LONDON (Reuters) - British-born Muslim Hassan Butt spent 10 years inside radical Islamist groups, recruiting and training militants, before renouncing violence and trying to help others escape radical Islamist networks.
It is a past he is not proud of, but which he also does not seek to hide when he discusses his experiences.
“I was involved in the whole world of radical Islam from the age of 16 onwards. For 10 years it was my family,” Butt told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday, seeking to explain how he became enveloped in a world of “religious hatred”.
“I financed terrorism, I recruited people to go to terrorist training camps, I myself have been to terrorist training camps,” he said, mentioning Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he spent two years after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
But nearly three years ago, Butt began questioning his beliefs and the direction he was taking, and after four British Muslims blew themselves up in London in July 2005, killing 52 people, he began to turn his back on militancy.
But it has not been a simple transition.
“My life was easier being a terrorist than it is now that I am no longer a terrorist,” he said, speaking by phone from his home in Manchester, northern England.
“It’s not easy being hunted by jihadis who want to kill you, moderate Muslims who think you have betrayed Islam, and the Manchester police who might want to prosecute me.”
A court ruled last week that the Manchester police could seize notes and documents from a journalist, Shiv Malik, who is writing a book about jihadi networks that draws on Butt’s knowledge and experiences.
Manchester police would not confirm Butt was a target, saying only that Malik’s notes were wanted as part of an ongoing investigation. “It would be inappropriate to discuss the detail at this stage,” a spokeswoman said.
Since he turned his back on extremism, Butt has become a touchstone for young Muslims looking to escape militant groups.
He has met the government’s counter-terrorism minister to discuss “outreach” to hardened British Islamists — estimated to number at least 2,000 — and taken his ideas into prisons and mosques, where much of the radicalization is said to go on.
Butt says he has helped 15 young men in Manchester alone extract themselves from their extremist ideology, potentially thwarting attacks.
“Of the 15, 11 had been sent for terrorist training. I know because I personally sent these guys to camps,” he says.
With more support and funding, he is convinced he could establish outreach countrywide.
“With everything else in Britain — gangs, drugs, domestic violence — there’s an outreach program. But when it comes to Islamic radicalism, there is no credible program because no one has any idea how to run one properly,” he says.
Butt has been arrested several times under Britain’s anti-terrorism laws, but released each time due to lack of evidence.
Opposition politicians have called for Butt to be arrested and face charges for what he has admitted to — running training camps and radicalizing young men.
Butt says he is willing to serve time for his crimes, if convicted even if that means spending years in prison.
But he also has a warning for those who might be eager to see him behind bars.
“I’m saying, put me in prison, that’s fine, but think of the damage you are going to do to the effort to deradicalize extremist Islam in this country.”
Reporting by Luke Baker; Editing by Keith Weir