A notorious Saudi cleric who preached at a mosque in Britain is accused of radicalizing three young British citizens fighting in Syria, UK newspaper The Daily Mail reported on Sunday.
Mohammad al-Arifi, who is banned in Switzerland for his extremist views, spoke at the al-Manar Center in the city of Cardiff.
The trio – two brothers and a friend – had attended the mosque before leaving their homes to join the jihadist group The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria’s civil war.
Two of the trio, Cardiff school friends Nasser Muthana, and Reyaad Khan, both 20, last week appeared in an ISIS recruitment video entitled “There is no life without Jihad.”
Muthana, who spurned medical school in order to fulfill his ambition to become a jihadist, was later joined by his younger brother Aseel, 17 in Syria.
Their father, Yemen-born Ahmed Muthana, 57, claimed in an interview that his sons were ‘brainwashed’ after they began attending al-Manar.
A source close to the Yemeni community in Cardiff told the Mail: “These boys were groomed [at al-Manar] – obviously not to the stage to go, but so that they are satisfied that what they go to do is right. It all comes from the same school of thought. Fight the Shias, fight these people, fight those – that’s where it started.”
A 20-year-old who had known the Muthana brothers for many years told the newspaper that the al-Manar Center had a good reputation, but had brought in radical preachers to talk “on the sly.”
‘Just like any other guy’
Arifi spoke at the mosque in June 2012. A video and photograph posted online show excited worshippers flocking around him, according to the newspaper.
“Nasser Muthana was just like any other guy – I was shocked to see him in the video,” said mosque trustee Barak Albayaty.
“But I am sure [this mosque] is not the source of radicalism. We’re against going to Syria for the armed struggle and have spelled this out on many occasions.
Elders of the al-Manar Center, which claims on its website that in addition to serving Cardiff’s 11,000-strong Muslim community, “also plays a humble role in introducing the non-Muslim population of Britain to the religion of Islam,” are due to meet this week to discuss the issue, the Mail reported.
Arifi is often known for making controversial statements and fatwas in the past – one ruling being a call for daughters not to wear revealing clothes in the presence of their fathers.
And though he has many followers in Saudi Arabia and across the region, Arifi’s controversial views and fatwas are often the source of ridicule of many Saudis, including other clerics, newspaper columnists and social media users.
In December 2012, Arifi urged parents to prevent their kids from watching MBC3, a sister channel of Al Arabiya TV, because he described its content (which is mostly cartoons) as a way to promote “atheism and corruption.”
MBC3 issued a statement describing Arifi’s Twitter post as “tendentious and far from reality altogether,” saying that the sheikh should seek psychiatric help.
Among those who criticized him and other preachers are TV host Dawood al-Shirian on Al Arabiya’s sister channel MBC Al-Shirian interviewed the mother of a Saudi teen who had gone to fight in Syria.
In response to Shirian’s remarks, who slammed clerics for using social media to incite Saudi youth into jihadist activities, Arifi claimed that the interview had been set up, adding that the Saudi society is not “naive” enough to be “deceived” by attempts to taint the image of Muslim preachers.
Sheikh Arifi has long urged Muslim youth to travel for Jihad in Syria, while he would himself spend his summer break in Europe to escape from the scorching summer heat in Saudi Arabia.
In June 2013, he appeared in a video giving a Friday sermon in Cairo, urging “heroic” Egyptians to “get up and help their brothers in Syria.”
In the video, he said he met with jihadists from Syria and religious clerics. “After the meeting, the clerics declared jihad as mandatory in Syria,” he said.
On his Facebook account, which has 11 million “likes,” Arfifi previously showed support for Jihadists in Syria. In one post, he said: “May Allah support the Mujahideen of the Levant.”
In another, he said that God will help the “Mujahdeen of the Levant prevail.”