'I envy those boys who died. I would love to be in their shoes, so I pray to Allah for courage'

War on Terrorism: British Muslims
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The Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, threatened British Muslims with legal action yesterday if they returned alive from fighting alongside the Taliban regime against the American-led coalition in Afghanistan.

In response to reports of the deaths of four Britons said to have joined Taliban ranks, Mr Hoon said he hoped any disaffected Muslims would think "very carefully about the consequences, both to them and their families, in terms of the grief they may suffer", before deciding to go to Afghanistan. He did not specify what legal action could follow.

The Government's warnings followed claims from extreme Islamic groups that hundreds of British Muslims were prepared to travel abroad to fight American forces.

But in Luton yesterday, where three of the four dead men lived, there appeared to be little sign of mass recruitment to the Taliban cause, and senior figures in the Asian community were openly scornful of attempts by extremists to recruit young Muslims.

Luton has been a bell-wether of Muslim opinion with some extremist groups claiming that its young men were willing to fight and die in a jihad, or holy war, against the West. Its close proximity to the capital and its 30,000-strong Muslim population has meant that Islamic leaders based in London have been able to travel into the town to try to recruit more members.

Even as the Taliban were saying that they did not require outside help, one group, al-Muhajiroun, set up a stall in the town centre yesterday and claimed that every Muslim was obliged to fight to defend their fellow Muslims.

Chanting praises of Allah beneath placards that read "Islam will dominate the world", the group's members said they envied four Britons who died fighting for the Taliban. These young men are said by some to be just the tip of a mass of volunteers from the UK rushing to take up arms against the Allies.

The group, which is controlled by a hardcore of only six committed activists, had claimed that hundreds of young British Muslims were heading to Afghanistan, in an equivalent of the International Brigade of the Spanish Civil War.

Muslim leaders, who have monitored growing unease among British Muslims as the attacks on Afghanistan have continued, were not surprised by the news of the deaths.

Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said the desire of some young British Muslims to fight against the Allied forces was not necessarily a sign of their support for the wider views and policies of the Taliban.

He said: "They are going to fight out of a sense of iniquity of a situation where the most powerful state in the world is bombing a nation like Afghanistan. We are doing our best to discourage them. We are encouraging them to write to their MPs and their local newspapers [instead]. We tell them many non-Muslims are also opposed to the bombing."

But growing evidence was emerging yesterday of the presence near the Afghan borders of significant numbers of British Muslims seeking to join Taliban forces.

One British Muslim in Pakistan said he had helped train and smuggle more than 200 Britons into Afghanistan to fight against the West. Abdul Salam, 25, who grew up in and around Brick Lane in east London, said: "Hundreds of them come over from Britain to Pakistan and Afghanistan. What we do is we supply them with weapons, clothing, we feed them, we shelter them, we take them over to the border and we train them up."

One of those volunteers, a man who would give his name only as Abdullah, aged 21, from Dagenham, Essex, said: "I'm British, British-born, British-bred. I'm willing to kill British soldiers simply because of the fact they are engaged in a war that is against my brethren."

The leader of the Luton branch of Al-Muhajiroun, who wanted to be known as Shahed, said: "We are not recruiting anyone specifically for violence but we do recruit for jihad. There are three ways of waging jihad: physical, verbal and financial. It was the duty of every Muslim to choose one of these three. Which one they choose is up to them."

At an outdoor press conference in the Biscot district, which is 68 per cent Asian, Shahed described Tony Blair and President George Bush as "terrorists" who were killing innocent people in Afghanistan. But when asked by The Independent if any of them were prepared to fight, they expressed extreme reluctance.

Shahed, 28, said: "I would dearly love to but I have a wife to take care of." One of his comrades, Shajjadur Rahman, 23, a web designer, said: "I envy those boys who died. I would love to be in their shoes. I just don't have the bottle so I pray to Allah to give me courage."

The group's opponents say its activism in Luton – where it organises leaflet drops, poster campaigns and public meetings – is encouraged by a senior figure in the national organisation who started work at a computer company in the town three or four years ago. The group's opponents said that at best it had about 20 followers and was most popular with student activists. At least one of the dead men was a recent graduate.

Afzal Munir, 23, graduated last year from Luton University and got a job with a computer firm, friends said. He is believed to have been married and lived in a semi-detached home near the M1 with his father, mother, three sisters and 11-year-old twin brothers. He reportedly attended the group's meetings at the university. Neighbours said he had been brainwashed by extremists.

He lived close to another man who died in Afghanistan, Aftab Manzoor, 25, who is believed to have divided his time between Luton and Pakistan, where his stepmother and his own wife and young daughter lived. He made a mobile phone call to his father a few weeks ago revealing his plans.

At the family home yesterday, a small group of young men were warning off the media. One of them said they would "get the Taliban down here". A third man, Mohammad Umar, said to be the leader of the group and also from Luton, was also said to have died when the house in Kabul where they were meeting was bombed by the United States.

Luton was linked with fundamentalism two years ago when Ghulem Hussein, 28, from the town, was among eight Britons convicted in Yemen of a terrorist bomb plot.

Despite the tension on the streets yesterday, senior community figures were scornful of the influence of Al-Muhajiroun and Luton police said the group was one they were "not that worried about".

"They don't represent Islam. They don't represent Muslims. They are deliberately making inflammatory statements which just lead to more anti-Muslim feeling," said a spokesman at an Islamic educational charity's Call to Islam bookshop. "They have this reputation of 'academic jihad'. The hollower the drum, the louder the noise they make. If a person was interested in going to fight, they would just go and do it."