From Croydon to Camp X-Ray: a militant's story

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The Independent Online

As he languishes in his makeshift cell in Guantanamo Bay, Feroz Abbasi can at least reflect that he has achieved one of his goals.

As a boy, he told friends he wanted to be famous as the first black British astronaut. Instead, the 22-year-old has earned global notoriety by being among the prisoners plucked from the battlefields of Afghanistan and taken shackled and hooded to the controversial Cuban camp.

Mr Abbasi is one of the men labelled by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, as a "hard-core terrorist".

The question remains, for his family and few friends, how this once talented and self-effacing boy could have ended up among the ranks of the Taliban, far from his comfortable suburban home in Croydon, south London. All the indicators point to an awkward period in young adulthood, from which he emerged at ease with himself but in conflict with many of his former acquaintances.

Friends said that within six months of dropping out of full-time education in 1999, Mr Abbasi had embraced Islam and supported the violent actions of its most hardline elements.

Within two years, after mixing with radicals at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, he was on the Afghan front line. But his role there remains unclear.

The American authorities have given sketchy details to Geraint Davies, Mr Abbasi's MP, telling him that he is physically fine. But they have said Mr Abbasi, who has been given no legal representation, may be subject to the death penalty.

James Inhofe, the Republican senator for Oklahoma, said yesterday: "Many of them [the al-Qa'ida and Taliban fighters] will likely be sent home." He did not say whether repatriation would be on condition that the inmates be put on trial in their home countries.

Mr Abbasi, born to Muslim parents in Uganda, moved to Britain with his mother, Juma, and went to Edenham High School in Croydon, where he achieved impressive exam results but created few waves. "He didn't really say much," said a former classmate, Jeremy Bennett, aged 22. "All that you could say about him was that he was a good sprinter and wanted to be an astronaut. I never saw him lose his cool."

He moved on to John Ruskin college in Croydon to do A­levels, then to a computer course at a college in Epsom, where he became disenchanted with his studies.

His mother has said a turning point in his life was when he was robbed in Switzerland while touring Europe to consider his options. The trauma apparently persuaded him to turn to Islam after being approached in the street by a Kashmiri refugee. Two days after he returned from his trip he told his mother he was dropping out of his course.

He is believed to have gone to Croydon mosque, where the Imam, Qasim Ahmad, recalls him as a knowledgeable follower of Islam and waived his obligation to attend classes.

But Mr Abbasi, described by acquaintances as thoughtful and reflective, soon became disillusioned with Croydon mosque and turned towards Britain's best-known Islamic militant, Abu Hamza, who dominates the Finsbury Park mosque. By January 2000, Mr Abbasi told his friends he was working there in security. He is believed to have been filmed by Special Branch officers.

One friend, who met Mr Abbasi by chance in Croydon, said: "He had read around the area and had quite a good idea about Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It [Islam] had had a profound effect on his life and how he felt. He felt more at ease with the world. He seemed quite keen, being good friends, to tell me about it, so we went for a walk. He seemed quite keen and thought it was the right thing to do, not just for him but for me as well."

They talked about the hijacking by Islamic fundamentalists of an Indian Airbus, which had just come to an end in Afghanistan. One hostage had been stabbed and other passengers were forced to watch him bleed to death. The friend recalled: "The hijacking came up and he mentioned that, in theory, in the name of Allah and in the teachings of the Koran, killing was perfectly acceptable. He gave me no indication he would be actually doing anything at all along those lines." As the pair parted, Mr Abbasi gave him a set of books on the teachings of Islam. The friend returned them after a week and they lost contact soon afterwards.

Mr Abbasi reportedly travelled to Pakistan around this time. His mother reported last seeing him in December 2000, when he returned home to pick up a pair of boots and said he wanted to travel to Afghanistan. Nothing more was heard of him until he was picked up last month at Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan.