Deep Sadness And Growing Distrust: Inside The Neighbourhood That's Produced A Tenth Of The UK's Convicted Islamist Terrorists

Amardeep Bassey
Inside the neighbourhood that's produced a tenth of the UK's convicted Islamist terrorists.

“If my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it,” reads a sign welcoming visitors to the Birmingham neighbourhood of Sparkbrook.

It’s a quote from the legendary boxer Muhammed Ali, whose legacy has a special resonance in the district he visited 35 years ago and where 70 percent of its 32,000 residents share the former heavyweight champion’s Islamic faith.

It is a vibrant community that last week found itself at the centre of unwanted international media attention, after one of its own was charged with attempted murder after driving his car into cyclists before smashing into a security barrier outside the Houses of Parliament. 

Salih Khater was arrested by armed police immediately after the incident on Tuesday morning, which left three people injured and Westminster on lockdown for several hours. He was charged with attempted murder on Saturday, and police say they are treating the case as terrorism. He is due to appear in court on Monday.

Khater, 29, a Sudanese immigrant, frequented the myriad Arabic coffee houses that line the main Stratford Road as it snakes through Sparkbrook and neighbouring Sparkhill.

Islamic prayers echo from speakers, filling the air on any given Saturday on this particular stretch of the bustling thoroughfare – a Muslim enclave sitting just a couple of miles outside the city centre.

The melodious calls serve as a serene backdrop to a busy high street packed with shoppers visiting halal butchers and Middle-Eastern sweet shops, or sipping coffee sat at the ubiquitous African coffeeshops and shisha lounges.

Sparkbrook is home to 32,000 people, 70 percent of whom are Muslim.

It’s a veritable UN assembly of muslim communities from across the globe, but locals here are getting too used to screaming headlines labelling them as inhabitants of “Britain’s terror hotspot” or the country’s equivalent of the ISIS hotbed of Molenbeek in Belgium.

Local MP Roger Godsiff has served the area for more than 25 years and is proud to represent such an ethnically diverse community.

“From the Somali coffee shops to Eritrean eateries this area is probably the most multicultural region in the country,” he said.

“The community here is very resilient and united.  It has had to be because of the negative press we get but people here are tough. You’ve got to remember many settled here after fleeing for their lives from oppressive regimes.”

There is deep sadness at the fact that Tuesday’s Westminster incident happened, coupled with growing frustration at the resulting media coverage.

Abdul Saatin, 43, arrived from Sudan 12 years ago and knew Salih Khater, who he described as a “peaceful, funny man.”

He said: “Sparkbrook is like being at home away from home and the Sudanese community here is very integrated and thankful to be here.

“It is not in our nature to be radicals and Salih is just an ordinary Sudanese man who troubled nobody.

“It’s very hard to see my community at the centre of a so-called terrorism scare. We are largely ignored otherwise and I fear Islamaphobia is to blame.”

 

A terraced street in Sparkbrook.

A manager at the Bunna Internet cafe, where Khater rented a room, said locals were “sick, frustrated and angry” at the negative media coverage of their neighbourhood.

“It’s the same old story... the country cries terrorism before the facts have come out,” said the Eritrean worker, who did not want to give his name.

“I knew Salih and the fact is he was a quiet peaceful man who just couldn’t drive a car properly. He’s a short man and we’d always be laughing at the way he’d have his driver’s seat pushed all the way up to the windscreen. He drove like an old woman.” 

Westminster crash suspect Salih Khater.

But the notion that Sparkbrook and its adjoining districts have been linked to violent Islamism does carry some weight in a post 9-11 world.

According to one oft-quoted report by the Henry Jackson Society, it’s been home to one in 10 convicted Islamic terrorists in the UK, including Britain’s first suicide bomber Asif Sadiq in 2000 and Moinul Abedin, who is widely acknowledged as Britain’s first Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist.

Two years after Sadiq blew himself up at an Indian army barrack in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar on Christmas Day, Abedin was was jailed for 20 years for turning a terraced house in Sparkbrook into a bomb-making factory.

Among the deadly haul was an industrial quantity of the chemical required for the high explosive HMTD, which was used in the July 7 attacks on London’s Tube and bus network in 2005.

 

The aftermath of the Westminster crash.

Another factor linking the area to Islamist extremists is the fact that many Muslims living here trace their origins to the divided state of Kashmir, which has been the centre of a long-running territorial dispute between Pakistan and India.

The Kashmir connection is significant – indeed Birmingham has the largest Kashmiri expat population in the world and throughout the 1990s armed militants fighting for an independent Kashmir travelled to areas like Sparkbrook openly, to raise funds for the cause and inspire young local Muslims to join the fight.

Many of the 26 jihadists featured in the Henry Jackson Society report used Kashmiri militant groups as ‘stepping stones’ to join Al Qaeda including men like Irfan Khalid. 

Khalid lived mostly with his maternal grandparents on a 1970s housing estate at Timbers Way, Sparkbrook, and was jailed for 18 years in 2013. 

He was a member of an Al Qaeda cell that plotted bomb attacks on a scale larger than the July 7 bombings that ‘could kill 2,000 people’. 

More recently, a group of extremists from the area who called themselves the ‘Three Musketeers’ were jailed for life in 2016. 

Sparkhill neighbours Naweed Ali, 29, Khobaib Hussain, 25 and Mohibur Rahman, 33, planned to murder using a car before attacking people with meat cleavers etched with ‘Kafir’ and setting off a pipe bomb. 

Tired of the extremist accusations and veiled hints of complicity, the community here is determined to come together to deliver peace and safety.

Sparkbrook is home to people from all over the world.

Mohammed Ashfaq, a coordinator for anti-extremism organisation Kikit, blames deprivation for driving youths to radicalism along with a toxic combination of substance abuse, poverty and proactive hate preachers, usually operating online from afar.

He told HuffPost: “The people getting involved with extremism have a range of vulnerabilities. They see jihad as a shortcut to redemption for their past wrongs and are being lied to about the Koran and getting roped into something way above their mental capacity.

“They trust these people, but they’re being lied to.”

The United Kingdom Islamic Mission (UKIM) runs Sparkbrook Mosque in Anderton Road where new programmes of education are the focus.

Imam Mohammad Khalid is among a group of Islamic scholars attempting to combat the terror message by reaching out to young Muslims.

He said: “Our task here is to educate the community, the Muslim youth. We do not know how these people can carry out attacks in the name of Islam. In Islam there is no extremism.”