British police are investigating an imam for possible criminal offences after an alleged call to arms during a sermon at a mosque attended by a suicide bomber and his family.
Mustafa Graf’s sermon at Didsbury mosque in December 2016 included prayers for "mujahideen fighting in Syria and Iraq" and was described by one scholar as “practically brainwashing” young people into taking action.
The sermon was six months before the suicide bomb attack on the Manchester Arena that left 22 dead, according to the BBC which obtained an audio recording of the sermon. The attack was carried out by Salman Abedi, 22, who attended the mosque along with members of his family.
It was not known if Abedi attended the sermon in December 2016 but the broadcaster claimed that he bought his ticket ten days later for the concert by American pop star Ariana Grande.
Mr Graf was reported saying that “we ask Allah to grant them mujahideen – our brothers and sisters right now in Aleppo and Syria and Iraq – to grant them victory”.
The sermon, during the bombing of Aleppo, also castigated western countries for doing nothing. "The whole world, including Europe, America - what is the so-called civilised world - is watching what is happening in Aleppo and Syria.
"They know that Iran, Russia and the militias are killing humans in Syria and they do nothing.
"Well in fact they helped the Russians and the Iranians and others, the militias, to kill Muslims over there."
The BBC also aired footage that showed Abedi attending a demonstration in London against the military campaign by secular commander Khalifa Haftar in Libya. The protest was organised by a group headed by Mr Graf, and took place outside the former UAE embassy building, the broadcaster said.
One scholar consulted by the BBC, Shaykh Rehan, said that the imam was “giving them the narrative of them against us. He is psychologically and practically brainwashing young people into either travelling or to do something to take action.”
Mr Graf said on Friday that police had been in contact with senior officials at the mosque over the sermon but declined to comment further. A statement from the mosque authorities said that his comments about jihad and the mujahideen had been misinterpreted and there was no call for any military action.
“Didsbury mosque does not encourage anyone to go and fight in any military struggle,” it said. “We refute strongly any suggestion that there is a link or association between Imam Mustafa Graf’s sermon and the criminal actions of Salman Abedi, or his radicalisation.”
The social media profile of Mr Graf, who had been imam since 1995, retweets of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Doha-based Muslim Brotherhood leader, who is banned from the UK and US because of his record for hate speech.
Mr Graf told The National last year that he knew Abedi's father, who used to pray at the mosque and was a senior member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an Al Qaeda-linked organisation. He was also aware that the suicide bomber's brother used to study there.
He said he believed that Salman Abedi had “mental issues”. Mr Graf criticised the misuse of the term jihad, and claimed that he had challenged strict views within the community, a known haven for Islamist groups opposed to Muammar Qaddafi. He said that elements of the community were careful what they said to him.
“They always respected me but they left me in the corner,” he said. “I was not one of the people to talk about everything with. I kept my distance from some things in the Libyan community.”Mr Graf was among prominent Manchester Muslim leaders who condemned Abedi in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
More than a dozen young men who lived close to the Abedis had been killed or jailed because of their allegiance to ISIS, some of them attending the same mosque.
Mr Graf himself had been jailed by Qaddafi loyalists in 2011 after travelling to Libya out of concern for his parents. He was in prison when he heard Nato jets pounding Qaddafi troop positions. “Britain was a Nato founder member and in return he [Abedi] did that,” he said at the time. “It’s very, very sad.