Usman Raja deradicalizes released prisoners in the shadow of London's Olympic stadium
The area is sometimes called Londonistan as the radicals' message often finds a receptive home
Many convicted of terror plots in the years after 9/11 are now free
Veteran cagefighter Usman Raja has so far worked to deradicalize 10 convicted terrorists after they completed their prison terms in the UK.
His work combines teaching Mixed Martial Arts skills and a humanistic and tolerant interpretation of Islam that traces its roots back to the Prophet Mohammed.
His success has been noted by British officials who are trying to work out if it can be replicated on a larger scale.
Here are some of his cases:
Abu Bakr Mansha, a British-Pakistani, who is now 28, was in 2005 convicted of terrorism in what prosecutors alleged was a thwarted plot he embarked on that year to track down and kill or severely harm a British soldier who had returned from Iraq. He had pleaded not guilty to a charge of possessing information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.
Mansha was released in 2009 under strict conditions but recalled to prison several months later because he was assessed as still dangerous. After he was again released in March 2011, he entrusted himself to Raja, under whose mentorship he appears to have shed his radical views.
Mansha’s police mug shot was used in British newspaper stories warning of a threat from released terrorist convicts to the Olympic Games. He says he now wants to stop other young Muslims from repeating his mistakes. “I learned the hard way,” he told CNN.
Raja said his first terrorist case was Yassin Nassari, now 33, a British-Syrian resident of London, who was arrested by police after he landed in Luton airport in 2006 after a trip overseas. Police say they found instructions on how to make a viable rocket on his hard-drive, and at his home violent videos of terrorist attacks and beheadings. The following year Nassari was found guilty of possessing information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.
According to Raja, when he was released in 2008, Nassari was very reluctant to work with Muslim community groups enlisted by probation services to rehabilitate offenders. But Nassari heard about Raja through friends who had trained with him in mixed martial arts and agreed to meet him. In the early summer of 2009 they met in a probation office in London and from there Nassari wanted to work with Raja.
He said Nassari was interested in getting mixed martial arts training, and the instruction he gave him in cage fighting allowed him to build up a mentoring relationship.
The two had wide-ranging discussions about Islam, during which time Raja was able to impress upon Nassari his humanistic approach to the religion. “What I think he recognized was our sincerity - that we were doing this for the infinite good,” Raja told CNN. The former convict is now working at a charity providing a support structure for Muslims convicted of criminal offenses after their release from prison, according to Raja.
Raja described how another one of his early success stories was Andrew Rowe, a radicalized British-Jamaican convert who was 34 when convicted in 2005 of terrorism offenses after instructions on how to fire mortars, a coded list of methods of attack, possible targets, and traces of explosive were found on his possessions.
Rowe had travelled to several Jihadist fronts, including Bosnia, Chechnya, Pakistan and Afghanistan and was described as “a global terrorist [who] has been trained and knows how to use extreme violence,” by a senior British counter-terrorism official.
Raja says Rowe began training on mixed martial arts whilst in prison. On his release Raja provided him with further martial arts instruction, which helped him forge a mentoring relationship. Raja said Rowe was already looking to improve his religious understanding, making him open to Raja’s message.
Raja has also worked with two men convicted of terrorism offenses in relation to the failed July 21, 2005 bombing attack on London, a man convicted of a terrorist arson attack, as well as several other former terrorist convicts. He is set to take on several more released terrorist convicts in the coming months.
CNN’s Ken Shiffman contributed to this report