The day I met the ‘respondent’ Kafeel Ahmed

It was during the autumn of 2001 that I met Kafeel Ahmed, a fellow student at Queen’s University of Belfast. I was a PhD student in the anthropology department, researching Muslims in Northern Ireland and Europe; he was a student in aeronautical engineering. Kafeel, an Indian Muslim born in Bangalore, was a very active member of the Islamic Students Society of Northern Ireland (ISSNI). Unsurprisingly, he became one of my respondents and contacts. I still remember his jokes about me being Italian, and the references to the film ‘The Padrino’. Kafeel, the Kafeel who I knew from 2001 to 2003, when I left Belfast, was a very welcoming person, very reserved and shy. Yet when you came to know him better, you discovered his intellectual side, his strong belief in Islam as justice and God’s love. He was a very calm, quite ‘westernised’ Muslim, ever ready to laugh at jokes. Interested in sport, particularly cricket, we spent time speaking at my preferred coffee shop in Botanic Avenue about Muslim identity, the experience of living in Northern Ireland as a Muslim, the tension between India and Pakistan, and the Palestinian Intifada.

Kafeel had always expressed moderate ideas, so much that, if you are tempted to look for him within my book Jihad Beyond Islam, maybe thinking of one of the pseudonyms, I can tell you that you are seeking a phantom. He is not there. He never discussed jihad, he never referred to the struggle of Muslims in Palestine or Chechnya, as such. He was more focused on injustices that Muslims were suffering; I would say on the emotional side of the sufferance of Muslims. Yet he was very concerned about what was happening to Muslims in one of the most forgotten conflicts, the Chechen conflict.

I lost total contact with him, like many of my respondents. I never met him again or had occasion to speak to him. Little by little, he faded from my memory, and became, as often happens in fieldwork, part of a past research, one among the many voices. As usual, during anthropological research, some people become friends, others just remain respondents, people with whom you have shared ideas and opinions. I never heard of him again. This was until an amateurish car-bomb hit a Glasgow airport terminal and burst into flames. No innocent person was injured in the terrorist attack. Yet everyone has seen the dramatic pictures of one of the perpetrators, covered in flames, still struggling with the policemen while his body was suffering massive burns. Today, that human torch, who attempted to inflict the same pain he has suffered for days on unknown innocent travellers, died in Glasgow.

That burned and unrecognisable body was Kafeel Ahmed. Although I still cannot believe that Ahmed the aspirant murderer was the same Kafeel who used to smile and joke about me being Italian, and inevitably playfully humming ‘The Padrino’ main theme, or serving a portion of chips while working in a kebab shop. I have to accept that something in his life happened which killed Kafeel’s soul much before the flames destroyed his body. But what kind of ‘larvae’ could have entered his heart to transform him, as in a horror movie, into a killer. He who was so against injustice, innocent people being killed and condemned 9/11 openly? I am sure that the answer could be found in India, back in his town.

Yet it could also be found in his shyness, and in his way of perceiving the world as full of injustice and sufferance. It could be found in the emotional way in which things affected him.

What can we learn from Kafeel Ahmed’s story? The first thing is that the environment in which people live means a lot in affecting the identity of people. Kafeel in Belfast lived in a very open Muslim community, which knew very well, being based in Northern Ireland, how peace among people was important. He saw the damaging effects of sectarianism, and religious as well as political hatred. He spent time with Muslims from different nations, with different beliefs (and sometimes deeply different views, since Shi’a Muslims shared the mosque and prayed there) and ideas.

He saw difference and engaged with it. Kafeel in India, or Cambridge, where it seems that he moved in 2004, may have met a very different environment. The Muslim community in Belfast is a special one, there might be disagreements among the members, as in any other community, Muslim or not, but there is a great understanding of the values of negotiation and understanding in achieving peace and wellbeing for all. As Kafeel faded from my memory bit by bit, I think that the Northern Irish experience faded from Kafeel’s one.

I am now receiving phone calls and messages from people who know him, and had shared the pale blue carpet and walls of the mosque, a very quiet place when empty, but very alive when full of people. All of them are traumatised about Kafeel’s actions. I personally do not know what happened to Kafeel while in India, but I know that he was a very emotional person that lived with his heart open to any injury that life can inflict.

Yet this tells us something. We have to stop using stereotypes to discuss terrorism. It is not Islam as religion that brings young Muslims to commit such horrible actions. It is not just the radical websites and propaganda that can brainwash them (though they can be used to reinforce the process and personal convictions). It is not a particular philosophy or the attraction of a phantomatic Al-Qaeda, which is less and less credible every day.

No, it is a complex process, which often happens very quickly. When this kind of people experience a particular personal crisis of identity, and they start to identify with the suffering of others, with the feelings of those whom suffer injustice, and they want to bring justice, they can end easily in a circle of panic and emotions, in which the end is seen as the only beginning. They want to escape a world that they cannot tolerate, but they also want paradise and not the damnation that Islam promises for suicide. I have explained in another post why they do not feel guilty about taking innocent lives.

Indeed, I am now thinking that that day I could have been at the terminal, just entering it, while the car is approaching. I would have not recognised him, but if the plan was better organised and evil luck helped his action, I could have been killed, burned to death, by Kafeel, the same, but yet not the same smiling Kafeel who was once ready to give me an extra portion of chicken and rice during Ramadan in the Belfast mosque.

I have only one hope, now that Kafeel is dead. I hope that in the days that death waited to call him, he had reflected on his actions, and reflected that innocent people, instead of him, may have been there in that hospital dying. I hope that he understood, and felt in his heart, that he betrayed the religion he worshiped, the Muslim community, his family and friends, that he went against God’s teaching, and that he had insulted Islam, so that he deeply repented before surrendering his soul.


16 thoughts on “The day I met the ‘respondent’ Kafeel Ahmed

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  1. Osama Bin Laden calls western culture’Satan’ well we should live up to our reputation, The only way that Islamic terrorists can attack the west is because we tolerate their backward and primitive societies. If rather than help and deal with these failed countries and governments we should just obliterate them. They should remember the fire power that we could unleash if we wished to and not concern ourselves with ‘collateral damage’ just blow their rat hole cities of the face of the earth. India should tell Pakistan to clear out the tribal homelands or they will do it for them and totally wipe out anybody who lives there

    1. Dear Michael,
      I understand your anger, but I do not agree with it.

      If you think carefully, your words expressed above are those of a normal human reaction based on unfiltered emotions.
      Indeed, as an anthropologist, I can tell you that your expression of emotions provides a good examples of how many innocent Iraqis and Afghans should have felt, and unfortunately feel, since we have bombed their homes forcing, in many cases, to see their children suffer or being killed.

      How many orphans have we created, and how many of those orphans will have resentments against their stereotyped view of ‘the West’ (of course an imaginary one, since everybody in the West is really so different!) .

      I suppose that if you were an Iraqi, with such emotions you are expressing here, you would have joined the resistance, insurgency or maybe reacted as the NHS doctor Abdulla, or just written this same post with inverted protagonists.

      Force, the majority of the cases, would not resolve anything; it just makes problems worst. As I said here, we have not changed since the time we used caves for homes. Yet we have found new ways to destroy each other, some very technological such as modern US weaponry, other less sophisticated, but not less lethal, such as suicide-bombing.
      They share something however: they create sufferance that will create sufferance in endless circles, until, of course, something like ‘bird flu’ will maybe wipe humanity from this planet so that the circle will be forced to end.

      Have a nice day.

  2. Hi,

    i was very deeply hurt at your words about kafeel regarding his involvement in the glasgow bomb case.Though i happen to be only a far off friend of his,howevr i do know him for 11 years.i am reluctant enough to establish an identity about westernised muslims or indian muslims for muslims are muslims ,the land hardly matters.

    Though being a writer yourself i havent much understood from your articles about kafeel that he being your respondent is hardly an aquaintance as per me .He was radicalised not in Uk or in india,it was religion by itself that makes one think of where he is leading his bull called life to,towards a destruction path for this life or a prosperous path for the hereafter (if you beleive in it)..Infact one should ponder only upon the word “Hereafter” for that is the pinnacle or every action in this world,for which islam lays down rules to follow which are indeed th best and the most updated ,more sophisticated compared to any other first world countries as mentioned in the west,less in contradiction that it dosent have a caliph to enforce or a state to follow.

    People living in the west not only have a sophisticated lifestyle ,.but also take up a sohisticated religion which is Christianity indeed ,For God alone knows which is the version dictated by jesus that Saint bernabus wrote down…
    Instead of defininfg a religion by its rules and etiquittes ,,its a cliche that its been adjudged by its followers..Nobody would blame the maker of teh car if the driver rammed it …Whats most interesting is that one hardly cares or dives in knowing the truth ..for it is forever said that truth is bitter ..may be kafeel showed us a little bit of that bitterness ..which is getting over our nerves.

  3. Dear Mr Tavrekar,

    thank you for your comment. I am sure that you have read other parts of this blog, and found that my position tends to be that religion cannot exist without individuals. Yet I see that you strongly believe the opposite and present a very essentialist view of Islam, but carefully spare Hinduism from the same treatment.

    I have to notice, as an anthropologist, that as Islam as a unified religion, does not exist (there are as many Islams as identities of people) likewise in the case of Hinduism (which by the way, as a unified religion, was invented very much by the English Colonisers).

    If you strongly believe in the essentialisation of religion, you should apply it to all religions, and we can see that Hinduism, both in its history and recent acts (if, like you seem to argue, we should present religion as a real thing) is as much of a ‘bloodthirsty religion’ as Islam. I give you a clear example: The Gujarat genocide

    So, should we go along with your reasoning and claim that those actions represent Hinduism or should we argue that those actions represent a particular way of embodying what some Indians believe to be Hinduism and what Hinduism teaches?

    You can of course select your preference (i.e. Religion is a thing and controls the mind of people through symbols. So if the religion is evil, people will be evil). But please, be at least intellectually honest, and do not spare from the clear fallacy of this discourse, your own religious identity.

    Best wishes

  4. Dear Sir,

    My house in Bangalore is about 300 meters from the house of Kafeel and Sabeel. Bangalore is a peaceful cosmopolitan town and has never had any major conflicts between different religions. I also grew up in this same place as Kafeel and Sabeel, joined the same kind of engineering college which he studied. Similarly I also stayed in UK and studied and worked there for some time.

    You said the problem lies somewhere in his experience in India. I think the main problem is the religion and the worldview it preaches. But as a Hindu my worldview is quite different from say Kafeel or Sabeel. I have a loose definition of my identityas a Hindu. As a Hindhu the stranglehold of religion or religious institutions on me as an Indivivudal is very minimal.

    What made Kafeel into a suicide bomber is related to the seeds of hatred and extreme wahabbhi brainwashing he went through first in the Jamat I Islamia and then in the mosques in UK. The pan national identification of muslims and the feeling that he has to respond to the suffering in far off checniya or palestine is drilled into the minds of these people. ALso the very nature of Islamic beleif and the Quran does not treat Kafirs on an equal human footing with others. So to relive a kafir of his life is a great act of martyrdom as taught in the Quran. Please try to find where the problem is rather than being an apologist for a bloodthirsty religion like Islam.

  5. Muslims grow up with this victmization complex. Everywhere you turn they have problems, India Chechnya, Palestine and now even Thailand. Why has the entire world only targetted them? it is time to put a stop to this wretched nonsense of theirs their constant bombing and screaming about injustice. rubbish. theirs is a culture weaned on victimization. Lots of people have been wronged in this world. They do not wear suicide vests and blow themselves up. It is time to stop research and writing papers on Islam and wasting tax money. tell them to stop screaming about all this martrydom crap — it is murder plain and simple. Too many people have died because of them now no complaining because they are dying.


  6. Dear Hector,

    thanks for your comment. I have to say that unfortunately there are evidences that what happened was really a violent planed action. I do not think that it is useful to speak all the time of conspiracies theories. I do not understand, to tell the truth, your comments about my relationship with Kafeel. I really do not understand your comments about my research in Northern Ireland. I only know that Kafeel did what he did. I am sure that you may have known Kafeel better than me so that maybe you have more information and knowledge of the situation than me. The last time I met Kafeel was in 2003, when I left Belfast. I would like to have more and hard evidences that it was the plot that you assume. It would certainly let me feel much better.
    Best wishes

  7. What a peace of crap it turned out to be. No wonder it never makes sense to be friend with a westerner.A westerner is a westerner and a cup of chips is a cup of chips.
    Why the fudge writer was eating chips from late kafeel if he couldn’t hold his opinion for him to be a friendly out going fela.
    What convinced the writer claiming to have researched Muslims in Northern Ireland and Europe would be sure that, it was late kafeel or Dr. Abdullah had planed and ran the burning jeep in to Airport ? ? ?
    CNN report of June 30th 2007 says two cars had accident and one one rammed in to Airport building ?
    Witness say they saw moltov-cocktail bombs which were taken out by occupants of jeep Cherokee, but not thrown to any person or on building.
    My simple question is,if the two alleged car bombers were ready to get so called 72 virgins, they wouldn’t pay rent in advance,while we struggle to pay for the past month 🙂
    Wake up from slumber of hatred and dehumanizing, idiotic propaganda wouldn’t take you any farther than “WAR of TERROR”, what you will have to say? when it actually turns tables on you ? ?

  8. Dear Gabriele,

    There is no typical psych-profile for a terrorist is there? (At least that’s what terrorism experts say.) Similar accounts were made of Muhammad Asif Hanif, dubbed “a gentle giant”, known for his apolitical Sufi views, who later blew himself up at a bar in Tel Aviv in 2003.

    Wa’Llahu ta’ala a`lam.

    Peace, Yahya

  9. I have the impression that you have not understood my point. This is what the majority expect that a ‘westernised’ Muslim looks like and the idea that ‘westernised’ Muslims are not ‘terrorist’, so that the majority of people see the issue of ‘terrorism’ or ‘fundamentalism’ in a form of dichotomy “westernised’ = good Muslims, non-Westernised= barbaric, bad Muslims and so on. Well, I was just giving an example of how the things are more complex than they may look like.


  10. He was “calm, quite ‘westernised’ Muslim, ever ready to laugh at jokes.”

    Is there a connection between being “Westernized” and “calm and ready to laugh at jokes”?

    Does that mean I’m not calm and not ready to laugh at jokes? As somebody who’s not Westernized, should I check with a psychiatrist to make me calmer and endow me with a sense of humor? Or would it just be more effective to become Westernized?


  11. First of all I want to pass my personal sympathy for the nearly one million murdered in Iraq and say I am ashamed of this world.
    Secondly I have to say that being a survivor of “State Terror”in Northern Ireland I am so suspect of any so called “Terror Attacks”

    I flew thru Glasgow Airport on my way to Ireland and a pilgrimage for peace to Knock.

    When I returned to the airport in Glasgow I was carrying a large bottle of water from the area of the blessed well of St Brigit in Ireland.

    I found myself being directed by spirit to wash the place of where the jeep burned. I found myself being called on by the great spirit to cleanse the area of the suffering and help put out the fire of hate

    Please people Wake UP and look beyond the scenes

    Walk the middle road of peace and love

    This world in is in the hands of a cold blooded cross breed reptilian race, who are capable of blowing up millions,in fat their agenda is to rid the earth of us HUMANS

    Wake up We are all one

  12. “I have only one hope, now that Kafeel is dead. I hope that in the days that death waited to call him, he had reflected on his actions, and reflected that innocent people, instead of him, may have been there in that hospital dying. I hope that he understood, and felt in his heart, that he betrayed the religion he worshiped, the Muslim community, his family and friends, that he went against God’s teaching, and that he had insulted Islam, so that he deeply repented before surrendering his soul.”

    I caught this link at the realterror site.

    Excellent article! Perhaps we can find more peaceful means to deal with the hard issues facing Muslims in the Ummah today!



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  14. Thank you Dr Marranci for your sensitive insight into the life of a fellow human who paid the ultimate price defending misguided perceptions of retribution and redemption.

    As the news of Kafeel’s death is being reported in Australia, a media and public debate over the treatment of Dr Mohamed Haneef is raging. There appears to be a public concensus that Dr Haneef is a test case for our seemingly harsh anti-terrorism legislation. The resulting media coverage, however, has exposed the degree to which a country such as Australia is subject to the politics of fear. Muslims in my city of Brisbane, Queensland are concerned that the events following the Glasgow attack and the apparent victimisation of Dr Haneef are feeding into an easily aroused discriminatory response. The global nature of the fear of terrorism is once again being politically manipulated by the Howard federal government to further strengthen the existing terror laws leading into an election period.

    To date Australia is a country free of the attacks experienced in Britain yet the atmosphere is one of hightened suspicion and failing trust in the institutions of politics and policing. In the race to prove the effectiveness of terrorism prevention, civil liberties are being erroded and innocent victims are caught in the expanding net of security measures. As perhaps for Kafeel, perceptions of injustice towards Muslims may eventually evoke a similar reaction in Australia. The likelihood of Islamic radicalisation as a result of internal national politics and legislation coupled with a global awareness of suffering and injustice in the ummah is not being taken seriously as a contributing influence. Unfortunately this is looming as a zero sum game for the majority of law abiding Muslim Australians if the example of Kafeel occurs in this country.

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