At the height of his influence, Hanif Qadir was at the vanguard of the UK’s counter-radicalisation programme working with some of the country’s most dangerous extremists. Fifteen years on, he’s been dumped by government and his charity faces eviction.
Mr Qadir, a former Al Qaeda sympathiser who travelled to Afghanistan, was seeking to expand his work with government in April 2016 when funding was cut off for the charity he set up to help vulnerable youngsters in east London.
Before then, Mr Qadir and his organisation worked directly with suspected extremists to argue against the violent ideologies of Al Qaeda and ISIS, with an income of more than £900,000 in 2015-16, according to its annual accounts.
They counselled a youngster with links to an Al Qaeda-directed plot to bomb airlines in 2006 that was conceived and developed within the deprived east London community of Waltham Forest where the charity is based. The organisation briefly ran a government-funded hotline and raised the alarm about a group of schoolgirls who planned to join ISIS in Syria, he told The National in an interview.
Mr Qadir claims that his work engaging with some of the most radical influencers within British society was considered too “risky”. Other sources indicate a breakdown of trust over a funding issue. Officials and analysts also said the decision to cut his funding followed a change of government strategy.
But the impact for Mr Qadir’s charity, the Active Change Foundation, (ACF) has been devastating. Community centres used by troubled youths have closed, his work channelling potential terrorists from radical ideologies halted, and unpaid rent means the charity could soon be wound down.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Mr Qadir. “We were the most successful in the country at this work.”
The demise of an organisation once feted by police and government, raises questions about the effectiveness of the government’s controversial Prevent programme, set up following a series of devastating attacks on the London transport network in 2005 that left 52 people dead.
The government claims Prevent has been instrumental in changing attitudes and stopping youngsters from joining the ranks of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But elements within the British Muslim community have branded the programme a state-sponsored and discriminatory spying operation. Even its backers have called for more independent scrutiny to ensure it is achieving its goals of making Britain safer from terrorist attack.
For more than a decade, Mr Qadir was a high-profile figure within the programme after he returning from a seven-day visit to Afghanistan after being wooed by extremist fund-raisers in the UK. He said he left disillusioned after witnessing orphaned children being brainwashed into fighting.
“These people were responsible for putting kids into suicide vests,” he said. “These kids were smiling because they were going to paradise and would see their parents again.”
He sold his car testing business in the UK and ploughed his finances into creating ACF in 2003 in one of the UK’s most ethnically diverse communities. Mr Qadir’s group first received government funding in 2007 following the airline bomb plot.
Mr Qadir said that his organisation was at the cutting edge of de-radicalisation work, running outreach patrols to speak to youngsters on the streets and combating ISIS online propaganda. They dovetailed their work with projects trying to remove youngsters from violent gang culture.
Mr Qadir claims that his funding was cut after his involvement with the family of Jack Letts – dubbed “Jihadi Jack” by the British media – who travelled to Syria to join ISIS. His parents sought Mr Qadir’s help in securing his return to the UK.
They communicated through Facebook and “he went from calling me kafir and non-believer to saying that I had made him understand the people he met there had a completely different belief system to what he thought,” said Mr Qadir.
Mr Qadir said he clashed with government after the parents allegedly wired money to their son against his advice. The parents are currently awaiting trial charged with funding terrorism.
Mr Qadir said the episode, plus his involvement in another complex case involving a suspected extremist, were among the reasons for losing his grants. “I was told that ‘you’re too risky’,” said Mr Qadir. “My argument was, isn’t our work risky?
“Our success was our downfall. We were champions of Prevent for 15 years - but this is a very cutthroat industry.”
A source close to the Home Office said the cut in funding followed a shift in strategy from engaging directly with the most dangerous extremist influencers to a broader programme of education. “There is bitterness because he was chewed up and spat out,” the source said. “But it was just a change of strategy, no particular incident stands out.”
The Home Office declined to comment on its reasons for ending funding but said that it was continually looking to broaden its anti-extremism projects. It said 44 per cent of 169 funded community-based projects in 2016/17 were delivered in schools “aimed at increasing young people’s resilience to terrorist and extremist ideologies”.
Dr Julian Hargreaves, a research fellow at the Woolf Centre in Cambridge, said that the UK’s Home Office, which is responsible for counter-extremist tactics, needed to find ways of engaging with groups whose views did not chime with official government policy. “Under the new framework of counter extremism, I think he [Qadir] found himself as a bit of an outsider,” he said.
Mr Qadir was in talks with his landlord last week to try to stave off immediate closure. An online appeal launched last week seeking £200,000 to keep the charity going has raised a £15 from a solitary donor.
“ACF are cutting edge and a bit maverick. They knew what worked and they got results – perhaps the government don’t quite like that approach any more,” said Ian Larnder, a former senior officer in the national unit responsible for developing the police Prevent strategy.
“The difficulty is measuring success. I don’t believe that the policy has shifted that much to make ACF work outdated. They need that focus and that direct work more than ever. It’s very sad.”