Members of the British fundamentalist community have already been recruited by al Qaeda, serving as cogs within the terrorist cell. Britain’s laws regarding terrorists are notoriously weak, as the country often charges known extremists with lesser crimes in order to preserve intelligence. Reduced charges lead to reduced sentencing, and prison often fails to make an impact on the lives of the young men involved.
“Unfortunately, we know that some of those prisoners are still committed extremists who are likely to return to their terrorist activities,” Jonathan Evans, the director of British domestic intelligence service MI5, said two years ago.
Muslim community groups within the country are overwhelmed with the task of re-integrating these young men into society, and addressing their extremist views. In turn, British officials have turned to one man, formal mixed-martial arts fighter Usman Raja, who has taken it upon himself as both a British and Muslim man to help rehabilitate young Muslim extremists.
Raja, 34, began this undertaking three years ago, believing that he could help train the young men by offering them a physical outlet as well as a role-model. Men convicted of committing murders, assassinations, bombings and arson plots were brought to Raja, who would coach them in mixed-martial arts. He believes that forced confrontation can bring on new self-evaluation.
“Any idea you’ve got of yourself will be challenged as soon as you come in here,” Raja told CNN. “Once that idea of yourself is challenged and that opening happens we are able to go in and start dismantling that perception.”
Released fundamentalists are given the choice to meet and train with Raja in several gyms around London, including one in view of the Olympic park. However, his mentorship extends beyond the cage; Raja also extends his mentorship to Muslim men who are still serving their sentences.
“I try to unravel their Jihadist identity. Previously that identity was being validated. I say to them let’s question that validity,” Raja said.
“He’s the most successful guy out there doing this sort of work,” said a UK Home Office official, aware of Raja’s work but who chose to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of his cases. “He has that ability to inspire; that personality X-factor.”
Raja’s success rate currently sits at 100 percent, with British officials continuing to funnel more cases his way. He believes it is the result of his own humble London background, as well as the respect he has earned as a fighter.
“The reason they haven’t slipped back is because of the legitimacy of the message,” Raja said. “You can’t argue if you say through my teacher we have a lineage going all the way through Islam back to Prophet Mohammed.”