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Officials worry about fight gyms and Islamic extremism

Long concentrated in poor suburbs, critics say the mixed martial arts, judo, kickboxing and other clubs are ideal for fomenting radicalization and jihadist training.
Yassine Salhi

There are some disturbing if anecdotal ties between mixed martial arts and Islamic Extremism. Former German MMA fighter and rapper Deso Dogg has appeared in ISIS propaganda and beheading videos, and has been declared an international terrorist by the United States. Reyaad Khan, 20, from Cardiff, Wales prepared himself by training at an excellent local MMA gym before traveling to Syria and joining ISIL. Multiple ISIL recruiting videos show exhibitions of martial arts technique in an MMA cage; they are, for the record, uniformly inept, and show no sign of real training.

There have also been false accusations. When Chechen/French MMA fighter Magomed Guekhaiev celebrated a victory earlier this year by shouting "Allahu Akbar," there were boos from the crowd. It is the crowd that was at fault here, not the fighter. Shouting "God is great" is Arabic is no more offensive than Jon Jones declaring "God is great" as he has on countless occasions.

False rumors then spread online.

“After thanking his coach, he dedicated his victory to his Toulouse brothers in world, Salah and Mohamed," wrote an anonymous critic online. "I am convinced that it was a reference to terrorists Salah Abdeslam and Mohamed Merah."

Mohammad Merah murdered a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France on 19 March 2012. Salah Abdeslam is a Belgian-born French national of Moroccan descent accused of involvement in the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015.

However, the fighter never mentioned Mohamed or Mohamed Merah. As for the reference to Salah Abdeslam, he never said that either. He did say “As-salamu alaykum” which means “peace be upon you” and sounds a little like Salah Abdeslam, to someone filled with hate.

Now France's Agence France-Presse, the world's third largest news organization, is reporting that French security officials are warily eyeing combat sports clubs as a potential recruiting ground for Islamic extremist recruiters, and as places for terrorists to hone their skills.

Long concentrated in poor suburbs and with no real organization watching over their activities, critics say the mixed martial arts, judo, kickboxing and other clubs are ideal for fomenting radicalization and jihadist training.

Ironically, many of the clubs get subsidies from French town halls.

Mederic Chapitaux, who has written a book, “Sport, The Fault In State Security,” about the phenomenon, believes France should not be alone in worrying.

“We know this has a national dimension, European, worldwide,” Chapitaux, a former gendarme and technical director for a contact sports federation, told AFP in an interview.

Just before a group of suicide attackers killed 130 people across Paris on November 13 last year, a Central Territorial Intelligence Service note was leaked.

It warned of the radicalization in suburban, amateur sports — particularly the combat clubs. Sports Minister Patrick Kanner said later that France had completely “underestimated” the risks.

His ministry launched a Citizens of Sports plan aiming to reinforce education for sports trainers to counter radicalization.

Chapitaux said the “signals” of trouble were missed. Fighters increasingly covered their bodies, even for showers, prayer mats appeared before and after training, there was a growing rejection of mixing with women.

“Trainers and social workers did not understand the growth of the phenomenon,” said Chapitaux. “And if someone did try to impose rules, they were accused of racism.”

After November 13, French authorities took action.

Less than two weeks after the Paris attacks, Said Itaev, a Chechen-origin international wrestling champion, was ordered to be kept under house arrest, reporting to the local police three times a day.

The restriction was only lifted one month later so Itaev could take part in the French championships with his club in eastern France where he was employed as a trainer.

Chapitaux said he believes trainers are often recruiters for radical groups. He said that qualifications are nonexistent or difficult to check, but “the danger is immense because the trainer in sport influences the mind and body.”

Combat sports, and martial arts in particular, are seen as a particularly good way to prepare for jihad.

The pro-jihad website,, shuttered after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, produced a manual copied by other sites, which told how to prepare for action.

“It is vital to join a martial arts club as part of the training for jihad,” it said, vaunting the need for “self-discipline.”

“In some countries, there are martial arts run by Muslim instructors, but one can join other clubs if there are no Muslim clubs in his area.”

Chapitaux writes in his book that militants have taken over the slogan of pioneer French physical education instructor, Georges Hebert: “Be strong to be useful.”

Critics of the clubs point to the case of Yassine Salhi, who belonged to a combat sport club in the eastern French city of Besancon.

In June 2015, Salhi decapitated Herve Cornara, owner of a company where he had worked near Lyon.

Salhi being arrested

Chapitaux’s book also cites Pierre Choulet, a French teenager converted to Islam after meeting Frederic-Jean Salvi on a physical education course. Choulet was killed driving a truck packed with explosives in a suicide attack in Iraq in February 2015.

Salvi became a radical during a prison term. He now teaches combat sports in the British city of Leicester.

The radical fringe worries French club leaders.

“A lot of vulnerable young people find a second family in these clubs,” said one mixed martial arts club owner in the Paris district.

“I have seen people try to recruit youngsters with this profile in my gym,” the owner said. “I have protected youths from this situation.”

The simple fact of course is that combat sports work. If you want to defend your liberty and democracy, they work. If you want to defend a twisted, evil, medieval theocratic world view, they work too.

Combat sports in general and mixed martial arts in particular are powerful. In fact, a program in the UK uses mixed martial arts as a central tool in deradicalizing convicted terrorists.

Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank report for CNN.

Cagefighter 'cures' terrorists

A no-holds barred fight for security is under way. It is unorthodox, but British officials say it is working, producing results which have never been seen before -- and at its epicenter is a veteran Muslim cagefighter.

Over the last six months Usman Raja gave CNN exclusive access to his pioneering work, and is speaking for the first time about his work with former terrorists.

In the past two years more than 50 convicted terrorists have been released from British jails after serving their sentences, producing a major headache for British security services.

The task of managing the re-integration into society of these young men has proved beyond the capabilities of most Muslim community groups. But one east Londoner, proud to be both British and Muslim, has felt religiously compelled to take on the fight.
Raja, the 34-year-old grandson of a Pakistani immigrant is not tall but he is built like an ox, with a close shaven head, short beard, and otherwise pure muscle. On his thumb he wears a ring with a curving metal spike, a legal form of self-protection, which he says is extra insurance if extremists try to physically confront him.

Raja is one of the UK's most renowned cage-fighting coaches, having fought in arenas across the UK during the early gritty years of the now fast growing sport.

He is also a man of deep ideas, including harnessing Islamic teaching to defeat the ideology of the terrorists.

Three years ago, Raja began taking under his wing some of the most dangerous offenders being released from the highest security wings of the British prison system; men convicted of carrying out terrorism on behalf of al Qaeda in murder, assassinations, bombing, and arson plots.

His aim was to rehabilitate them into mainstream society.

Raja tried a novel approach with some of the most challenging freed convicted terrorists; he coached them cage-fighting skills.

Raja says it proved a remarkably effective way of breaking them out of their pro al Qaeda mentality and opening up their minds to his counter-extremist message.

It has almost literally involved knocking sense into them in the fighting gym.

When the released convicts meet Raja to train in gyms in and around the capital, they are very much on his territory. Sparring in the cage, he says, has a way of focusing the mind.

"Any idea you've got of yourself will be challenged as soon as you come in here," Raja said. "Once that idea of yourself is challenged and that opening happens we are able to go in and start dismantling that perception."

He says he has used cage-fighting sessions in about one-third of his intervention cases. As well as working with released convicted terrorists he has worked with dozens of young Muslims radicalized in jail.

The MMA gym, he says, has been a big draw for the previously jailed terrorists, for whom physical training was both an outlet and a form of protection in prison. And he says his coaching naturally allows him to develop a mentoring relationship.

Once he has their attention, he impresses on them that true Islam is spiritual, tolerant and humanistic, and not the narrow-minded, divisive message of hate peddled by self-serving radical preachers.

"I try to unravel their Jihadist identity. Previously that identity was being validated. I say to them let's question that validity," Raja said.

That identity, Raja says, is the result of a "deviant Jihadist subculture" that has been accepted by too many young British Muslims which justifies all manner of criminal activity, including terrorism, out of hostility to the British state.

British officials say Raja's approach is working. The former cagefighter has worked with 10 of the dozens of convicted terrorists released from prison and says that his approach has been successful so far in every single case.

"He's the most successful guy out there doing this sort of work," said a UK Home Office official, aware of Raja's work but who did not want to be named given the sensitivity of ongoing cases. "He has that ability to inspire; that personality X-factor."

The Probation Service's Central Extremism Unit, the lead UK government agency dealing with released terrorist convicts, now regularly channels cases towards Raja.
The young men are not required to meet him, but are encouraged to do so. Other terrorist convicts up for release, having heard about his work, reach out to him directly. Several of those Raja is working with are still considered potentially dangerous.

But Raja knows how to connect. Like several of them, he is also from the tough neighborhoods of east London, once subscribed to fundamentalist views himself, and says he came close to fighting Jihad in Bosnia in the 1990s.

"They see someone who is coming from the same type of background who can understand what may have brought them to the place they are in," Raja told CNN.

Raja says they are impressed by his martial arts pedigree and sense he sincerely wants to help them.

What adds to his credibility is that he has not been beholden financially to the British government.

Almost all his work is self-financed under the auspices of the Unity Initiative, an organization which he runs with his wife and a small band of helpers. Funds have been so scarce he says he finances the work from his cage-fighting coaching and his wife's student loans.

But theological fire-power also has a crucial role in his success.

When he and his wife Khadija founded Unity in August 2009 they created a systematic approach for working with radicalized Muslims, which they based on the teachings of Raja's guru Sheikh Aleey Qadir, a Malaysian cleric resident in east London from a school of Islamic learning that says it traces its lineage of learning directly to the Prophet Mohammed.

The cleric's backing has provided crucial religious legitimacy to their efforts and Qadir has played a hands-on role supporting Unity, including counseling several of the released men. One of his protégés, Wael Zubi, a young British-Libyan theologian, is also an instrumental volunteer member of Unity.

"I don't look at it as de-radicalization. What we are doing here is a 1,400-year-old methodology," Raja told CNN.

"The reason they haven't slipped back is because of the legitimacy of the message. You can't argue if you say through my teacher we have a lineage going all the way through Islam back to Prophet Mohammed," Raja added.

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It is easy to respond to terrorism by being terrorized, and angrily laying blame with an entire religion. Indeed, a central aim of radical Islamist terrorism is to drive a wedge between muslims in the west and their democratic countries. Laying the blame for Islamic terrorism on the entire faith is in fact profoundly ignorant, and plays right into the terrorists hands.

Understanding the role of mixed martial arts and combat sports in the spread of radical Islam likewise requires more than ignorance. MMA is popular, and terrorists are using it as a tool. Just as Islam is not bad, MMA is not bad. But bad people are using it, and the way to defeat them is intelligence and education.