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Questions Rise on Why Some Muslim Converts are Prone to Extremism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Injured people are assisted after the attack on Westminster Bridge. (Reuters)

London – Whether it is “Azzam the American,” a top al-Qaeda leader killed by a drone attack on Pakistani-Afghan borders in 2016, Shoe Bomber Richard Reid, who is serving a life sentence, or Khalid Masood, who staged last Wednesday’s London parliament attack, reasons behind new Muslim converts being hard-wired to extremism remain unknown.

Questions have started to grow in Europe on whether recent converts to Islam are more likely to feed into extremist ideology rather than those initially brought up as Muslims.

It goes without saying that the vast majority of converts to Islam remain respectful and law-abiding citizens–but it cannot be overlooked that for some, the experience of recent conversion in and of itself could be linked to their extremist tendencies.

Adam Yahiye Gadahn, who later came to be known as al-Qaeda’s “Azzam the American”, is considered to be the first ever American facing charges of treason since the end of World War II.

Gadahn previously was wanted in 2004 by the United States’ FBI for interrogation on cases related to terrorism.

The FBI said that Gadahn was being pursued for possible ties to terrorism threatening the US, however it did not have evidence linking him directly to specific terrorist activities.

On the other hand, born Adrian Russell Ajao in Kent to the south-east of London on Christmas Day in 1964, Khalid Masood moved though several addresses in England, although he was known to have lived recently in Birmingham in central England.

Masood –before having ploughed five pedestrians in the worst attack since Britain’s 2005 bombings — was seen as a moderate criminal threat by intelligence officers.

His name showed up on the sidelines of previous terror investigations, which drew the attention of British intelligence.

But Masood, a British-born teacher who recently converted to Islam, was not under investigation when he stormed through the Westminster Bridge with his rented car.

Counterterrorism experts said that new converts to Islam who became extremists have been in maximum security prisons, such as Britain’s Belmarsh.

At 52, Masood may have been older than the average home-grown terrorist, but sources have indicated that — like many others — he may have been radicalized by extremists he met in prison.

Masood had come to the notice of MI5 and Scotland Yard’ Special Branch in the past for associating with known extremists, but, security officials insist, he had not been involved in plotting terrorist acts.

Known by a number of aliases, he clocked up convictions for assaults, including grievous bodily harm, possession of offensive weapons and violations of public order, but he had not committed a felony in 14 years. His last conviction was in December 2003, when he was 39, for the possession of a knife. It is possible, though, that when the security services reexamine the man, who was only noticed on the periphery of extremism, they may find a trajectory becoming increasingly common among the ranks of Europe’s petty criminals-turned-extremists.

Asked about his possible conversion to Islam and subsequent radicalization, Britain’s most senior counterterror police officer Mark Rowley said that “clearly that’s the main line of our investigation, is what led him to be radicalized, was it through influences in a community, influences from overseas, or through online propaganda.”

“Our working assumption is that he was inspired by international terrorism,” he added.

Rowley said detectives were questioning nine people in custody, having made two further “significant” arrests in central and north-west England.

A former neighbor from Birmingham said: “When I saw the pictures on TV and in the papers of the man who carried out the attack, I recognized him as the man who used to live next door.”

“He had a young child, who I’d think was about 5 or 6 years old. There was a woman living there with him, an Asian woman. He seemed to be quite nice, he would be taking care of his garden and the weeds,” Iwona Romek, 45, told reporters at her home.

In December, she said, he suddenly moved out.