In the winter of 2002, nine months before Hanif Qadir unpacked his bag at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, a group of men walked into the London MOT testing centre he owned with his brothers. They were collecting money for civilians caught up in the US invasion of Afghanistan; hundreds of children had been orphaned by indiscriminate bombing, the men claimed. Could he help? The appeal resonated with Qadir, who had lost his father when he was seven. He made a donation.
The men returned regularly. Each time, they asked for more money, before gradually changing the subject to Qadir’s faith. Eventually they invited him to a meeting at a local house to discuss the war in Afghanistan more freely. “I felt they were sincere and genuine,” Qadir recalls. At the meeting, the men encouraged Qadir to visit websites that claimed to show photographic evidence of violence against Afghan civilians by western troops.
Qadir browsed hundreds of distressing images, among them scores of orphans, each accompanied by extended captions that described the way in which the child’s family had been killed. One girl’s story has remained with him. The website claimed she had lost 21 members of her family to a “stray” US missile. The caption explained it had taken locals three days to scrape their remains from the walls of the girl’s home. The more he saw, the closer Qadir became to the men who were, unbeknown to him, recruiters for al-Qaida.
Qadir grew up in Thornaby-on-Tees, a small town in North Yorkshire. After his father died, he had disengaged from school, leaving at 14 and moving to London. After a few odd jobs, he founded a business with his brothers, buying, repairing and selling cars. By the early 2000s, the business was profitable enough that he was able to donate generously to charitable community causes, a reputation that, he believes, led the recruiters to his door.
The suggestion that Qadir travel to Afghanistan was seeded gently. “When a person is radicalised they become suggestible,” he tells me. “We discussed that, in order to prevent more loss of life, we needed to be prepared to fight.” On 2 December 2002, he flew to Islamabad in Pakistan. A few days later, he crossed the border into Afghanistan.
Soon after he arrived at a training camp, Qadir saw a man measuring up children who lived there. “I thought they were being tailored for new clothes,” he recalls. Then he heard one of the leaders telling the children they would soon be reunited with their dead parents. They were being fitted for suicide vests. “I felt sick and angry,” he says. “I wanted to walk away.”
But in the middle of a desert compound patrolled by armed guards, any attempt to defect could be fatal. Qadir was trapped. “I knew that if I asked to leave things would end badly.” He had to think carefully.
In 2002, when…