It is almost beyond comprehension – how could British-born teenagers educated in British schools in British towns and cities be drawn to international jihad and Islamic State?
Yet during my three years working at Fitzalan High School in Cardiff – a city where three young men were eventually jailed for helping IS – I watched as children were radicalised under my nose.
And astonishingly, senior staff did nothing in response…
Nothing could have prepared me for my first day at Fitzalan High School in Cardiff. On the face of it, the school is a typical, sprawling comprehensive. There is no external clue to the reality – that this is a place where girls can feel bullied into wearing the hijab, where many boys wear traditional robes, and where teenagers dare not listen to pop music.
A place, that is, where radical, intolerant Islam is the dominant culture, where 70 per cent of students are Muslim, and the most strident and aggressive set the tone.
Of course, it would come as a shock for any teacher to see an ex-student appear in an Islamic State propaganda video, as former student Reyaad Khan did. He would later be killed by an RAF drone strike. Or to see another former pupil sent to prison in this country for helping fellow fundamentalists join IS in Syria, which is what happened to Kaleem Brekke.
British jihadist Reyaad Khan grips a machine gun while clad in bullets. He was killed in Syria from an RAF drone
But I can’t say I was entirely surprised. My three years at the school gave me a disturbing insight into an Islamic culture in our cities, which revolves around family, the mosque and Koranic school. It is a segregated world – and it provides a fertile recruiting ground for IS terrorism.
I taught many lovely, respectful, intelligent children at Fitzalan, but there were some things that all my Muslim pupils seemed to agree on. When, for example, they brought up the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris or the murder of Lee Rigby in London, it was clear that they saw the perpetrators as heroes, and the victims as villains who deserved to be killed.
I believe most of my pupils were pretty moderate individuals – until, that is, they came to school, where the more extreme imposed their views. For example, many girls wore the hijab to school because they had previously been bullied by Muslim boys for not wearing one. Similarly, pupils into Western music were told it was ‘haram’ – forbidden. They even tried to convert me to Islam.
As an experienced teacher – for the record, I am white and a lapsed Christian – I didn’t find it a problem that I was not the same colour or faith as the majority, who I stress were largely respectful and eager to learn. This is borne out by glowing official inspection reports, in which Fitzalan appeared as a shining example of academic improvement, integration and community cohesion. I found it to be anything but integrated, even though the majority were born in Britain.
Holidays were spent with family in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia. On school trips where we came across students from other schools, I witnessed the discomfort of some children because they’d never been around so many white people.
Under the Government’s Prevent scheme to combat Islamist radicalism, it is now mandatory for teachers to report incidents of extremist behaviour in schools. But when I followed the protocol, nothing was done. Senior staff, who were mostly white, did not want to recognise they had a problem with Islamic extremism. I don’t know whether it was political correctness, an unwillingness to cause upset, or sheer inertia, but radical Islamist views were not challenged.
When Kaleem Brekke was arrested under terror laws for helping a friend to fight for IS in Syria, a staff email went out to say that we weren’t to discuss anything with the press.
I taught Kaleem during my first year at Fitzalan. He was a young white convert to Islam, who was very quiet, respectful and wore traditional Islamic garments. Kaleem explained that he had changed his name from Kristen on ‘reverting’ to Islam the previous year – he believes all people are born Muslim. He thought that he had been lucky to rediscover ‘the truth’ during a difficult time after his parents had separated. As most of his friends at Fitzalan were Muslim, he had taken up their invitation to attend the local mosque.
Teacher: ‘Nothing could have prepared me for my first day at Fitzalan High School in Cardiff’
I sat down with him towards the end of his course and asked why he was struggling to meet deadlines.
Kaleem replied that he was torn between school, a part-time job and studying in his mosque, which he thought could lead to ‘great things’. His mosque in the Riverside area of the city was paying for him to complete a course studying the Koran, which, he explained, would eventually lead to him becoming an imam.
I forgot about Kaleem until a few months ago, when I read of his conviction at the Old Bailey for assisting terrorist activities. He was jailed for four-and-a-half years after helping a friend obtain a new passport and buying him combat clothing.
I also recall Reyaad Khan, who did his A-levels at Fitzalan. He was devout, a straight-A student who once wanted to be Britain’s first Asian Prime Minister. But Reyaad featured in a prominent IS propaganda video, which was exposed in The Mail on Sunday in 2014, alongside his friend Nasser Muthana, also from Cardiff.
A frequent user of social media, he boasted about carrying out IS executions. He was killed in an RAF drone strike in Syria in 2015.
Kristen Brekke arrives at The Old Bailey on January 14, 2016 in London
Little wonder that I came to believe that Fitzalan High School and the mosques within its catchment area had a real problem. Two young pupils in my Year 7 class told me they were beaten if they failed to pay attention at Koran school. One described beatings with a cane.
His friend explained how his teacher at the school had ‘squeezed’ his fingers around the sharp edges of a steel ruler. I reported this to the school. In a telephone conversation with a colleague responsible for child protection, I was told that ‘while shocking, it’s fairly widespread throughout the country’.
The school had ‘tried to raise these allegations of abuse several times in the past’ but they were ‘met with a wall of silence from the parents’. In May 2013, my Year 10 group were discussing the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby. I stated my dismay and decried the cowardice of the perpetrators. I was met with stunned silence.
Finally, a rather interesting character within the classroom – quiet but shifty – voiced his opinion: the two killers, he said, were ‘true Muslims’ and would go to heaven for their actions. He then asked me what I thought about Abu Qatada, the extremist Muslim cleric. I replied that ‘he was a criminal wanted in this country and many others’. The student replied that Qatada ‘was a don’, indicating respect. I reported the incident to the school, but did not hear of any intervention.
In January 2015, the shooting at the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo came up in a debate in a GCSE class. One girl voiced the opinion that the ‘people at Charlie Hebdo were asking for it’ and it was wrong to draw cartoons of the Prophet. The other girls agreed before I brought the conversation to a close. Again, there was no response when I reported the matter.
Many of my students were delighted that I took an interest in their culture and taught me phrases in Arabic. The most confident of the group was a young man who would alternate between Western clothes and full white robes. He revelled in the opportunity to educate me. The class found it hilarious that he brought me a miswak (a stick used as a toothbrush in many Arab countries) or dates that he claimed would benefit me in all sorts of ways. I declined the offer.
Later that year, in May 2012, his attitude changed. He tried to add me as a friend on Facebook but I had declined. One day he confronted me in a corridor as to why. I explained that online interactions between teachers and pupils were unwise. He invited me to meetings at his mosque. Again I declined. At the end of a lesson, he and a small group of his friends stayed behind in an attempt to convert me to Islam.
It culminated in a diatribe about sharia law and how my beliefs were laughable. I reported the incident to the school but was not told of any intervention.
In the next lesson, the boy explained it was his ‘duty as a good Muslim to challenge my beliefs’, as if I did not convert to Islam I would ultimately end up in hell. A year later, I recall asking what his plans were for life after Fitzalan. His answer troubled me. He stumbled through a response about leaving to study in Pakistan. I asked him about the course, but he could not answer.
My time working at Fitzalan has changed my outlook on the Muslim community in Cardiff and on a school which often had an imam to address the children at assembly, but never seemed to invite a vicar, rabbi or a representative of the Hindu or Sikh communities – even though those faiths were represented there.
There are times when I feel that I should make more of an effort to remember all the likeable young Muslim people that I have taught. And then I feel angry at those individuals who are instilling fear and mistrust on both sides.
I feel let down by the system and the apparent refusal to intervene effectively. I am certain that our failure to tackle radicalism openly and head-on is helping its poison spread through so many young people in this country.
l Cardiff City Council said: ‘Fitzalan is a very popular a school, serving a diverse community.
‘Staff are fully trained in how to identify the early signs of extremism. They know how to respond and they know how to get help, guidance and intervention. Where concerns arise, the school is quick to respond and follow up appropriately.’