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UK seeks imams’ help in preventing growth of radicalised young Muslims

COVENTRY (England) — The beheading of American journalist James Foley, apparently by a British jihadist, has drawn renewed attention to the dangers posed by radicalised young British Muslims.

COVENTRY (England) — The beheading of American journalist James Foley, apparently by a British jihadist, has drawn renewed attention to the dangers posed by radicalised young British Muslims.

The government estimates that 500 or more British men and women have gone to fight for militant groups in Iraq and Syria, some of whom have already returned. Britain monitors its citizens on social media sites as part of its counterterrorism strategy. But the government has also turned to anti-extremist imams for help to prevent British Muslims from adopting radical views and to persuade those who have returned from the battlefields to moderate their beliefs.

After the killing of Mr Foley, Mr Qari Asim, the imam of the Makkah mosque in Leeds, urged Muslims “to work with the intelligence services and the government to make sure that this poison doesn’t reach our borders.” Speaking to the BBC, he said that the risk of British Muslims joining the extremist group, known as the Islamic State, was increasing because of Britain’s involvement in Iraq.

Only a minority of religious leaders plant the seeds of radicalisation, experts and officials said. The intended audience is disaffected youth, alienated from local mosques and searching for answers about the typical concerns of young people, as well as the conflicts in the Middle East.

Those imams often preach a brand of Islamic supremacy, the experts said, that justifies militant acts with extreme interpretations of the Quran.

They are careful not to suggest taking up arms, but will talk about the situation in Syria, Iraq or Gaza and then talk about a Muslim’s duties.

Their views are extreme, but rarely illegal. Radicalisation is heightened by views found on the Internet and social media, and in small lectures and workshops outside the mosque.

“You don’t go online looking for a pair of shoes to buy and suddenly end up becoming a jihadi,” said Mr Haras Rafiq, a former member of the government’s counterextremism task force now with the Quilliam Foundation, a research group that studies and tackles religious extremism.

A Cardiff mosque attracted attention in June when it was reported that three young men who joined Islamic State were regular attendees. The mosque, Al-Manar Centre, insists that the men were radicalised by information picked up on the Internet. But in March, the Home Office barred one of its preachers, Mr Sheikh Mohammed Al Arifi, a Saudi, from entering the country, calling him a “threat to society”. The mosque has also occasionally invited speakers from the Islamic Education and Research Academy, whose members have, in the past, said that gay men, apostates and Jews deserve to be killed.

Part of the problem is that not enough imams challenge extremist narratives that captivate vulnerable youth, said Mr Timothy Winter, dean of Cambridge Muslim College, which trains about 100 imams a year. The role of the government is limited, he added, because it lacks “the competence of the traditional scholars”, and not all who take part in deradicalisation efforts are linked to the government.

“You could compare it to exit counselling in cults,” said Mr Winter. “It can take weeks. It works, but it’s extraordinarily labour-intensive.”

Separately, Britain’s ambassador to the United States Peter Westmacott said in an interview on CNN on Sunday that investigators were close to identifying the young militant with a British accent who beheaded Mr Foley on a video released last week.

If Mr Foley’s killer is identified, it might give intelligence officials insight into the group’s kidnapping cell, which is still holding another American reporter, Mr Steven J Sotloff, and other hostages, and could lead to criminal charges. Speculation among terrorism experts and the British news media has focused on a number of militants known to have joined the Islamic State, particularly on 24-year-old London rapper Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary. AGENCIES

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