Britain's teachers of terror: How extremists infiltrated classrooms
Authorities failed to prevent members of banned group from extending their influence over children
Twenty-four hours after Khuram Butt led his last Quranic class for the young children of an English Islamic school in June 2017, he strapped on a fake suicide vest, pumped himself up with steroids and committed a terrorist atrocity.
The dedicated extremist led three men in a murderous attack on the capital’s London Bridge, mowing down pedestrians and embarking on a frenzy of stabbing that left eight dead and dozens injured before they themselves were shot dead by police.
What was not known at the time was that for four months before the attack, the 27-year-old had been given the opportunity to mould the minds of young Muslims at the fee-paying Eton community school on the outskirts of London. He had no Arabic, no specialist knowledge and was unsupervised despite a conviction for violence.
The fallout from the murders and the scandal of the unsupervised sessions concluded this month with the school’s head receiving a life ban from teaching. But documents seen and interviews conducted by The National have revealed flaws within the British schooling system that allowed extremism like Butt’s to flourish unchecked.
Even before the revelation of his involvement in lessons, the school had remained open despite its founder being exposed in the media as a key player for the now banned extremist group Al Muhajiroun.
His wife was the school's former head teacher but she had tried to hide their relationship from the authorities. Sophie Rahman described laws that ensured schools play their part in identifying potential extremism as an attempt to "silence" Muslims speaking out against "state structured discrimination".
And yet just months before the school was effectively closed by its landlord – a Muslim charity dedicated to countering radicalisation – officers for the English education inspection agency, Ofsted, found the school’s leaders had taken effective action to ensure a "far more robust" safeguarding culture in the school.
"Either the inspectors are not up to the job, they don’t ask the right questions or … they’re not probing deeply enough,” said Mike Gapes, the local member of parliament, who had previously raised concerns about the school in the House of Commons. "It's either that, or they're having the wool pulled over their eyes by a school who created a facade while the really extremist stuff was happening behind."
The case follows another scandal earlier this year when it emerged that an administrator tried to recruit a 300-strong children’s army at a different independent Muslim school to act as a “death squad sent by Allah” and carry out terrorist attacks. Inspectors had once described the school as “outstanding”, despite such activity being at its height.
The cases have exposed the failings of an inspection regime that has been subject to constant financial cuts over more than a decade, resulted in a shortage of monitors and cut the quality of their work, the UK’s spending watchdog said in May.
In the case involving Butt, the school in Ilford, Essex – initially named Ad-Deen Islamic Primary School – opened in September 2009, charging £2,040-a-year to provide “very high quality academic education alongside classical Islamic culturing,” according to the establishment's website.
The school’s social media sites showed pictures of happy children making and selling cakes, collecting money for people suffering in Syria, and painting. The reality behind the pictures told a different story.
Its proprietor and main shareholder, Sajeel Shahid, set up a terrorist training camp in Pakistan that was attended by the leader of the July 7, 2005, attacks on the London transport network that killed 52 people.
Mr Shahid was reportedly sent from Britain by the leaders of Al Muhajiroun to become a key figure in Pakistan – a country seen by the group as being ripe for Islamic revolution – and where extremists were sent to train before returning to Britain to plot bombings.
Mr Shahid, who holds a computer science degree from Manchester, ran the group’s safehouses in Lahore. In one interview in 2001, he told a newspaper: “We see the American and British governments as the biggest terrorists in the world.”
Mr Shahid was named in a 2007 court case as a contact for the kingpin of a plot to target shopping centres and nightclubs in Britain with home-made bombs mad from fertiliser. Five men were jailed in 2007, but Mr Shahid was not prosecuted. He was detained for several months in Pakistan in 2005, according to reports, and expelled over alleged links to Al Qaeda.
Despite his background, Mr Shahid was able to rent space from a community centre in Ilford, on the eastern edge of the British capital, and start running a primary school in an area with a majority south Asian population and known for its links to Al Muhajiroun.
Anjem Choudhary, a hate preacher and key figure in the development of Al Muhajiroun, lived just three streets away before he was jailed in 2015 for inviting support for ISIS.
The group's co-founder Omar Bakri Mohammed, a Syrian-born extremist who moved to Britain in the 1980s, preached at the community centre before he was thrown out – and subsequently banned from entering Britain in 2005.
“He [Bakri] used this place for his talks,” said Bashir Chaudhary, the chairman of the League of British Muslims UK that runs the centre. “He said something that was inappropriate for Islamic teaching. I stood up and his followers shouted me down. Eventually we had to throw him out.”
The group secured notoriety when it tried to organise a conference after the September 11, 2001 attacks dedicated to the “Magnificent 19” plotters responsible for bringing down the World Trade Center in New York. Al Muhajiroun’s followers have been linked to a series of terrorist attacks in Britain and abroad and the groups leaders’ have been cited as inspirations for British fighters who travelled to Syria to join the ranks of ISIS.
Company documents showed that Mr Shahid, 42, set up an education business two years after the school opened in 2009, attended by some 50 children aged three to 11. Mr Shahid – known as Abu Ibrahim – led Friday prayers at the community centre, said Mr Chaudhary.
The Dutch national quit as director in March 2014, several weeks before a British newspaper exposed his extremist background.
His position as director and proprietor was taken by Sophie Rahman, 42, according to company filings, his wife and the mother of his children.
Despite an “urgent” investigation by the Department for Education (DfE), the school was allowed to continue operating. Officials declined to say if they were aware of the relationship between the couple, or if it took steps to remove Mr Shahid as proprietor.
Documents suggest that the authorities were told that Mr Shahid was a member of Al Muhajiroun before it was proscribed by the government when he claimed to have given up his membership.
After he stepped down as a director and proprietor of the school, he still played an active role in its daily affairs and was responsible for paying the rent, according to Mr Chaudhary.
“I thought his [Mr Shahid’s] objective was to open a school and make money,” Mr Chaudhary told The National. “He was getting good money. How he wanted to use that money is another story.
“I later had contact with the security agencies and they told me that he was never convicted, but they had suspicions. The checks should have been made by the appropriate regulators. They were the ones to have done that.”
Inspectors branded the school “inadequate” under Ms Rahman’s leadership in 2016 but none of the parents complained, according to former councillor Ahmad Shakil Warraich, who went to the community centre every Friday. “I knew everyone and people came to me if they had any concerns,” he said. “Nobody ever contacted me.”
Mr Shahid was also a manager at an Ilford gym that had become a gathering point for extremists, and where he would have known Butt. The three London Bridge terrorists met there before they launched their deadly attack.
In submissions to her disciplinary hearing, Ms Rahman claimed that Butt approached the school and volunteered to run Quranic classes. She denied that her husband had referred him but never appeared at her own hearing to be questioned further on the claim.
Butt taught up to three classes a week in the months before the attack. Pupils reported him as saying that the “worst creatures are the kuffar”, a reference to non-believers, and told the children that it was fine to lie to their parents if there was a “state of war”.
She alerted education authorities following the attack on June 3 that Butt worked at her school, but took 41 days before giving a final list of all the children who attended his classes, her disciplinary hearing was told.
She also failed to tell authorities about her marriage to Mr Shahid, the hearing was told, and first suggested that she only knew him from the school.
The school closed its doors for the last time in August last year, its fate sealed before Ms Rahman was struck off because Mr Chaudhary decided to evict the school from the community centre. It still owed rent, he said.
That it took a major terrorist attack to reveal the school’s inner workings pointed to the failure of repeated inspections at the school, said experts.
The warning signs were there and officials in 2015 had warned that Britain's education ministry had to be “more vigilant, more inquisitive and have more robust systems in place” to root out school-based extremism.
“We should be mindful that those who inspect our schools must be as savvy as those who seek to abuse those schools to indoctrinate young minds with extremist ideas,” said Emma Webb, who has investigated extremism in schools for the Henry Jackson Society think tank.
“We need to be able to prevent these individuals from accessing young impressionable minds in the first place. If we fail, we will lose a generation to hatred and intolerance.”
The government is consulting on changes to the school inspection regime to make it easier to carry out due diligence checks on those seeking to run schools. It currently carries out identity and criminal record checks and ensures the proprietor is not subject to a ban on working in schools.
"If we're going to have a joined-up counter-extremist strategy, we need someone in government to get a grip,” said Mr Gapes, the MP. "Just because this happened in a school in my constituency doesn’t mean it’s not isolated. There’s a wider issue.”
Ofsted said that it had identified failures in the school’s safeguarding in 2016 before improvements were made. But it said, in a statement, that it believed more checks should be made on proprietors of independent schools before they were set up. The responsibility for those background checks was with the UK’s education ministry, it said.
A ministry spokesman said it had recently strengthened its policies and would carry out more detailed checks on individuals involved in setting up new schools. “No school will be given permission to open if we are not given sufficient assurances that it will provide a suitable education to its pupils,” it said.
Ms Rahman has temporarily moved out of her home in Woodford, east London, and is not expected to return for more than a month, neighbours said. A man they identified as Mr Shahid collected some items from the house a day before The National called. Calls and emails to her last known addresses were not returned.
The resident at Mr Shahid’s last registered address said that police had asked him to pass on any mail sent in his name to the property. He said Mr Shahid had moved on some three years ago and his current whereabouts were unknown.
“They are gone but we face the music,” said Mr Chaudhary. “We’re still haunted.”
Additional reporting by Spencer Caminsky
Updated: July 29, 2018 01:37 PM