Exclusive look inside a gym deradicalizing terror convicts with cage-fighting lessons
Cage-fighting sessions allow the instructor to question radical thinking
British officials are looking to see if the techniques could be adopted on a large scale
But the method -- with a 100% success rate -- is also very time consuming
In the shadow of London’s Olympic stadium, home of the Summer Games, is a hotbed of radical fundamentalism dubbed Londonistan, from where al Qaeda has already recruited for some of its most ambitious plots.
In past months, dozens of convicted terrorists have been released in the UK, including onto the same London streets. Seldom since 9/11 has al Qaeda, though weakened, had such an opportunity to create carnage on the global stage.
At the same time a no-holds barred fight for security is under way. It is unorthodox, but British officials say it is working, producing results which have never been seen before – and at its epicenter is a veteran Muslim cagefighter.
Over the last six months Usman Raja gave CNN exclusive access to his pioneering work; speaking for the first time about his work with former terrorists.
In the past two years more than 50 convicted terrorists have been released from British jails after serving their sentences, producing a major headache for British security services.
“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, warned two years ago.
The task of managing the re-integration into society of these young men has proved beyond the capabilities of most Muslim community groups. But one east Londoner, proud to be both British and Muslim, has felt religiously compelled to take on the fight.
Raja, the 34-year-old grandson of a Pakistani immigrant is not tall but he is built like an ox, with a close shaven head, short beard, and otherwise pure muscle. On his thumb he wears a ring with a curving metal spike, a legal form of self-protection, which he says is extra insurance if extremists try to physically confront him.
Raja is one of the UK’s most renowned cage-fighting coaches, having fought in arenas across the UK during the early gritty years of the now fast growing sport, also known as mixed-martial arts (MMA).
He is also a man of deep ideas, including harnessing Islamic teaching to defeat the ideology of the terrorists.
Three years ago, Raja began taking under his wing some of the most dangerous offenders being released from the highest security wings of the British prison system; men convicted of carrying out terrorism on behalf of al Qaeda in murder, assassinations, bombing, and arson plots.
His aim was to rehabilitate them into mainstream society.
Last year pictures of several of the men appeared in full page splashes in British newspapers warning of the threat posed by released terrorists to the Olympics. “Games Fear Over Evil Fanatics” declared one headline.
The release of dozens of convicted terrorists was reflective of lower sentences under British law for a range of terrorist offenses, compared to the United States and some other countries.
Of the 250 convicted of terror offenses in the years after 9/11 relatively few received sentences of 15 years or more, says Michael Clarke, the Director General of the Royal United Services Institute and an advisor to the UK government on counter-terrorism.
Clarke told CNN that it was not unusual for terrorism suspects to be charged with more minor offenses than their plots merited, because British intelligence services were hesitant about intelligence emerging in court which could be useful to al Qaeda.
Raja tried a novel approach with some of the most challenging freed convicted terrorists; he coached them cage-fighting skills.
Raja says it proved a remarkably effective way of breaking them out of their pro al Qaeda mentality and opening up their minds to his counter-extremist message.
It has almost literally involved knocking sense into them in the fighting gym.
When the released convicts meet Raja to train in gyms in and around the capital, including one in east London within sight of the Olympic park, they are very much on his territory. Sparring in the cage, he says, has a way of focusing the mind.
“Any idea you’ve got of yourself will be challenged as soon as you come in here,” Raja said. “Once that idea of yourself is challenged and that opening happens we are able to go in and start dismantling that perception.”
He says he has used cage-fighting sessions in about one-third of his intervention cases. As well as working with released convicted terrorists he has worked with dozens of young Muslims radicalized in jail.
The MMA gym, he says, has been a big draw for the previously jailed terrorists, for whom physical training was both an outlet and a form of protection in prison. And he says his coaching naturally allows him to develop a mentoring relationship.
Once he h