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British Muslim students in Syria support suicide raids

British Muslim students in Syria support suicide raids

Author: Damien Mcelroy in Damascus
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: May 11, 2003
URL: http://www.portal.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=%2Fnews%2F2003%2F05%2F11%2Fwsuic11.xml

British muslims studying at a radical Islamic teaching centre in Syria have admitted that they support suicide attacks against Israeli targets.

Two men, who gave their names as Amir Aziz and Tahir Sharaf, told The Telegraph that they admired the action taken by Asif Mohammed Hanif, the Briton who blew himself up in a Tel Aviv bar almost two weeks ago, and his alleged accomplice, Omar Khan Sharif.

"What [Hanif] did was right," said Aziz, in a thick Birmingham accent. "The Muslim people are under jihad - they have an obligation to carry out martyrdom operations against the state of Israel. The Jews have occupied our lands and killed our people." Aziz, 25, and Sharaf, 23, both from Birmingham, spoke last week after I met them outside the Ommayad mosque in central Damascus. They said they were part of a group of 20 British students, from the Midlands and the South, studying together in the Syrian capital.

Aziz said he had been in Damascus since May last year and Sharaf since the start of the year. Although both Britons have thick beards and wear white skullcaps, they stood out from locals because of their well-pressed shirts, creased chinos and accents.

Although they claimed that they had not rejected their home country, they were angry about the British Government's decision to invade Iraq. "I know people who went to Iraq to fight off the aggression," said Sharaf. "I support them because Iraq is a Muslim country that is being violated by America and Britain."

The two proved evasive when asked about their plans or whether they had visited the offices of militant groups such as Hamas. Sharaf admitted to having known Hanif, however. "He was a good boy," he said. "He used a British passport. Smart. Done well."

Obtaining details of their life in Damascus became progressively harder. First they claimed that they were studying at Damascus university, the official seat of learning that Hanif attended. Then they claimed that they were studying privately. Aziz said his tutor would not permit a stranger to visit his flat and Sharaf gave a false telephone number.

Eventually, I tracked both down to the Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro Foundation, an Islamic teaching college named after the Grand Mufti of Damascus. After assembling for Friday prayers, Aziz and Sharaf had clearly been told they had been wrong to speak to a journalist.

Aziz said he could no longer discuss his views and referred me to the leader of the British students, a man called Rafiq. Rafiq claimed to be an African and warned other students not to speak to outsiders.

The administrator of their course, Mohammed Sharif al- Sawaf, admitted that his British students were generally more radical that most foreign students but he defended their views. He said: "America and Britain are attempting to create a new world order by annihilating our God, but they will not be successful."

He praised students who wanted to carry out attacks on Israel. "Do not call these people suicide bombers," he proclaimed. "Suicide is a negative action, whereas martyrdom is a glorious fulfilment of the requirements of Allah.

"They are defending themselves against an enemy who kicked them out of their house, killed their children and exploded their dreams. Arabs have tried every means possible to get Israel out of Palestine but they will not go. This is the only option we have left."

The revelation of the British would-be terrorists will embarrass Syria, which is under pressure from American and Britain to stop harbouring such people. Foreign diplomats in Damascus estimate that there are dozens of British students taking Islamic studies.

One Western diplomat said: "There's no doubt that British students coming here with the right connections are being absorbed into terrorist organisations and sent on operations against Israel that are planned and directed from Syria."

Aziz and Sharaf could face charges if they return to Britain; both appear to have contravened the Terrorism Act 2000, which makes it an offence to "support or incite" terrorism overseas, with a penalty of up to 10 years.

Tom Watson, the Labour MP for West Bromwich East and a member of the Home Affairs select committee, said yesterday: "Hopefully the security services will have these two in their sights. If they are really saying that they want to commit terrorist offences, they are committing crimes and the full force of the law should be brought down on them."

A Home Office spokesman said: "We are constantly keeping organisations and individuals under review."

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