The current circumstances at the Muslim Youth Helpline (MYH) are devastating. The MYH is a faith sensitive charity for young Muslims, offering a helpline, webchat, email and signposting support service. My wife, Akeela Ahmed, until this last Friday was Chief Executive there for some years, and prior to that Head of Support Services.
Currently, confidential communications – some of them involving me, Akeela and the police – are on an anonymous blog identifying itself as a ‘whistleblowing’ group of 30 signatories who signed an initial “statement against the CEO and Helpline manager ”, raised on 18th May.
Understandably, there have been huge concerns about what is published on that blog, based on communications between myself, Akeela and police. I completely understand why so many people who have seen this material are upset, worried and downright angry; and why so many people assume that what we have done is indefensible. Indeed, if I was in your shoes, I’d probably feel much the same way.
But there is a wider context here which has not been publicised. The first element of this wider context is our communications with the police, only a part of which the hackers have disclosed. On that front, I want to state from the outset that we made a fundamental mistake in our approach, and it had an entirely unintended consequence. I of all people should have known better, and we tried, with some success, to neutralise those consequences. But we did what we did in genuine fear, rather than any malice.
The second element of this context is how this information got on the blog in the first place – it did so as fallout from an escalating criminal campaign against the charity and its management since last year. Without understanding how this campaign affected our perceptions and emotions at the time, it is difficult to understand what led us to make this mistake. What follows is not a justification of the actions we took, but an explanation – the lesson of this narrative is, indeed, that whatever illegitimate actions others took, ours should have been wiser.
Around late last year, a non-Muslim (who I will call John) was employed on the helpline. The appointment was made by the relatively new Helpline Manager, who I will call Noor, and it was supported by Akeela. John, a qualified counsellor, was the first ever non-Muslim to work on the helpline.
His employment provoked a backlash in the charity from a minority of staff who said that John would be inherently incapable of understanding the challenges and issues faced by young Muslims (although his application proved otherwise); that if John answered calls on the helpline, callers would be able to “tell by his voice he’s not a Muslim”; that a non-Muslim would endorse haraam (forbidden) behaviour (although John displayed an exemplary understanding and respect of the Islamic faith); that the charity was “not Islamic enough” and that the employment of a non-Muslim on the helpline was evidence of how “diluted” the “Islamic” character of the charity had become.
When John finished training and started working on the helpline around January, this constant stream of feedback from a specific group of staff escalated into demands for John to either resign, or be removed from his job – an entirely illegal demand, of course. Throughout this period, Noor reported that she was facing difficulties getting many of the same staff to implement simple helpline policies such as not indulging in mobile phone conversations in the helpline room and so on.
Then the malicious rumours began. Several external organisations informed the MYH management that certain MYH staffers confirmed the charity was employing an “openly gay non-Muslim” on the helpline. To date, we don’t know whether or not he is actually gay. Around this time, several of the staff who had demanded John’s dismissal began to resign. And some remaining staff, who seemed aligned with this group, showed how disgruntled they felt about things at the charity in a range of obstructive behaviours. One male member of staff in particular who wasn’t doing very well on deadlines behaved in an openly aggressive and hostile way with Akeela several times. At one point, he was so enraged with her in a one-to-one meeting that he was physically shaking while he shouted at her.
Hackings and Harassment
Akeela discussed these issues in confidential emails with the Board of Trustees. Just as the Board was looking into doing something about those behaviours, something utterly bizarre and scary happened. On 24th April, the email account of Noor, the Helpline Manager – who as I said had brought in John with Akeela’s support – was hacked via remote masked IP addresses. Hacked emails from her office account were sent out to a wide range of people in and out of MYH.
Needless to say, Noor felt terrified. Why was she being targeted like this? The content of the hacked emails provided some explanation; they concerned interpersonal office relations. So whoever had chosen this course of action had done so with a view to discredit Noor and make her position untenable. The response of some former and current staff – the same people who had already objected to the direction of Noor’s general helpline work including the employment of a non-Muslim – was to demand that Noor be held to account.
The charity declared there would be a full independent investigation, but unfortunately this was slow to get off the ground. A couple weeks later, Akeela was approached in confidence by one of the staff members who’d previously passed on feedback against John. He warned her that a group of people in MYH were planning a “coup” against the charity over the next few weeks or so. He said that it had been planned months ago. When Akeela urged him to speak to the Board, he said he would only speak to an independent investigator. Akeela protected his confidence in the hopes an investigator would be appointed soon.
Shortly after that strange meeting, I and the family – Akeela and our two daughters who are 7 and 9 – took a week’s break in New York City from the 14th May. Within MYH, only internal staff were aware of this. So it was with huge shock that on 15th May, while we were still jetlagged, Akeela received texts from colleagues that she was sending out strange emails to people in and outside the charity. Panic set in, as we realised that Akeela’s MYH email account had now been targeted by the hacker(s).
It was a traumatic experience. From that point on, we were constantly on guard, wondering what was going to happen next, and to what extent the perpetrators had managed to intrude on us. We got paranoid. Were they hacking Akeela’s phone? Her ipad? Our daughters picked up on the fear and panic; they had to watch us either trudge around forlornly or run around in alarm as Akeela spent most of the time on the phone, trying to assist the Board of Trustees in managing the crisis that engulfed the office back in the London.
This time the emails concerned incidents where Akeela had pulled up two members of staff (both of whom had raised issues about the charity’s direction) on simple issues of professional conduct, and seemingly with good reason. One of those was the individual who’d behaved with disturbing aggression only a matter of weeks ago.
Now I was really worried. Why were these people hacking? What was there agenda? Was this staff member, who had already openly displayed physical aggression toward Akeela, a culprit? It was at this point that I became seriously concerned that this was a sustained campaign of criminal activity that could well go out of control. And it didn’t seem like the charity had the resources to put a stop to what was happening. Overall, it seemed to me that individuals either currently or formerly (or both) affiliated with MYH believed they had the right to pursue some sort of vendetta – against Akeela and Noor – purely because of their unequivocal support for diversity and equal opportunities on the helpline.
I was so worried I wrote an email to the Chair, dated 16th May, in which I set out my concerns about the pattern of escalation. I told him I was worried that these incidents manifested an underlying ideological conflict about the identity of the charity.
When the Board moved not to condemn Akeela (or Noor), but to condemn the criminal hacking, it was clearly the wrong move as far as the hackers were concerned. On Friday 19th May, while we were still in New York, a statement addressed to the Board of Trustees was emailed out to a large group of MYH members, staff, volunteers, and even people not really affiliated to the charity. The document was signed, purportedly, by 21 people, among whom were a few former staff who had previously raised issues about the charity’s religious identity, and who had demanded that the only non-Muslim on the helpline should be sacked. The petition had now escalated those demands up the ladder to the people that had given John his job – Noor and Akeela. Now the demand was for the Board of Trustees to summarily dismiss both Akeela and Noor for “gross misconduct”.
So by the time we arrived back in London, Akeela rushed straight to work to find an office in disarray. The IT systems were shut down, work had ground to a halt and staff were petrified. That week, it quickly emerged that the petition itself was a fraud. Apart from the fact that it made use of illegally obtained emails, very soon signatories came forward to the Board revealing they had been deceived into offering their signature: they had never even been shown the petition, but had been asked by a few former and current staff members to give their name in order to put pressure on the management to improve operational issues, or some such. Still others said they had never even put up their signature at all. Others said they disagreed with the allegations and the demands for dismissals, but felt their feedback wasn’t heard, and the group pressured them into signing.
These revelations were deeply disturbing, and they proved that there was a clear distinction between the innocent volunteers who put their name to the petition, and a small group who had created it, and were driving the incidents of criminal activity.
Part of the reason I felt so scared for Akeela’s safety was precisely because of the lens through which I was seeing events unfold. As far as I could see, whoever that core group of people were, they seemed to adhere to a narrow interpretation of Islam that was racist – but that in itself was not the issue. What worried me was that they were embarking on a concerted campaign to forcibly impose their narrow views about Islam on the charity, by conducting criminal activities like the hacking and harassment of Noor and Akeela, and by using the illegally obtained materials to make a further illegal demand (them being sacked), followed by threats if the charity didn’t meet those demands. It seemed that this was an extremist coup; but it was also clear that most of the petitioners had no idea of this.
On my part, I wondered what might come next if they didn’t get their way. What if they decided that hacking was not enough? To make matters worse, Akeela had begun receiving strange and offensive texts both anonymously, and from a signatory to the petition. It was at this point that I feared for Akeela’s safety, and I didn’t know what else to do, other than to explain everything we knew to the police.
The third hacking happened on 8th June. We were woken a couple of hours after midnight by the buzz of texts on Akeela’s phone. More people receiving strange emails from her. We jumped out of bed and switched on the laptop. Confidential emails about the charity’s finances, the charity’s entire management accounts, Akeela’s correspondence with her solicitors, her Dad’s email to his lawyer asking for advice about our situation, his private email address and our residential address were sent out far and wide. How the hell had this happened? The emails had come from Akeela’s personal gmail account which she was now using since the charity’s IT systems had been shut down for security reasons. Who on earth could hack into Google?
We soon found out after consulting with an IT forensic expert that, given our computer and email circumstances, there was only one possibility – the hackers had somehow obtained access to our home computers for some time. This was a startling and tormenting revelation, and it is difficult for me to convey the fear and paranoia which arises knowing that unidentified people with an extremist vendetta against one’s wife have monitored all your private data for weeks. On expert advice, our internet has been disabled, and all our computers are suspect and can’t be used until after forensic analysis. My daughters are upset and frightened, as it’s been impossible to conceal our own emotions from them. Our concern was this – when will these people stop? How far will they go? It is under this unbearable pressure that Akeela made the decision to resign on Friday night, 8th June, after her gmail had been hacked, simply so that she could try and find a way to be safe from harassment.
When we went to the police, then, I promise you that we did not do it out of malice, but out of genuine fear about what might happen next along the scale of escalation. We have had a range of correspondence with the police and the hackers have only selected parts of it to present a picture that would discredit us. That does not mean we didn’t make tremendous mistakes. In hindsight, we should have known better.
The ‘whistleblower’ blog says that we referred names of young Muslim petitioners to the police as a ploy to quell their grievances, and when that failed to get the authorities involved, we referred the names to Anti Terrorism. This is incorrect. What happened is actually quite the opposite. We reported specific crimes to the police, who referred the case to Anti Terrorism, and as a consequence I felt compelled to reach out to my own contacts sensitively to see if we could get a real investigation back down at normal police-level.
I’ll try to give you a fuller picture. On 23rd May, I drafted a letter for Akeela to send to the police, addressed to Superintendent John Morgan of Marylebone Police Station. I advised Akeela on the wording, and we agreed we needed to emphasise the pattern of escalating criminal activity. I also wanted to make sure the police understood why Akeela and Noor were being targeted in this way, so I set out the chronology of events indicating that a primary motivation of the core group behind the hackings and harassment seemed to be an extremist agenda to impose certain racist and homophobic values on the charity, by removing the very women who opposed them. In our letter, I thought I was simply relaying the facts. We highlighted the key incidents in the form of the two hackings, and the petition, but we also emphasised that a majority of the petitioners were not responsible for criminal activity, but had been duped by a core group of individuals who seemed to hold extremist views, and who therefore might be involved in the hackings and harassment.
We reported the crime properly on the 24th at the police station, and got our crime number. The next day, Akeela got a call from the investigating officer, who told her that “no criminal offense had been committed” and that the matter had been “referred to Anti Terrorism.”
This came as a shock. ‘Why?’ Akeela asked – she was told that the police couldn’t talk about that side of things. We were both quite worried about what that meant. I had wanted the police to recognise how unsafe Akeela felt and how insidious these criminal activities were. Although we had never used the word terrorism, it seems our mention of “extremism” triggered an unexpected referral to Anti Terrorism.
I take full responsibility for this turn of events as I drafted that letter and urged Akeela, out of concern as a husband for her safety, and for the safety of staff at MYH, to go the police. Specific evidence justifying our fear of potential violence against Akeela has also been passed on. At the time, in those circumstances where two women in the charity were victims of a sustained campaign of harassment to cause them to lose their jobs, purely to meet an insidious racist and homophobic agenda, it seemed the right thing to do. In hindsight, I can see that I should have been much more cautious in our use of language. We recognise that our use of the word extremism before the police, though put forward purely to highlight what we believed to be the motivations of the hackers, was mistaken. We did not intend for this to be referred to Anti Terrorism, and for that Akeela and I sincerely apologise.
At this point, I wasn’t sure what to do. As the week went by, the prospects for the charity seemed worse. With the IT systems completely shut down due to the repeat hackings, fundraising had ground to a halt, and the Board began to fear the possibility that the charity might not survive the onslaught. In the meantime, our fears for Akeela’s safety were fuelled as she received further offensive text messages from unidentified people. Numerous calls to the investigating police officer were unanswered. Whatever ‘Anti Terrorism’ was supposed to be doing, it certainly wasn’t protecting my wife.
So on 30th May I contacted Chief Inspector James Spencer, who is the Channel National Strategic Lead in ACPO, who I’d met some years ago. James had appreciated my criticisms of Channel, and had invited me to provide advice more formally. I had to contact him sensitively, as once something’s gone to SO15, it’s very difficult to get answers. I informed Akeela that we needed advice about how to proceed from a police officer who understands the system and is sympathetic to the issues. I felt that James, with his open-mindedness to my criticisms of Channel, would understand my concerns about extremism without conflating them with terrorism per se. I explained in my email to James:
“... she [Akeela] was informed that the police would not be conducting a criminal investigation – but that they would ask Anti-Terrorism to look at the case... She is deeply concerned that without a robust response from law-enforcement, the impunity that this group is now enjoying may encourage them to escalate their criminal activities.”
I knew I would not be able to do more than try to emphasise the criminal component, and the need for a criminal investigation. That is why we emphasised our worry that officers weren’t getting the point – I drew James’ attention to the attempt of some extremists to “forcibly takeover” a progressive Muslim charity through “criminal means” such as hacking and harassment. Again, I was trying to move it down from airy fairy concerns about terrorism to a concrete assessment of the criminality, and that’s why I mentioned that Channel might be useful in looking at the situation to assess the risks and perhaps help “put an end to this criminal activity.” James promised he would pass on the information back to Anti Terrorism.
In the following week, the campaign of harassment against MYH personnel escalated dramatically. Innocent young volunteers who had passed on information confidentially via email about the core group behind the criminal activities were now being targeted. This should have been impossible – all staff and the Board had switched to using their personal accounts for emails since the previous hackings. So the hackers were likely compromising personal accounts of MYH members too (hence the hacking of Akeela’s gmail).
On 6th June, in an email that the hackers decided not to leak, I wrote to James with more details that had come to light in the previous week. I also set out the exact nature of my concerns:
“As the charity has attempted to use normal legitimate policies and procedures to address the issues of homophobia and racism arising from some of these individuals..., the individuals began resigning, and seem to have resorted to quite unbalanced criminal behaviour... [which has] escalated at different points. I am not going to insinuate more than what the evidence on record reveals about these individuals – what is absolutely clear is that when their ideological demands on the charity have not been met, they resorted to an escalation of covert criminal activity designed to sabotage the charity, and are now engaging in a campaign of harassment against its members.”
After I wrote to James, Akeela took matters back into her own hands and wrote directly to Camden Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent John Sutherland, raising urgent concerns about the lack of a proper police criminal investigation based on due process, and demanding full disclosure of exactly what the police were doing:
“We first reported the crime on 24th May 2012, and I was informed by the investigating officer... that she has determined that no crime has been committed. In view of the circumstances of continuing criminal activity, I would be grateful if you could inform me as soon as possible whether an investigation into these criminal activities is underway, and what actions the police plans to take to enforce the law, put an end to these activities, and identify and prosecute those responsible.”
She closed the letter warning that if the police had decided not to focus on the actual criminal offenses she had reported, she “will be seeking a Judicial Review of this decision.” Thankfully, this letter prompted an immediate shift in the police approach, and I can confirm that the incidents of hacking and harassment that have brought the charity to a standstill are being investigated by the police as a criminal matter.
Akeela’s primary concern was to ensure that the charity was protected from people who appeared not to mind that their criminal activities were seriously frightening a whole range of staff and volunteers, with a danger of leading to the complete closure of the organisation, and the prospect of further “reprisals and offences for the foreseeable future” – to quote someone who appeared to be acquainted with the core group responsible for the hackings. It seemed as if the hackers would prefer MYH to collapse, rather than allow it to remain a diverse, progressive charity.
Our efforts were not at all driven by spite or malice, but by the desire to seek help in a situation where we felt increasingly unsafe, and where we honestly worried that at least one member of staff had already demonstrated his aggression toward Akeela.
In our fear and panic for the safety of ourselves, and the staff and volunteers at the charity, we overlooked that the language of extremism, though justifiable, could lead to a further escalation. The responsibility for that language is not Akeela’s, but mine – as a husband, I advised her what to focus on, and I did not anticipate this result (though I should have). When we realised this mistake, we did our best in the circumstances to ensure a measured outcome, and thankfully there is no prospect of an Anti Terrorism approach to the criminal matters we reported.
Given the repeated traumas our communities have been subjected to in recent years, the intensifying breakdown of young people’s relationship with authority structures, the impunity of domestic state violence as we’ve seen in the London riots, and so on – I would like to express my sincere and unreserved apologies on behalf of myself and Akeela for the mistakes we made in our means of approach to the police, and for the fear and upset understandably provoked by the disclosure of some of this correspondence. I do not blame anyone who remains deeply angry about what we did, and I truly hope that you can understand and forgive us our mistakes.
The MYH Board Needs Your Support
Just as Akeela and I have made mistakes, so have those involved in a campaign against the charity that has now become criminal.
I have no doubt that some among this core group of individuals have noble intentions. They have a view of how the charity should be, and they feel that the direction it has taken is mistaken. But they have gone way too far – the ends do not justify the means.
While the deep-seated concerns this correspondence has generated are entirely legitimate and honourable, it is important to recall that the charity remains under siege. Ironically, the former staff who illegally obtained and published these confidential communications have ended up doing exactly the same thing which they object to when it comes to Anti Terrorism. They have conducted illegal spying of two women, and a family, and then cherry-picked information in order to demonise and subjugate. This suggests that they believe that criminal actions such as hacking, illegal spying, and harassment are perfectly justifiable in the pursuit of their goals which they believe are right.
It is therefore important, in this time of high emotions and confused perceptions, to keep a cool head. It is also important that we recognise that the cataclysm facing MYH is a microcosm of a wider ideological and intellectual struggle between real Islam, and a parochial strain of thinking that believes all kinds of actions are justifiable to pursue a pre-conceived ideological end – in this case, it appears to me, expunging “gays”, “non-Muslims”, and their supporters, to make an organisation “more Islamic”.
We face the shocking situation that in what is supposed to be MYH’s 10 Year Anniversary, this criminal campaign against the charity has paralysed its financial and other operations, and terrified volunteers and personnel, for the last 2 months – to the point that the helpline has had to close over security concerns, and the charity’s very survival is now in question.
This criminal campaign, then, was not just about Akeela and Noor. I still believe that this was and is an attempted coup to force a narrow ideological agenda onto one of the UK’s leading progressive Muslim charities. The point is that we are all free to hold ‘extreme’ views, whether they be about race or sexuality; but those views should never justify the kinds of actions that have been taken against the charity to date.
It is therefore particularly important that concerned bystanders give support to the MYH Board at this time of crisis, rather than demanding their resignations and repeating unproven allegations on either side (that includes everything I’ve said here).
My plea to the individuals behind the hackings and harassment is as follows: Dear Brothers and Sisters, I apologise to you for any unwarranted fear or upset I have caused you, for my unintended role in having this matter looked at in any way shape or form by Anti Terrorism. Neither Akeela, nor I, ever wished you to be investigated in this way. However, I also want to tell you: this is not how to promote Islam. Real Islam is not about imposing your ideas on others at any cost. It is about celebrating diversity, having compassion for minorities, enjoining shared ethical values across culture and community, respecting difference, upholding free choice, and promoting exemplary conduct not through endless pontification and preaching, but through our own exemplary conduct.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, no ideology justifies criminality. The actions you have taken, however justified you might think they are, gives fuel to those who say that extremism is a persistent problem in our communities, and allows hardline authoritarian state structures to feel justified in resorting to ‘emergency’ measures outside the realm of due process – which is exactly what nearly happened in this case.
The need for measure and balance at this time is, therefore, acute. And I apply this equally to myself. At this time, we need to find a way to move forward. There must be a way that can pull us back from the brink. We need to acknowledge our mistakes, on all sides. Right now, it is imperative at this time when one of our leading charities faces such terrible difficulties, that our communities stand firm and unite on the basis of the values of love, compassion, generosity and forgiveness that we all share.
Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed