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Shot imam 'wasn't an extremist'

Published 09/04/2015

The An Noor mosque in Acton, where a former imam who was found shot dead served from 2005-2011
The An Noor mosque in Acton, where a former imam who was found shot dead served from 2005-2011

Syrian president Bashar Assad has bigger issues to focus on than ordering the murder of an imam in London, an anti-extremist think-tank has claimed.

Abdul Hadi Arwani, a critic of the Assad regime, was discovered shot in a parked car in Wembley, north London, on Tuesday morning.

After it was revealed that the investigation was being conducted by counter-terrorism officers, reports began to emerge that the father of six might have been killed for speaking out against the Syrian leader.

But Haras Rafiq, managing director of anti-extremist think-tank the Quilliam Foundation, said it was too early to start speculating about why Mr Arwani was killed.

He said: "He was definitely anti-Assad, he was very vocal and we all know that. But he wasn't necessarily Assad's biggest enemy here in the UK. I am just thinking 'Why him?' and not other people that we know are more vocal and more active.

"Something that is significant is that SO15 (counter-terrorism command) are investigating. They would probably be investigating because there is some form of international dimension.

"Arwani himself wasn't actually extremist. He wasn't on my radar as somebody who himself held extreme hatred-based views. However, the centre that he was involved in was quite controversial."

Mr Rafiq said that cleric Mr Arwani had previously been a director of the An-Noor Trust Cultural and Islamic Centre, which came under the spotlight after a male terror suspect dressed in a burka escaped authorities.

He said the father of six left the organisation for unknown reasons in 2012, with some reporting he had left because of his opposition to extremist preachers at the centre.

Mr Rafiq concluded: "It is just too early to say, and reports that he was killed for being a critic of Assad are just speculation.

"They have got other problems, more serious problems in Syria. If the murder was carried out on behalf of Assad, then that would suggest that they are looking at people abroad, but it is not something that I have come across."

Mr Arwani's family were also keen to dispel rumours that he had connections with extremism, saying that he was "actively involved in the fight against extremism" and was a "British citizen who loved the people of this country".

In a statement posted on social media, they added: "He spoke up and out against the crime of terror and oppression wherever he found it."

Speaking outside his home in East Acton, Mr Arwani's son Morhaf, 20, said they were "at a loss" to understand what had happened.

Officers from the homicide and major crime command were initially in charge of the inquiry.

The Metropolitan Police said the investigation was in its "very early stages" and officers remained "open-minded" about the motive for the shooting.

A post-mortem examination is due to take place today.

Mr Arwani was a preacher at the An Noor mosque in Acton, west London, from 2005 to 2011.

A statement posted on the wall of the centre read: "We have with great sadness heard of the unfortunate death of Sheikh Abdul Hadi Arwani who was the former imam of the An Noor Cultural and Community Centre who served from 2005 to 2011. He will be sadly missed."

Mr Arwani, who is thought to have fled Syria as a teenager after surviving the Hama massacre in 1982, has been described as an outspoken critic of President Bashar Assad's regime.

He is believed to have attended protests against the regime outside the Syrian embassy in London in 2012.

Police were called to reports of a man with gunshot injuries to his chest at 11.15am on Tuesday.

They found Mr Arwani in a dark-coloured Volkswagen Passat in Greenhill, at the junction with The Paddocks. He was pronounced dead at the scene around half an hour later.

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