there for seven months with his wife. I am absolutely dumbfounded and shocked," she said. "Apparently they moved out because she was pregnant. They were going back to Scotland or England."

The marriage entitled Redouane to an EU FAM card from the Garda National Immigration Bureau, which allowed him to travel freely back and forth to the UK.

Gardai say Redouane left Dublin in September 2015, and left little trace behind. When he moved to Finglas Road, he registered for three library cards, at Central Library, Dolphin's Barn and Phibsborough, which has at least led detectives to reading material and computer searches. One source said no extremist material has showed up so far.

It is possible that Redouane was part of a group of Isil sympathisers they didn't know about. Security sources said this weekend they are pretty satisfied that he was not radicalised while he was in Ireland, although they won't disclose how they know this.

It appears he wasn't on the radar of British police either. Back in London by the end of 2015, Redouane was reported to have met Butt and Zaghba at a fast-food outlet near his home in Barking. Butt and Zaghba worked there. Redouane was a regular customer.

According to a statement from Redouane's devastated wife Charisse, the couple separated six months ago, by which time he was on his way to jihad.

Far from revealing another Isil cell, the most that the investigations have exposed so far is potentially massive immigration fraud, involving an illicit trade in identity cards, work permits and visas. Two men were arrested in Limerick and Wexford last week on suspicion of using Redouane's documentation after he left for England. Sources say that neither of them actually knew him.

The London Bridge terrorist massacre has highlighted not just security concerns in this country, it has also emphasised differences within the leaders of the Muslim community in Ireland.

Imam Al-Qadri, organiser of Sister Aaliya's press conference, has been a vocal critic of some Irish mosques that he claims don't do enough to counter extremism.

Where Dr Al-Qadri is unequivocal, Dr Ali Selim, of the Clonskeagh mosque, is more nuanced. He does not deny extremism - for instance, he says he knew the Jordanian suspect who was deported as he sometimes prayed at Clonskeagh, although he was "isolated" there. ("He was an extremely sick person with heart disease. I do not know what kind of activity a man with this amount of disease would be able to do," says Dr Selim.)

There is no ambiguity about Dr Selim's condemnation of the London Bridge terrorist attacks - "I condemn it," he says. When asked what is his message to jihadis, he says: "I will say to them, I will say to them stop, I will say to the American aircraft who are killing Muslims, stop, and I will say to the Russian aircraft who are killing Muslims, stop, and I say to the Israelis who are killing Palestinians, stop."

The claims of Sister Aaliya have been presented as a vindication for Imam Al-Qadri's repeated warnings about extremism. It remains to be seen how An Garda Siochana's counter-terrorism unit will treat her account.

Sunday Independent

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