'I was a hate preacher who radicalised at least one Brit jihadi but I've changed after coming out'
A student hate preacher who radicalised at least one British jihadi in Syria and seriously considered mounting a suicide bomb attack in London has renounced extremist Islamism – and come out as gay.
Sohail Ahmed said he grew up hating the West after being indoctrinated by strict Muslim parents and sent to a hardline madrassa in east London.
The 23-year said he gained respect at college and university as Sheikh ul Islam, telling followers that the West was at war with Islam and that the “kafir” - or unbelievers - were evil.
But Sohail said that doubts about his own sexuality and help from former extremists at the Quilliam Foundation helped him move away from Islamism.
The softly-spoken physics student was born in London to parents originally from Kashmir, Pakistan.
He said: “My Dad came here when he was three, my mother when she married him at 16.
“Up until the age of four or five, my parents weren't really practicing Muslims and certainly not extreme.
“Then they were befriended by another family in our tower block, who introduced them to the hardline Salafi/Wahhabi form of Islam from Saudi Arabia.
“My dad started growing a long beard. My mother went from wearing a head scarf to a hijab, a jilbaab, a niqab and then she covered her up her hands and feet.”
The eldest of five siblings, Sohail says his parents fell out with the rest of their family and old friends who they did not consider “proper Muslims” and that he was not allowed on playdates with classmates.
He said: “I started going to a madrassa after school. That's when I started believing the West was the enemy, the West is at war with Islam, all the kafir are enemies.
“My parents would always drill into my head that that the idea was to study hard and then get out of this county and go to a good Muslim country. I studied hard and I did really well at school.”
He was bullied at school, partly because he thinks he is autistic and also because of his fundamentalist family. But events like 9/11 and the Iraq war were to change Sohail's life.
He explained: “When 9/11 happened everyone was rejoicing. Everyone was happy about it. The kafir had got what they deserved. If it had happened here in Britain it would have been the same reaction.
“When I sent to college for my A-levels I made a lot of friends. After Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of young people started listening to the extremists.
“I became one of the main members of the Islamic Society and a lot of the students came to know me. I used to preach and radicalise people to think the same as me.
“My nickname was Sheikh ul Islam. I would tell people that the West was the enemy, they want to destroy Islam. I wouldn't say all this openly but to the people I trusted.
“At college the tables were turned. It felt quite good. Suddenly I wasn't treated badly. People looked up to me. People listened to me.”
Sohail believes that two of his friends have travelled to Syria to fight. He said: “I thought about going to Syria.
"First I was thinking of going on an aid convoy. Then I was going to fight. But I asked my parents and they refused to let me go.
“My friend went out on the same convoy that I was going to go on and I am almost certain he is fighting there.
“I didn't radicalise him but I did get a call from another friend from college. He said he was with the brothers in Syria and I was very involved with radicalising him, along with others.
“When I first met him, he wasn't practicing at all. He didn't even believe in Islam.
“He said he would call me back but he never did. He might be dead.”
Sohail considered launching a suicide bomb attack himself on Canary Wharf in London's Docklands.
He said: “I was seriously thinking about bombing Canary Wharf. It would have been a lone wolf attack.
"I was always good at science and I knew where I could get the information on how to do it. I never downloaded it or accessed it.
"I was afraid of getting caught but I knew people who could give me logistical help if I needed it. I was in touch with people outside the country.
“But after that I became less radical. I read scholars who said that I should not carry out an attack in the UK - not because it was wrong but simply because I was a British citizen and I have signed a contract with the British Government.”
Sohail said this was a ploy used by many radical preachers to avoid being arrested themselves under anti-terrorism laws.
He said: “The idea that I was British – I would laugh at that. I would never associate with British people. I thought Muslim people who considered themselves British were white wannabes.”
He went to university to study physics and joined the Islamic Society, where he says extremist views were openly aired: “There were a lot of very fiery speeches.
“One speaker said openly that West was at war with Islam, that they wanted to change us to be like them and that we needed to fight a violent jihad and defend ourselves.
"I thought wow, he is saying this stuff publicly. But I agreed with him.”
But while at university, Sohail started having doubts about his own extreme views. He began researching evolution, which extremists insist didn't happen.
But Sohail found himself convinced by the scientific evidence.
He said: “I was having doubts that god existed but I knew hell existed. So weirdly, I was sure I would burn in hell for not believing in god.
"It was extremely distressing and I began feeling suicidal.
“I had always had a problem with sharia law, stoning people to death, taxing non-muslims, killing apostates. I didn't like it but I felt I had to accept it because it came from god.”
He was also coming to terms with the fact that he was gay: “I had these thoughts since I was young. But as a kid I was told what you do with gay people.
"You throw them off the mountain and stone them to death. So growing up I hated myself. I thought I was something evil.
“I was very homophobic. I would join in with homophobic jokes.
“ISIS are throwing gay people off buildings to their death in Syria and I can just imagine that being me or someone I care about.
"But what disturbed me even more was that it could have been me carrying it out.
“I could have been the victim or the perpetrator.”
Sohail was kicked out of his family home when he told his parents that he wasn't sure god exists. He later summoned back by his father.
Sohail explained: “He said he had figured out my secret. He told me to come back home. I was terrified they were going to kill me.
“He told me I was disgusting. He said 'you are worse than an animal'. He told me I could only stay in the house if I agreed to be exorcised.
"For the next two months I was exorcised every day. My parents would lay their hands on me and read the Koran. I bathed in holy water.”
After an attempt at suicide, foiled by his father, Sohail managed to find a room to rent close to his university and says: “If I hadn't, I probably wouldn't be alive. It was the best decision I made in my life.
“I found a group of ex-muslims and I went to the pub for the first time in my life.
“I have tried twice to speak to my parents but it didn't go well. I haven't spoken to my siblings for eight months.”
He says there are many like him, who find themselves torn between mainstream British culture and their Islamic roots and find refuge in extremism.
He said: “I really liked some parts of western culture but had to say I hated it.
“I liked freedom of speech, freedom to practice religion, equality, legal protections, freedom to vote, music, films, TV, sport.
“I think many Muslims do too and some feel guilty about that. So they become more extreme. People are committing these horrific acts because they are running away from themselves.”
Sohail is not surprised to see families fleeing Britain to join ISIS: “It sounds disgusting but it makes complete sense.
“For them Islam requires to either join ISIS or fight for it. But they also know life is easier here.
"People who I know who have left the UK for an Islamic country have ended up coming back. It is very hypocritical.”
He called on other former extremists - particularly those returning from Iraq or Syria - to speak out: "I know how dangerous this is and most people are not aware of this. We are not just fighting a physical war but an ideological one.
"We need as many assets as possible and the perfect asset is someone who has been there and has come back and says you know what, it's all bulls**t, it's all f***ed up.”