God's Army

A criminal gang in south London that calls itself Muslim

Originally published in The Sunday Times

Dwayne Daniels was walking down the street one day, smoking a joint, when a man in Middle Eastern clothes stopped him. “He said, ‘What is that doing for you?’” remembers Daniels. “He said if I carried on in the drugs world I would either be killed or end up killing someone else. And God would not forgive me.”

Daniels was a “bad boy drugs man” and convicted robber. He grew up in one of the roughest parts of south London, on a run-down, urine-scented estate amid boarded-up shops. By day, the streets were filled with children on bicycles who couriered drugs. At night, they witnessed the screech and slam of cars that had been taken without the owners’ consent.

Daniels had been involved in crime as long as he could remember. He’d have liked to get out, he says, but the Christian faith he was born into provided insufficient incentive: “They say Jesus died for our sins. But what is the point of stopping crime if your sins are already forgiven?” The man on the street persuaded him to look further into Islam. “It touched me that someone would put on a brave face to tell me something like that – something I might not want to hear.”

Daniels’ friend, Marcus Grant, had a different introduction to Islam. He was leading a gang and instrumental in drawing up territorial agreements with gang leaders on other south London estates. “The idea was they could come into my area and rob and kill people I didn’t like,” he recalls, “and I could go into theirs.” One of the other gang-leaders, who’d recently gained great prestige through murder and violent crime, happened to call himself a Muslim. That made people look up to him, Grant says – for reasons that, though sick, are well suited to gangsterism. “Bin Laden showed people what Muslims can do, he made a big scene, he was in the papers.”

Both Daniels, 21, and Grant, 20, were sucked into a gang known as the Muslim Boys, which Detective Chief Superintendent John Coles believes responsible for a crime spree involving murders, attempted murders and robberies. (Coles runs Scotland Yards Operation Trident, which is responsible for gun crime in the black community.) Around 20 members of the gang have been arrested, and sentenced for crimes including murder and possession of firearms and drugs. “We have arrested most of the hard core of the gang,” says Coles. But it’s unclear whether the gang leader is among them, and many members remain at large. Nor do they restrict their violent activity to the capital: one member says they have spread as far as Bristol.

The gang is known to practice forced “conversions” – a procedure that has been vividly described by one member. “If you not down with Muslim, we visit your home, maybe strip you naked in front of your fucking mother, we put a gun in your mouth. We give you three days, then if you not down with it, we fucking blow…” One young man thought to have resisted conversion, Adrian Marriott, was found shot several times in the head, in parkland in Brixton.

But Daniels and Grant joined willingly, and to talk about the appeal of Islam to these young black men – and the violent distortions of the faith that snared them – I have come to meet them not in some obscure corner of south London gangland but on the outdoor terrace of a smart restaurant near Tate Modern, in the fashionable part of Southwark. Many other diners wear business suits. My companions behave impeccably, but the waiting staff don’t entirely manage to conceal their wariness – particularly when one of the boys asks rather firmly why his Coca Cola has not come with a drinking straw as requested. (A straw is speedily supplied.)

Daniels is nervous about talking to a journalist, though I’m not sure if he’s scared of reprisals or concerned not to malign Islam. He frequently stops the conversation so I can read back shorthand notes of what he has said. Occasionally he insists I cross something out.

Grant is more measured and placid, which is astonishing when you consider the life he has led. His father was killed when he was very young, but his mother had tough connections within the Jamaican community who protected him against trouble on the streets. He still saw a lot of it. One of his closest friends was shot dead at 17. Another was stabbed in the neck by his own cousin after they robbed someone and argued about how to share the money. From an early age Grant carried out all kinds of crimes, including some of the most violent imaginable. “People were shot in the head,” he says. “I saw that happen. It’s normal. It’s not nice, but you think they must have done something to deserve it.” Such as? “Maybe someone went to take their jewellery and they resisted.”

Though obviously bright, Grant has had little education. He was readily susceptible to the shaky “theology” of the so-called Muslim Boys, who began by discrediting the Bible. “They said it has been rewritten ten times, and it’s being rewritten again. They said: ‘It’s not God writing it, so who is? It is just lies.’” They also told him Christians were dirty.

As for the merits of Islam: “They said the Koran says you can take things from people. And they said they were cleaning up the streets by killing drug dealers. And when that happens a few times you have other criminals thinking it might be sensible to join Islam or they’ll be killed too.”

But some gang members were genuinely impressed by extremism, and went to see Abu Hamza at Finsbury Park mosque. For his own reasons, Grant never went: he’s done bad things to certain people in north London, he tells me, and those people might come after him if he ventured back. He also guessed he would come under surveillance at Finsbury Park: “I didn’t want the police to come and mess up my drug game. I didn’t need that heat.”

Instead, Grant usually prayed at people’s homes. Sometimes on Fridays he went to Brixton Mosque, where the crowd of worshippers spilled into the street. Learning the actual routines, he says, was easy. “You just get on your knees and bend down and say your prayers. It’s alright. There are good people in the mosque, and it’s good to be around good people and talk with them. But it didn’t put money in your pocket. And when you come out you have to go back to your normal life.”

Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, likewise worshipped at the Brixton mosque, according to its chairman Abdul Haqq Baker, until he fell in with militants. Originally from Bromley, Reid was known to Baker as Abdel Rahim and attended the mosque after converting in prison. “He was a very amiable, cooperative individual in the early part,” Baker said. “Toward the end of his period with us, we noticed a change.”

Baker had been warning the authorities of extremist elements in Muslim communities for several years – since as far back as 1996 – but to no effect. The Brixton mosque has also distanced itself from the Muslim Boys – without actually naming them – by saying that there are “criminals masquerading as Muslims” who threaten the good name of their religion. Baker visited the family of murdered boy, Adrian Marriott, to assure them the criminals have nothing to do with real Islam, or with his mosque.

For Daniels and Grant, hanging around with the Muslim Boys was likely to mean one of two things: a decline into more extreme and perverse forms of Islam, as pioneered by Richard Reid; or a violent end like Marriott’s. But they were lucky to find an alternative, thanks to the woman who brought me together with them.

Like many other children from south London estates, the boys had long ago come across an unusual youth centre, run by a charity called Kids Company. The founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, has an extraordinary insight into the grim lives of children like Daniels and Grant, whom she first met when they were 13. The vast majority have no father, she says. Many have mothers in prison, or battling with mental health problems or drug addiction. One girl, aged seven, was taken to visit her mother’s drug dealer when a gunman broke in and threw the dealer out of the window; the girl wouldn’t stop crying for days. A boy, aged five, found his father dead after an overdose of alcohol and drugs. Four children, aged from two to 11, were found by Kids Company staff living in a bedroom covered in urine and flies; they had no beds and no sheets. The depressing thing is not the individual stories. It’s the sheer number of children involved. Altogether, Kids Company has some 4,500 children on its books.

When I first met Camila, long before the bomb attacks on London, she told me the children she deals with were like suicide bombers. “They get to the point where they don’t care if they live or die. They don’t have empathy. They’ve basically lost touch with their humanity. That’s why they’re so dangerous when they first come to us. They can’t feel anything at all. And our first priority is to make them feel.” In the process, children often become more aggressive, not less. “They say we are making them soft, and they won’t be able to survive on the streets.”

Like many others, Daniels and Grant initially tried to make trouble at Kids Company. But they found it unaccountably difficult to intimidate Camila. On the contrary, Grant remembers her laughing amiably at his sarcastic attacks and pinching his cheeks with affection. He soon came to share the respect that many other kids have for her.

Early last year, Camila began to hear children including Daniels and Grant discussing Islam. Interest spread from one child to another like a virus, she says, and the conversations evoked her prosperous childhood in Iran, where she used to pray with the family’s maids. (She is half Muslim-Iranian and half Catholic-Belgian.) But the tone became increasingly cruel and punitive. “They would tell the girls to cover up,” she recalls. “And there was a pseudo-political edge, like saying the government was shit, or that Americans were oppressing Muslims. I didn’t like that, because Islam is a tolerant religion when it’s practiced correctly.”

Camila intervened in the conversations, initially, without success. “So I spoke Arabic, and that stunned them.” She took some of the boys for lunch to talk in more detail. “I was very straight. I asked what the hell was going on.”

The boys told her the group they were involved with had been involved in beatings and killings. She didn’t ask for specifics – she wanted to keep their confidence without being legally compromised. But it gradually became clear why they were being so aggressive. “It was like they were part of a kind of ‘God’s Army’. It was really dangerous. I told them they had to pull themselves out. I said that there are factions that present themselves as Islamic but are really just practicing a form of bad power. That’s exactly the level of the conversation we had.”

Crucially, she didn’t tell them to abandon Islam. Having extensive qualifications in child psychology, Camila is well qualified to assess the appeal of the religion in those terms. “Kids like these are very vulnerable to the fanatical presentation of Islam. They experience so much powerlessness and this seems to give them a ‘right’ to exercise power themselves.

“But if practiced correctly Islam is great for them. You pray five times a day, you stop everything to make contact with God. You go through the ritual of cleaning before prayers, and you bend down – a sublimation of the ego with the all-powerful God as witness. If you were looking at this from a therapeutic, psychoanalytical point of view, Islam would seem unbelievably useful at meeting the needs of isolated, disconnected kids with no parents or sense of belonging. And it goes into detail about what is right and wrong. It asks you to show self-control, which, for these compulsive, adrenaline-driven kids is hard to do. Even the chanting is great, because the body is constantly moving and that is fantastic for a hyperactive kid like Dwayne.”

Grant seemed to have decided anyway that religion was not for him (“I’m dropping out of Islam for a while,” he tells me, “I’m going to college”) But on Daniels’s behalf Camila contacted the Muslim Council of Britain to find an imam who could mentor him. “He has not been to school since he was 11, but he is incredibly intelligent. I can’t get over him learning Arabic, and getting up at 4am to go to the mosque. This kid has transformed his life. Islam has made him stop taking drugs and committing crime. He has got a job. And a lot of other kids have used Islam to change their lives for the better, including girls.”

Neither Daniels nor Grant ever mixed with terrorist cells, only ordinary – if violent – criminals. But their experience of gangland gives them an insight into the people responsible for the recent bomb attacks on London. Grant suspects the bombers were “nobodies”. “The ones who run this stuff never do the work themselves. On the street, if you give someone a bit of money they’ll kill someone for you. The bombers would have been told that, if they do this, their families will be taken care of, and it’s for a good cause so they’ll go to paradise. You can’t get a better deal than that.” Daniels believes the bombers became carried away with emotion about the oppression of Muslims around the world. “It’s like on the streets. If someone in your gang has been hurt you go after the people that did it.”

In the ordinary course of things, a journalist who meets gangland criminals might be expected to find them alarming. But Daniels and Grant strike me as gentle and unexpectedly thoughtful.

“People say that I’ve changed, says Daniels, and he’s convinced that Islam effected that change. “It brought us together. We were in different gangs before. It’s because of Islam that we are sitting here eating. Otherwise, we would be shooting each other. That’s why a lot of people like us, black people, become Muslims.”

When he was imprisoned for robbery, Daniels’s photograph appeared in a local newspaper. It showed him wearing the expensive, diamond-studded crucifix that he says all “rude boys” wear, to make them feel invincible. It irks him that, despite the visibility of the crucifix in that photo, the newspaper report of his conviction did not say, “A Christian man has been convicted of robbery…” If he committed the same crime today, he contends, the paper would certainly have called him “a Muslim man”.

He may be right. I don’t know. But one thing is for sure: it would certainly be safer to travel on the Tube with Muslim Daniels than with pre-Muslim Daniels. And in London at the moment you can offer no higher praise than that.